| The building of the railroad line which is
now the Elroy-Sparta Trail became possible when the Chicago-North Western Railroad
purchased a company called the LaCrosse, Trempealeau and Prescott Railroad Company. This
allowed them to build a railroad from Winona Junction through Sparta, Wisconsin
to Elroy, Wisconsin, giving them a direct line from St. Paul, Minnesota to Chicago,
The Chicago-North Western Railroad
completed building the railroad between Winona Junction, Sparta and Elroy in September of
1873. At this time all of the railroad traffic from Southern Minnesota, North and South
Dakota and Northern Iowa traveled this route to Madison, Wisconsin and Chicago, Illinois.
Earth digger, circa 1890.
Where possible, machines like this could be
used to remove large quantities of rock and dirt, but the three tunnels were dug by hand,
using horses, mules and oxen to haul the debris. This was further complicated by springs
in the tunnels and run-off from the steep hills near the tunnels.
In the early days of railroad operation from
1873 - 1911 the rail traffic between Sparta and Elroy consisted of 6 daily passenger
trains and 40 to 50 daily freight trains. Many of these were made up of carloads of
livestock of various species being sent to the Chicago stock yards.
East of the Depot at Kendall the railroad
built a 14 stall roundhouse to house the pusher or helper engine. A turntable was also
located there to turn the engines around. Kendall was the end of the "hill
division" therefore the pusher engines were housed there to assist the regular steam
locomotives through the tunnels and grades between Kendall and Sparta.
A typical Wisconsin crossroads
Whistle posts alerted engineers to blow a
series of blasts -- two long, one short, and one long -- to warn crossroad traffic of the
oncoming train. Diesel horns have replaced steam whistles on trains across the country,
but whistle posts are still used.
Through the years rail traffic tapered off
and the last trains ran on the line in 1964. In 1965 the Chicago-North Western
Railroad removed the tracks and sold the right of way to the Wisconsin Conservation
Department (now known as the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources). Improvements were
made on the roadbed, including resurfacing with limestone screenings, and the 34 bridges
have been planked and protected by railings. The Elroy-Sparta Trail is considered to be
the first rails to trails hiking and biking trail in the nation.