Setting a Course for the Railroad Pergola

May 12, 2020
Landscape Architecture Lighting Design Public Art

How a dynamically-designed public art installation in Waukee, Iowa connects communities and builds vitality.

The community of Waukee, Iowa is bringing public art and infrastructure together to realize the full potential of the tri-county Raccoon River Valley Trail and its exceptional 72-mile trail loop. “Waukee Railroad Pergola: In the Shadow of the Rails,” which was originally dedicated in early 2018, is a dynamic integration of public art and infrastructure based on the history of the City of Waukee’s railroad development. Located at the Waukee trailhead of the Raccoon River Valley Trail in Dallas County, the installation creates a unique experience for visitors and serves as a destination for bicyclists and pedestrians alike.

Waukee Railroad Pergola: In the Shadow of the Rails in Waukee, Iowa by RDG. Photography by IRIS22 Productions.

A Dynamically-Designed Destination

The pergola is a dramatic sculptural icon and regional landmark, a colorful and whimsical connection between the community’s past, present and future. A trellis of railroad rails casts shadows that weave along the trail, while a series of handmade ceramic-clad columns frame over 350 feet along the trail. Accompanying ornamental bollards wrap the trailhead to reinforce the triangle, symbolic of the original town center of Waukee, and state-of-the-art LED illumination gives dimension to the structure, providing a colorful light show that changes as day moves to night. Practically speaking, the installation serves as a bicycle depot, acting as the unequivocal starting and collection point for the longest paved trail loop in the country.

The design immerses visitors in the story of the Raccoon River Valley Trail and its origins, offering memorable experiences unlike those of a traditional museum or historic kiosk.

Waukee Railroad Pergola: In the Shadow of the Rails in Waukee, Iowa by RDG. Photography by IRIS22 Productions.

A Gateway to Connecting Communities

When Waukee was home to the Shuler Coal Mine, the railroad served as the critical shipping and distribution system to communities all along the line and throughout Iowa. Today, in much the same way, the Raccoon River Valley Trail connects the same communities, all directly benefiting from an iconic attractor as the Grand Central Station for the RRVT line. The Waukee trailhead is at the center of the longest paved loop trail in the country, over 72 miles. The pergola installation introduces a meaningful contemporary visual theme that can be scaled appropriately to welcome riders at the entrances to other communities along the trail.

The Waukee Railroad Pergola is a flexible and multipurpose placemaking attraction. The installation increases the use of the trailhead in both day and evening, creating a place to meet for social, recreational and wellness events. People are drawn to this special place to interpret the history of Waukee, the western expansion of the railroad and the natural prairie ecology along the trail. The integrated public art installation is a striking gateway to Waukee along HWY 6/Hickman Road as people head east into the city.

Waukee Railroad Pergola: In the Shadow of the Rails in Waukee, Iowa by RDG. Photography by IRIS22 Productions

n Economic Engine to Build Vitality

By encouraging use of Waukee’s trailhead facilities and the loop, “Waukee Railroad Pergola: In the Shadows of the Rails” aims to increase tourism dollars, build communities and promote public health throughout the multiple communities encompassed by Iowa’s Dallas, Guthrie and Green counties. The neighboring High Trestle Trail and its artful bridge draw approximately 83,000 active visitors from May to September. These new users serve as economic engines for existing and new businesses along the trail, and the goal is to have Waukee’s integrated art installation drive the same economic success.

Research routinely reinforces powerful messages of the positive impact trails have on public health. One study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that costs associated with physical inactivity account for more than 11 percent of total healthcare expenditures in the U.S. and are estimated at $117 billion annually. Additional data show 30% fewer days in the hospital for those who exercise regularly, and other statistics speak to the importance of that exercise occurring outdoors; thus, an outdoor hub – particularly one interpreting history like the Waukee Railroad Pergola – can promote trail use well beyond the “usual suspects” and expand its appeal to a much broader audience of users.

Waukee Railroad Pergola: In the Shadow of the Rails in Waukee, Iowa by RDG. Photography by IRIS22 Productions

Just for Fun Facts about The Waukee Railroad Pergola

  • Funded by private, corporate and public donations and grants, in partnership with the City of Waukee and the Waukee Betterment Foundation

  • Total tiles installed: 5,816

  • Amount of clay used: 29 tons

  • Time to produce: 11 months

  • Total personnel involved in fabricating tiles: 12

  • Amount of glaze/color used: 113 gallons

    • Pergola: 32 12-foot-tall ceramic tile-clad concrete columns with overhead steel beams and stylized rails forming a 350-foot-long pergola over the trail with LED night lighting

    • Shade and solar power structure: Eight 12-foot-tall ceramic tile-clad concrete columns, with nine solar panels mounted on an overhead steel structure providing power to the site

This article was originally published on April 6, 2018, and has been updated.