slowly working up the length of our hikes in preparation for the Camino, last weekend we walked from Belleville to Monticello on the Badger State Trail. the recreational trail is part of a national “Rails to Trails” program that converts disused railroad tracks into functional hiking/biking/running/walking trails. the Badger State trail runs from Madison to Monroe and the highlight of the trip is the Stewart Tunnel, located a few miles south of Belleville. it curves as it goes under the hill, so even though it’s only about a quarter mile long, the darkness is complete — and spooky or awesome depending on how your sentiments lean — as you make your way along its length. you can, technically, make it through without a light but after our first trip through the tunnel last spring (when the ice inside had yet to melt completely and there were mounds all over the floor and walls), I’m not inclined to try it out blind myself.
work on the Stewart Tunnel began in December of 1886 to extend the Illinois Central Railroad’s CM&N line from Freeport, Illinois, to Madison. crews, made up of local farmers and other contractors, started hacking into the hill from both the north and the south using hand drills to create holes for dynamite. over the next year, the project became a popular destination for sightseers and picnickers, who would sometimes have to take off running to avoid falling debris.
by the end of October, the teams had dug 391 feet from the north end and 321 feet from the south end of the tunnel. perhaps in part because of a strike that occurred in September, the company was anxious to spur work along and the two teams got into competition over which could clear more of the remaining rock faster. during the first week of November, they cleared 65 feet and 70 feet, respectively, which some claimed was a record for distance drilled in a week’s time. crews were forced to halt work for several days in the middle of November because they hit an underground stream and the roof had became unstable and required reinforcement, but in spite of this delay the two ends met exactly in the middle on December 1, 1887.
passenger trains ran daily up until the 1960s, while freight trains ran until 1976. taking over from Illinois Central Railroad, the Wisconsin and Calumet Railroad resumed passenger service from Freeport to Madison in 1981. the last train on the line ran in 1992 and the entire segment was embargoed due to unsafe operating conditions in December 1993. I had no idea they were running so recently, but it jives with my hazy memory of when they started converting the train tracks I crossed on my way to middle school into what is now the Southwest Commuter trail (and extension of the Badger State Trail).
(more info –including maps and current conditions — from the DNR website)