Stewart Tunnel

20130608_143553slowly 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)

our homecoming tradition: Wisconsin edition

rosewood window coverings

despite being a lifelong Wisconsin resident, until October, I’d never been to the House on the Rock — arguably one of the craziest, tourist-trapiest places in all of Wisconsin. I’d heard plenty about it, and of the enormous, ornate carousel (most notably in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods) but I don’t know if anything can prepare you for the site.

stovetop in the House portion

the structure started as a 14-room house, built by Alex Jordan, on Deer Shelter Rock in the Wyoming Valley between Spring Green and Dodgeville. personally, I was most impressed with the original building, which includes the House, the Gate House, and the Mill House, which are reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s style. some claim Jordan began his project to thumb his nose at Wright, as Taliesin is only a few miles away. in this section of the site, the architecture takes as much precedence as the sometimes fascinating, sometimes flabbergasting, sometimes disturbing knickknacks.

in the 1920s, Jordan visited a scenic picnic spot frequented by locals and, ownership and potential hardship be damned, vowed to build a “Japanese-style” house on the Rock. took him another 25 years to make a start and, despite the time, didn’t secure rights from the farmer who owned the land to build anything there. one account claims that Jordan hired drunks and bums from Madison to help blast the Rock level, paying them with booze or checks.

chandelier in the Organ Room

construction continued throughout the twentieth century (and up to the present day). Jordan quickly realized people would pay to come and wander through the House to see it and the oddments that filled it. in addition to the House, Jordan and his successors have added the “Streets of Yesterday” (influenced by the “Streets of Old Milwaukee” seen at the Milwaukee Public Museum. do those old-time-y reconstructions always have to be so dark? is it perpetually evening in the past?), the Heritage of the Sea building (which features a giant whale with teeth being attacked by a kraken), the Carousel Room, an Organ Room …. and so much other stuff. fake Crown Jewels; a mannequin orchestra; doll houses; weaponry; and more and more and more. honestly can’t say much about the third portion of the tour; with one exception we were all way too hungry to take in more than the enormity of the Organ in the first segment. apparently the pipes came from an old waterworks plant in Madison. oh, and the taxidermy in the men’s bathroom. by the last leg we were all but running for the door and anywhere for lunch in Dodgeville.

to the end of the Infinity Room

really, the only addition since the original construction to impress me was the Infinity Room, which juts out from 218 feet the original House and over the Rock. there are over 3,000 tiny windows. with the leaves just beginning to turn in mid-October, it was a pretty sweet view over the valley.

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Wisconsin’s Old Capitol

what remains in Belmont is certainly nothing so grand as the oft-preserved and restored structure in Iowa City, but the buildings are older. when the Wisconsin Territory was established in 1836, a land speculator who established the town of Belmont, John Atchison constructed four public buildings in town to attract lawmakers. the ploy worked and on September 9, 1836, territorial Governor Henry Dodge said that at least the first legislative session would meet at Belmont.

part of Belmont’s selection as capital likely due to the population density that nearby lead mines occasioned. at the time, that area was the most populous in the territory. not surprisingly, some questioned Dodge’s intentions in selecting Belmont, insinuating that he’d accepted some sort of bribe. to counter this cynicism, after lengthy debate (and promises of land from speculators in town) lawmakers selected Madison as the permanent capital for the Wisconsin territory.

during the interim, however, the territorial government met in the public houses of Belmont, passing laws that created the structure of Wisconsin’s government and judicial system and established new counties. after the legislative session ended in December, the legislature never met in Belmont again, though they did meet in Burlington (now Iowa) for a time before the town became part of the Iowa territory and forced the government to move to Madison earlier than anticipated.

two buildings still stand at the site of the original territorial capital, one used as the Council House and the other as lodging for legislators.. the Mineral Point Railroad built tracks that passed to the southeast of the original location and many residents and businesses relocated to the new town. the current town of Belmont is three miles from the original site. eventually, the remaining buildings became residences (the latter belonging to the territorial Supreme Court Justice Charles Dunn) before conversion into barns. they’re now owned and maintained by the State Historical Society.