The Elroy-Sparta Trail, "The Granddaddy of them all"
The 32 mile railroad grade which stretches across the watersheds of three rivers, the Baraboo, Kickapoo, and LaCrosse, was formerly owned by the Northwestern Railroad. An account of railroad operations on the Elroy-Sparta line reveals a rich and colorful history. Without doubt, the most fascinating thing about the right-of-way is it's three tunnels. To maintain low gradiant it was necessary to dig tunnels through the three hills that seperate Kendall from Wilton, Wilton from Norwalk, and Norwalk from Sparta. The first two (starting at Elroy) took 1 1/2 to 2 years each to complete. Both tunnels were dug through 1,680 feet of solid rock. The third is an incredible 3,810 feet long and took three year (1870-1873) to complete, and cost $1.5 million. Imagine what a project like this would cost today! The whistles are silent now. But the nostalgia of old railroads and the mystique and power of the men who build the tunnels still hover over the Elroy-Sparta Trail. Today it's a bike or a snowmobile that makes the run. In 1965 Wisconsin pioneered one of the most successful and unique recreational endeavors ever attempted. Just one year after the last train used the railroad line from Sparta to Elroy, the old Conservation Department purchased the right-of-way for $12,000 and began the development of Wisconsin's the nations first railroad trail. From this simple beginning, the Elroy-Sparta State Park Trail has grown into a nationally famous bikeway whose annual visitor attendance averages over 60,000 patrons a year.
The Wisconsin winteres posed special problems for the tunnels. The cold outside and warmth inside caused freezing and thawing that eventually weakened rock around the entrances. It became necessary to errect huge double doors at each end of the three tunnels to seal in the higher temperatures. Then men had to be stationed at each of the six entrances to open and close the huge doors when trains came and went. The tunnel keepers developed a special lighting and flagging system to coordinate movement up to and through the tunnels. A red flage or light hung on the shanty outside the tunnel meant all train traffic had to stop. A white flag or light meant train operators could proceed.
The Elroy-Sparta line did a very healthy business at the height of its exstance. Six passenger trains and 40 to 50 freight trains passed between Elroy and Sparta every day! Betwene 1873 and 1910 all railroad traffic that travelled to Madison and Chicago from southern Minnesota, North and South Dakota and northenr Iowa rode the Sparta-Elroy rails. Thousands of soldiers regularly travelled to and from Camp McCoy northeast of Sparta over a period spanning two world wars. A number of important dignitaries rode the line, including the late President Harry S. Truman who rode his campaign train to Sparta for one of the famous whistle stops.
Service on the line began widing down after 1911. From 1911 to 1925 frieght service fell steadily, although there were still six daily passenger trains. Passenger service fropped to four per day in 1925, two in 1948 and was discountinued in 1953. Freight service stopped in 1964. One year later the tracks were removed.
But there is still the beautiful countryside, a countryside that remarkably has not changed much from the days when the iron horse came screaming 'round the bend'. Rolling hills, wooded slopes, rugged bluffs, and productive farm fields blend beautifuly in this portion of the state. The tunnels are still here too for the visitor to admire and pass through. But trail riders must be prepared with field clothes and a flashlight because the tunnels are cold, have water dripping from the ceiling and are very dark, especially tunnel number three which is nearly three-fourths of a mile long. In addition to beautiful scenery and the fascinating tunnels, hikers and bikers are rewarded by wildlife and wildflowers along the trail. Deer, rabbit, fox, and songbirds abound. Prairie plants, all but elmiminated from most of the Wisconsin countryside by agriculture and abscense of periodic natural fire still thrive along stretches. Old railroad grades privide some of the last strongholds of these plants because the frequent fires started by passing trains gave prairie plants a competitive edge over encroaching woodly vegitation.
The large number of annual visitors to the trail has made it necessary to provide additional facilities for hikers and bikers. These now include a number of rest areas where drinking water, toilets, and picnic tables are avaliable. One especially attractive rest area, the "Summit" is located at the east end of tunnel number three between Norwalk and Sparta. At this peaceful structure constructed from huge blocks of stone to intercept run0off from the steep slopes along the tunnel entrance. Without this water diversion, considerable amounts of material would have eroded off the hillsides following heavy rains. Rustic camping is provided at both ends of the trail. Although there are parking lots near the campgrouns, vistitors to walk-in or hike-in and pack their gear.
There has been much contervsory over the history of the trail, which was the first trail. In 2013 extensive efforts were sought out to find documents substaintiating the claims that the Elroy-Sparta Trail was the first Rails to Trails project in the country. With the land records of 1965, and pictures of kids riding their bikes on the trail it officially retains the title of the very first Rails to Trails convertion project, Celebrating it's 50th anniversary in 2015.