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Badger State Trail

Stewart Tunnel closed until further notice:
Sections of loose and falling rocks from the ceiling and side walls inside the Stewart Tunnel on the Badger State Trail caused the DNR to close the tunnel in 2019 for safety concerns. The tunnel remains closed today. Tunnel Road provides a temporary detour for users to go around the tunnel. The safety and well-being of our trail users is of the utmost importance to the Department of Natural Resources. We appreciate your patience and understanding as we work to resolve this issue.

Illinois Central Railroad Company began in 1886 to build a rail line from Freeport, Ill. to Madison, Wis. 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. In 1972, the Illinois Central merged with the Gulf Mobile & Ohio to form Illinois Central Gulf.

The South Central Wisconsin Rail Transit Commission (SCWRTC) was created in 1978 when Dane and Green counties entered into a contract to continue rail service on the line between Madison and Freeport. The line was acquired from the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad in 1980. A short line railroad, the Wisconsin and Calumet Railroad, operated the line beginning in February 1981. Some funds for rehabilitation were appropriated when the line was acquired. Due to operator changes, operator financial problems and DOT rules for payment of rehabilitation needed work on the line was not completed.

Because of unsafe operating conditions, the Summit (just south of the Beltline in Madison) to Freeport portion of the line was embargoed on Dec. 15, 1993.

In 1997, the Department of Natural Resources began to look at the possibility of converting the corridor to a recreational trail under the federal Rails to Trail Act and in 2006 the Master Plan for the railbed was approved by the Natural Resources Board making it the Badger State Trail.

Some historical points of interest along the Badger State Trail include the depot in Belleville, built-in 1888, the Woolen Mill in Monticello and the curved tunnel south of Belleville.

Stewart Tunnel history

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 Stewart Tunnel was to be one-quarter of a mile long and go through the hill on a curve and when completed it would be 21 feet high and 14 feet wide. 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.

Hand drills were used to make holes in the limestone for explosives. A hoisting apparatus was built at the north entrance to lift the rock out of the cut and later, two steam shovels were added, the larger one weighing 48 tons. The excavated material on the north end of the tunnel was hauled on horse-drawn carts north about one-half mile. A smaller 20-ton steam shovel was used at the south end. The material excavated at the south end was dumped into cars on the little locomotive the workers called "Stella," which pushed the cars out to the Lynn Hollow dump.

In July, the crews got equipment in place for compressed air drills to replace the steam-operated drills. In August, a 10-ton, 120-horsepower Mongul boiler arrived for the compressed air machinery. It took 12 men and 12 horses to move the boiler the five miles from Monticello.

In September, the workers struck for higher wages and many ended up leaving for other jobs. New workers were brought in and wages were increased to $1.75 per day. During the first week of November, the crew from the south advanced 70 feet and the crew from the north advanced 65 feet. The workers claimed that 70 feet of progress shadowed any record of single-track tunnel in the United States or any other country. In mid-November, both of the crews were forced to abandon the drilling for several days because they hit a large stream of underground water and because the roof had become unsafe and needed support.

Finished in December 1887, it was a feat of the era's engineering that 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.