A Brief History
When what is now the Elroy-Sparta State Trail was in service as a rail line, the route between Elroy and Sparta, Wisconsin, was part of the Chicago & North Western Railway’s (C&NW) main line connecting Chicago with the Twin Cities/Dakotas. However, during the early 20th century, the company built a more efficient bypass, which featured no tunnels and lower grades and bumped the line into a secondary role. Following this downgrade, the corridor was essentially no longer needed, although the C&NW retained it for decades following. Finally, with traffic levels no longer warranting its retention, the railroad elected to abandon it in the mid-1960s. The corridor was soon purchased by the state of Wisconsin to form what is regarded as this country’s first ever rail trail. Today, the trail remains a popular attraction since it first opened nearly 50 years ago.
During the 1850s, about a decade before the Civil War, railroads began to push west of Lake Michigan into the heart of Wisconsin. The first such line was the Milwaukee & Waukesha Railroad of 1847, which was chartered to build due east of Milwaukee and connect Madison. This line eventually became part of the large Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific network, otherwise known as the Milwaukee Road. Other roads were quick to follow, which included the Chicago & North Western, a relatively new system that was formed during spring 1859 through the merger of the Chicago, St. Paul & Fond du Lac and the Galena & Chicago Union. The latter was the first railroad ever to dispatch a train out of the Chicago city limits in 1848.
By 1866, the C&NW had linked Chicago and Milwaukee by leasing the Chicago & Milwaukee Railway and thus began setting its sights farther west, hoping to eventually reach Minneapolis–St. Paul. A key component in reaching the Twin Cities and the then Dakota Territory was the LaCrosse, Trempealeau & Prescott Railroad (LCT&P), which would give the C&NW the ability to connect Winona, Minnesota, along the banks of the Mississippi River. On October 1, 1867, the C&NW acquired the charter of the LCT&P, and using this new asset, connected Elroy, Wisconsin, with Winona via Sparta by September 1873. The section of main line between Elroy and Sparta, a distance of roughly 32 miles, makes up today’s trail and was quite rugged. It featured grades as high as 3% (steep for a main line) and, somewhat unique to Midwest railroading, no less than three tunnels. The tunnels were bored without the use of heavy machinery and vary in length from a ¼ to ¾ of a mile.
Following the completion of the line to Winona, the C&NW continued to push westward into Minnesota and eventually reached the Dakotas through subsidiary Winona & St. Peter (W&StP). Access to the Twin Cities came by way of the C&NW’s acquirement, through stock ownership, of the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railway (known as the “Omaha Road”) in 1882. The CStPM&O stretched roughly north to south from Duluth, northwestern Wisconsin, and central Minnesota and on to Omaha. The road would eventually give the C&NW two lines into the Twin Cities—one via a connection at Elroy running northwest to the cities and the other from the W&StP near St. Peter. Following the opening of the North Western’s connection to Minneapolis–St. Paul, the line between Sparta and Elroy was quite busy, hosting six passenger trains and an incredible 40 to 50 freights daily.
The steep grades, however, forced the C&NW to regularly assign helper locomotives to eastbound freights attempting to negotiate the line. To alleviate this problem, as well as shorten the route (so trains no longer had to run west to Madison and then north), the railroad built a long bypass from Milwaukee to Wyeville, which then reconnected with the main line at Sparta. This new corridor opened in 1911 and essentially made the Sparta-Elroy line obsolete, although the railroad continued to use it for many years. As the 20th century progressed, the Chicago & North Western became one of the largest systems in the Midwest, reaching as far west as Iowa, Nebraska, and even western Wyoming. In the process, it built sprawling branch lines throughout all of the states it served to tap their rich agriculture industries. As a result, the North Western became one of the classic “granger roads,” so named for its heavy traffic base of wheat, corn, grain, and other similar products.
During the diesel era, the railroad’s venerable green and yellow equipment became a common sight throughout the areas it served, especially on its many streamlined passenger trains (such as the unforgettable “400s”), providing fast service to all of the major cities on its system. However, by the 1960s, the C&NW’s once important agriculture traffic was losing its luster not only to competition from several other railroads in the region, but also from highway and truck traffic. In an attempt to cut costs, the C&NW began abandoning unprofitable, redundant, and secondary lines all across its network, which included the Sparta-Elroy corridor. In 1965, the company formally abandoned the route, which was purchased by the Wisconsin Conservation Department (now known as the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources) on March 3, 1966. A year later, the Elroy-Sparta State Trail opened to the public, the first of its kind in the country.
Interestingly, even today many railroad relics remain along the right-of-way, including surviving depots in Kendall and Sparta and ancient tell-tales—wooden poles with a cantilever arm over the tracks and with dangling chains to warn brakeman walking the tops of freight cars that a low obstruction was just ahead, such as a tunnel. Other relics include doors on the tunnels, installed by the railroad to maintain the temperature within bores during winter.
To check out railroad attractions just a few hours from the trail, visit the Brodhead Historical Society Depot Museum in Brodhead; Colfax Railroad Museum in Colfax; East Troy Electric Railroad in East Troy; the Mid-Continent Railroad Museum in North Freedom; and the well-known National Railroad Museum in Green Bay.
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