Wisconsin April 28, 2018
Wisconsin’s Most Unique Tunnel Has a Truly Fascinating History
Wisconsin has been a leader in rails-to-trails conversions (
learn more about the first-ever rails-to-trails conversion, the Elroy Sparta trail, here), but there’s a super interesting trail and tunnel about 20 miles southwest of Madison that many Wisconsinites know nothing about. The Badger State Trail runs along a path that used to be used by the Illinois Central Railroad Company, built a rail line from Freeport, IL to Madison, WI in 1886. The company’s trains used this corridor to haul grain, livestock, freight and passengers. Passenger trains ran daily up until the 1960s and freight trains continued to operate until 1976, according to the DNR.
Along this path is the Stewart Tunnel, between Belleville and Monticello, and it’s one of the most unique tunnels you’ll ever get the chance to use.
The Badger State Trail is 40 miles and stretches between Madison and the Wisconsin-Illinois border. About halfway along the trail is a very cool detail - the Stewart Tunnel.
Though most of the trail is rather flat, near Belleville, there is a limestone ridge and the railroad companies decided that instead of trying to go around it, they would go through it - not an easy task in 1886.
The tunnel is about 1,200 feet long and measures 21 feet tall and 14 feet wide.
According to the DNR, "Work started on the tunnel on Dec. 13, 1886, with small construction crews starting at both the north and south ends. Some of the workers were local farmers who joined the construction crews to supplement their earnings during the severe drought of 1887. Each worker was paid $1.25 per day. The contractors and engineers built their headquarters, which served as an office and sleeping quarters, on the summit of the hill almost directly over the tunnel. Shanty-type lodging was provided for the workers near the tunnel for $3.50 per week. The tunnel would prove to become a popular spot for sightseers to gather. Weekend visitors often journeyed a considerable distance to view the progress and picnic on the hills."
The tunnel has a curve to it, making it even more difficult to complete, especially since the crews started at opposite ends. It's constructed of hand-fired bricks and limestone and much of that is still there and visible today. The whole tunnel was refurbished in the early 2000s, as bricks were falling and the limestone was crumbling.
What makes this tunnel so amazing is that despite being built from two different directions and creating a curve - while being done by hand in 1886-1887, "construction from these two ends met exactly in the middle. One side of the tunnel was off by about one inch and the other side was off by less than three-quarters of an inch. Almost perfection."
The tunnel is named for James Stewart of Lancashire, Pennsylvania, who was the contractor for the project. Stewart was thrown from a buggy and killed while he was following the proposed route of the new railroad and the tunnel was named in his memory.
Digging the tunnel was a massive undertaking. Hand drills were used to make holes in the limestone to put explosives in, and the resulting rubble was carried away by horse-drawn carriages.
Though the tunnel feels and looks absolutely giant when you're going through it, it was actually only slightly larger than the steam engines that chugged through it. There were mere inches on any side for the trains to fit through.
When you are in the tunnel, you cannot see light from the other end until you get around the bend, so make sure you have a light. But the tunnel stays a cool 40 degrees at pretty much all times, making it a nice break from the beating sun on summer bike rides.
Stewart tunnel is more than 130 years old and its building was so groundbreaking - pun intended - that folks used to travel just to watch the men at work. It's an amazing piece of history that was almost lost.
It's well worth taking the time to visit the Badger State Trail and trek through this truly awesome bridge. If you go in colder weather, you might even experience some local spring water welling up.
Check out the DNR’s site for more Badger State Trail information.