The Trail That Started It All: Elroy-Sparta Celebrates 50 Years

Posted 06/15/15 by Elizabeth Striano in Success Stories, America's Trails

Elroy-Sparta 50th Anniversary Celebration - left to right: Stephanie Klett, Wisconsin secretary of tourism; Kurt Thiede, deputy secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources; Keith Laughlin, RTC president; Brigit Brown, Wisconsin trails coordinator; and former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson | Photo courtesy RTC

Earlier this month, one of the oldest rail-trails in the nation turned 50! But not only is the Elroy-Sparta State Trail the oldest trail in the state of Wisconsin and one of the oldest in the United States, it is also America’s very first rail-trail.

RTC President Keith Laughlin joined local leaders and residents from several towns along the trail’s path at a 50th anniversary ceremony sponsored by Friends of the Elroy-Sparta State Trail. In brief remarks to the crowd, Laughlin admired the trail’s beauty and acknowledged its historic position as the first rail-trail conversion in the United States, paving the way for 1,911 rail-trails that currently exist and more than 715 projects that await completion.

Century-old Elroy-Sparta railway tunnel with its original doors | Photo by Eric Reischl Photography

“This first 32 miles between Elroy and Sparta 50 years ago has now led to 22,000 miles of these trails across the entire country that are used by tens of millions of Americans every year,” Laughlin said.

Keith rode to the event from Wilton to Kendall along with 50 other bicycle riders from all the communities along the Elroy-Sparta, including former Governor Tommy Thompson, whose father helped establish the trail. Thompson shared a detailed history of the rail line with the crowd. The state purchased the right-of-way for the trail from the Chicago and North Western Railway in 1965 for $12,000; two years later, the trail opened to the public.

The 32.5-mile rail-trail passes through the quiet country towns of Elroy and Sparta, as well as the towns between them, including Norwalk, Wilton and Kendall. The trail is particularly well-known for its three century-old railroad tunnels, which remain adorned by their original wooden doors. The crushed-stone trail winds through rolling hills, farmland and pasture.

The Elroy-Sparta is part of a network of more than 100 continuous trail miles, including the Omaha Trail, Great River State Trail, La Crosse River State Trail and 400 State Trail. The Elroy-Sparta trail network became the seventh member of RTC’s Rail-Trail Hall of Fame in 2008.

Congratulations on 50 great years!

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