Cellphone shot of a 1915 station in Sparta, on the Chicago Northwestern.

Originally, this line was called the Baraboo Air-Line Railroad.  (Isn’t that kind of great!?)

The trains don’t go there anymore.

Although there’s active stations not too far away (eighteen miles east in Tomah, and 28 miles west in La Crosse), because Amtrak runs more-or-less northwest across the state, on its way to St. Paul.

This little brick building is now the office for the 32-mile Elroy-Sparta biking trail, which the official guide tells us, is “considered the first rail-to-trail in the United States.”

It’s about 120 miles northwest of Madison, and if you continue NW from Sparta, on the La Crosse River Trail, you’ll hit the Mississippi.

The sections I walked were pleasant, if unexciting, but the big attraction is the tunnels.


The trail was mostly crushed limestone and well-maintained. I think one section of trail may still be closed after some storm damage, so if you’re planning on biking this, check with the folks in the Sparta office.


In the 1870’s, RR workers dug & blasted their way through the hills.  We walked through the longest tunnel, nearly 3/4 of a mile long.


The closest access point is reached by driving down a semi-washed-out gravel lane next to the church I posted yesterday.

At the foot of the hill, there’s what looks like an ancient stone-lined canal.



It was actually just an attempt to divert storm water away from the tunnel and railbed.








The tunnel is almost entirely unlined, and water drips down steadily from the ceiling, and runs alongside the path in little ditches.

At some point, the burrow is reinforced with massive stone blocks, and water cascades down the wall – – I think the spot where the workers hit an underground spring.  This picture was taken with a flash, there’s no lighting in the tunnel.




This is to give an idea of walking through the tunnel with your flashlight turned off, looking toward the entrance.


If you don’t mind getting a bit wet, and perhaps hearing a bat or two overhead, it’s a wonderfully cool place for a walk on a hot summer day.

And a great place to sing, if there’s no one around.

I recommend selections from Bohemian Rhapsody, or Phantom of the Opera.





1870's, Railroads, Uncategorized, wisconsin

Walks Around Wisconsin. Chicago Northwestern, Sparta station, 1915. And a Dampish Sort of Tunnel, 1873.


43 thoughts on “Walks Around Wisconsin. Chicago Northwestern, Sparta station, 1915. And a Dampish Sort of Tunnel, 1873.

  1. That is a long tunnel. But what great photos you have taken of it. I would be singing for sure maybe a tune of two by Sondheim or Gershwin. I used to sing all that stuff and amazingly I still remember all the lyrics.

    • Thanks, Anne. Great echoes in the place, and it’s too dark for anyone to identify you if you should go off key. I’m impressed you can remember Sondheim lyrics. I liked the songs in Sweeney Todd and Into The Woods.

  2. I’m not exactly claustrophobic, but driving through a long mountain tunnel and such always makes me a little — nervous. I get the same feeling looking at that light at the end of tunnel. I guess I’m not really fond of caves, now that I think about it. On the other hand, wet and cool sounds pretty darned nice about now, especially since wet and cool also signals the end of hurricane season!

    In the fourth photo, is that a pair of doors on either side of the entrance? Do they close the tunnel off from time to time?

    • I wondered about those doors, too, but forgot to ask at the office. Guessing they close them in the winter to stop the snow drifting in. And they probably don’t want the water inside to freeze and bust up the rock face so you had chunks coming down in the spring.
      I tend to be a bit claustrophobic too, but this tunnel has a fairly high vault and some air moving through it, so you don’t feel closed-in. The dripping was was almost cold and felt pretty good. (I’m assuming none of those droplets were from the bats!) I always think about the stories one of my grandmothers told, about her dad, who spent his life underground in the Penna. coalmines, and sometimes in the days before mechanized cutters, they’d work a seam on their knees, and push it out to the gallery with their feet, because there wasn’t room to stand up. That sounds just a bit too cramped to me!

  3. Your opening shot is just lovely and satisfying. Well-balanced, too! I like the trike at one side and the window with the curtain and houseplant at the other end of the frame.
    And even the storm-water diversion channel is beautiful. But the tunnel! So cool. I love going through tunnels. Your idea to take the photo without a flash to show the distance is brilliant. Yes, that tells the story! I wonder why you didn’t include a quick recording of your impromptu tunnel concert….

    • Ha! I don’t think my singing would be much of a treat, glad it was dark, and hope it didn’t bother the bats too much. Thanks for the nice compliments. I haven’t taken my camera out much for months, it was maybe the busiest summer I can remember, we’ll see if autumn brings a bit more free time. It’s been lovely to see your scenes from Bowman’s Bay

      • Your aesthetic instincts are intact, even if you didn’t get out much. You never know when you’re going to be busy and when time will free up these days, right? Glad you enjoyed the Bowman Bay post – I was just there again this morning, daring to go on Labor Day weekend! But it was cloudy and I went early so it was fine. Have a good holiday tomorrow!

  4. George says:

    No audio recording of you singing “Scaramouche, Scaramouche will you do the Fandango”?

    My first musical thought, on reading of the station where the trains no longer go. was Tom Waits’s Town With No Cheer, but this looks wonderful. A hub for hiking and cycling rather than sitting around lamenting the closure of the saloon. And yes, operatics rather than Waits’s down at heel drawl are what those tunnels demand.

    • Yes, a perfect tunnel and I couldn’t believe none of the old guys from home, that sit behind me at movies or concerts, humming opera and show tunes, weren’t lurking somewhere, ready to break out in horribly off-tune Rigoletto. I guess they’re waiting for Halloween. There are no recordings of me in the tunnel, George, only some horrified bats saying “Too much reverb, and people call us squeaky?”
      I was actually thinking of an old twangy country song (that’s what driving around Wisconsin does to you) by the Carter Sisters, about the non-arrival of trains, but now I’m hearing Waits’ “Downtown Train” in my head. I’m actually kind of a Tom Waits fan, sometimes it’s that unhealthy fascination of picking at a scab, but there you are. As a kid I listened to a Disney tribute album from the ’80’s called “Stay Awake” and Wait ground his way through “Heigh Ho,” that’s where I caught the skid row school of music bug.

      • George says:

        I’m a huge Waits fan. I would usually favour him over anything operatic (even when voiced by Freddie Mercury) but thought Freddie would do better justice to the tunnel’s acoustic. Downtown train is wonderful, but I’ve never heard his gravelly take on “Heigh Ho”. Deprived childhood, obviously!

    • Thanks Cecilia. The darkest deepest most sinister tunnels, with giant spiders, vampire bats and pits lined with sharpened stakes, are not as scary to me as an expedition into a shopping mall, now those places are scary!

  5. Dear Robert,
    we find long tunnels always spooky and especially if bats living in there. On the other hand, we felt drawn to such tunnels when we were kids. It was our regular adventure to go into these tunnels we had a lot around where we lived when I was a child.
    Thanks for sharing
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    • I’ve been in caves, caverns, mines, crypts, underground utility corridors, etc. but this was the first real tunnel I’ve walked through. You were a lucky kid! that sounds like a great adventure.

  6. Darts and Letters says:

    That’s a neat old bike rack in that first picture. I wonder if that’s old-timey? All the traveling you’ve done and that’s the first real tunnel you’ve walked through? That’s kind of surprising. There’s an old train tunnel up at our mountain pass that’s a couple miles long. On a hot summer day when it’s approaching 90, the inside of the train tunnel is freezing cold, you can see your breath, even! At any rate, this was a cool adventure. Hope the road trip with your sis went well. I was a little nervous this summer when I read about insane traffic jams in the national parks and Great Smoky Nat’l Park was singled out, reminded me that you were going there and I wondered “gee, I hope Robert and his sister didn’t get stuck in a fifteen mile long line at the booth”. Good to see some signs of life from you. You’re probably hitting the books again and busy with the new semester at work, I bet. Best regards Robert, Jason.

    • Hey Jason, glad to hear from you! I checked your site a couple times since WP doesn’t always track like it ought to, but I think you took the summer off from posting, I didn’t really plan to, but did.
      I’ve walked through pedestrian tunnels connecting buildings, subway platforms, etc. come to think of it, tours in old coal/silver mines, stuff like that, and a quarry tunnel in Holland, where Napoleon signed his name up on the wall, but nothing like this RR one. It was pretty cool, I can imagine one 2 m. long getting freezing once you get in there. There’s lots of tunnels under this university, I hear, for utilities, etc. but they don’t exactly encourage visitors, but maybe I’ll meet somebody working here with access sometime. My sister & I lucked out with traffic, and hit the trails pretty early, walked in a lot of fog. The car rental place gave us a Prius so that saved a few gas bucks, which was good because food cost a bit more than we figured. We’re kicking around going to New Orleans sometime if she can get time off next year, she’s working in a science lab now for a couple years before grad school. And now, yep, back to the books and work is busier than ever, I’m back in the office.
      I hope everything’s going well for you and the family, and the boys are enjoying school.

  7. Looks like a great place for an adventure, Robert. I love your lead image with the bricks and bikes. Great storytelling with your images along with your excellent description.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s