A family riding on the Elroy-Sparta State Trail before it was surfaced.
Celebrating a half century of rail trails
Fifty years ago Wisconsin blazed a trail that started a nationwide movement.
Twenty–foot–high doors line each side of the entrance. Passing under the giant, hand–cut archway and into darkness, the temperature drops quickly. Inside, muffled echoes reverberate through, broken by the sound of dripping water and the quick, darting glances of flashlights dancing along damp walls. A speck of light in the distance signifies the only other way out. Like delving into a cave, this is a unique experience.
Opened in 1873, this same archway still has the smoke stain from the steam engine era.
This is the same entrance that greeted troops from WWI and WWII on their way to Fort McCoy.
It's the same entrance that saw President Harry Truman on his 1948 whistle–stop campaign tour, where on the same train a month later he would hold up the famous "Dewey Defeats Truman" newspaper in St. Louis.
And this same tunnel that once had up to 50 freight trains pass through daily, has over the past 50 years, seen millions of bikers and hikers walk past its doors and explore a bit of railroad history.
From rails to trails
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of miles of railroad tracks were constructed throughout Wisconsin.
As freight and passenger service via railroad transitioned to the automobile and highway system, some rail lines were no longer needed for rail service. The 32–mile corridor between Elroy and Sparta was one of those lines, and when the state purchased the right–of–way for $12,000 in 1965, it became the first railroad converted to a recreational trail in the United States.
As quoted in The Capital Times in 1971, Ben Heineman, chairman of the Chicago and North Western Railroad, said at the time of the closing of the land sale, "As a Wisconsin railroad, we looked on this as an opportunity to do something for the people of the state, and at the same time, preserve a small slice of railroad lore for future generations."
Fifty years later that lore has been preserved in Elroy–Sparta's three tunnels; in the towns it passes through; in its trestles, bridges and historic depots that now serve as visitor centers; and in the many other Wisconsin communities that now have rail trails.
And that something for the people of the state has expanded well beyond Wisconsin's borders. A 1983 addition to the National Trails System Act created a special program to preserve rail corridors by using them as interim trails. Nationwide there are now more than 1,900 rail trails spanning more than 22,000 miles.
The benefits of rail trails
Rail trails are essentially narrow, linear parks — long distance greenways that connect communities and provide space for recreation.
"Rail trails provide places for families to get outside and exercise, but they also protect green space and cultural resources. They provide alternative transportation opportunities and they offer important economic and tourism benefits," explains Brigit Brown, DNR's state trails coordinator. "For some smaller towns, a rail trail may be the only off road option for trail users."
As rail trails are established, they can have a significant economic impact to the local community. On average individual visitors to state trails spend more than $90 per day, according to a recent University of Wisconsin–Madison and DNR study.
In its first year of operation, 4,000 hikers and bikers used the Elroy–Sparta State Trail. By the late 1970s it was 40,000, and today there are more than 60,000 annual visitors.
The communities that were once railroad towns have embraced the trail. Bike rentals, shuttle services, bed and breakfasts, campgrounds, cafes, restaurants and shops cater to bicyclists. And in turn, the tourism the trail generates has been good for the towns.
"During the summer, Sparta sees thousands of bikers in the community coming from the trail, which is an equivalent of a $1.4 million economic impact to the area," says Tim Hyma, executive director of the Sparta Chamber of Commerce.
In fact, the trails also help attract businesses.
"Theisen's (a family–owned home, farm and auto retailer with about 20 stores in Iowa) selected Sparta as a location for its first store outside of Iowa specifically for what the chamber's been doing and the region's recreational opportunities and biking trails," says Hyma.
Trail network expands
Due to the popularity of the Elroy–Sparta State Trail, the Department of Natural Resources began working to purchase other corridors no longer needed for rail service across Wisconsin. The Sugar River State Trail (New Glarus to Albany) became Wisconsin's second state trail.
Before establishing a rail trail, the department would hold public meetings and open houses, like it does today, to hear from communities.
"Talking about Elroy–Sparta helped at the other meetings, because people knew about that trail and what it was all about," explains Jim Treichel, who was chief planner for the Wisconsin State Park System from 1970 to 1995. "Businesses in the towns and cities were very interested in having people coming off the trails to their shops. All around it [the trails program] was a good thing and very popular."
Eventually the department developed a Wisconsin Trails Network Plan to guide potential trail corridor purchases.
The most recent additions to the network include the Badger, Devil's River, Eisenbahn, Newton–Blackmour, Stower Seven Lakes and Wolf River state trails. The Badger State Trail even has a 1,200–foot curved tunnel.
Today 37 rail trails have been developed by the state, as well as nearly 50 others by local communities.
In 1985, the Wild Goose State Trail in Dodge and Fond du Lac counties became the first "cooperative" state trail.
"Back in the early 80s the Department of Natural Resources originally looked at the corridor, but didn't rate it high enough and dismissed the idea of purchasing it. County staff at the time proposed the idea of a partner arrangement, and the idea grew from there," explains Fond du Lac County Planning and Development Director, Sam Tobias.
That arrangement was a formal agreement where the Department of Natural Resources would purchase the railroad right–of–way and assist with development, and the counties would handle trail operations and maintenance.
That original partnership was an important collaboration as most new state trails are cooperative trails.
"It was a good partnership. The state would not have been able to run the trail and the counties would not have the funding to purchase the right–of–way," says Bill Moorman, who retired as state trails coordinator in 1999 after 30 years with the department.
"In the future, these partnerships will continue to be key. Counties have been managing trails, and we're also looking at the possibility of having friends groups assisting with trail management and maintenance," says Brown.
One such partnership exists between the Department of Natural Resources, Polk County and the Friends of the Stower Seven Lakes State Trail.
"A big part of what the Friends do is help with promotions," says Bill Zager, president of the Friends of Wisconsin State Parks. "The number of users on the Stower Trail has been growing more each year."
Just as Wisconsin was a forerunner for rail trails, the state was also the first one in the nation to provide a cross–state bike route.
"Leave your cares (cars) at home, bring along your bicycle(s) and enjoy a cycling holiday on the land that was made for bicycling," states a 1972 DNR brochure.
This route — the "Wisconsin Bikeway" — stretched 300 miles from La Crosse to Kenosha, with the highlight being the newly created Elroy–Sparta State Trail. As the years passed, the route slowly became overlooked.
A reinvigorated effort in the United States over the last several years has brought back the idea of long–distance bike routes. Wisconsin has joined in the movement with a new project to establish recommendations and turn–by–turn directions for Wisconsin's segments of the U.S. Bicycle Route System, and to create a new system of intrastate bike routes. This system will link urban, suburban and rural areas via bicycling facilities.
"The current bikeways project will take advantage of our rail trails system. The draft corridors are based on the Trails Network Plan and the Department of Transportation's county bike maps," says Brown.
The public will have opportunities to participate in this project that is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
One route that's already nearing implementation is U.S. Bicycle Route 30 from La Crosse to Milwaukee. This route incorporates a lot of the old "Wisconsin Bikeway," but now there's more than 150 miles of off–road trail on former rail lines for bicyclists, including, of course, the 32 miles between Elroy and Sparta. America's first rails to trails conversion is still its best.
Joseph Warren is associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.