Elroy-Sparta Trail Celebrates Half a Century

The nation’s first rail trail is now 50 years.

Sharon Euler and Doug Armstrong from Missouri ride the Elroy Sparta every summer.

Doug Armstrong and Sharon Euler have Missouri’s famous Katy Trail in their backyards. Yet for the last decade or so the Kansas City residents have made an annual pilgrimage to Wisconsin to ride the Elroy-Sparta Trail.

Doug and Sharon said they loved the natural beauty of the Driftless Region and the friendly small towns along the way. Fifty residents from each of those towns – Elroy, Sparta, Kendall, Wilton and Norwalk – converged at the trail headquarters in Kendall last Saturday afternoon for the official celebration of the trail’s 50th birthday. Each group wore a different colored tee shirt to honor their community and the event’s organizers wore tie-dye to signal the blending of all the communities along the trail.

Tommy Thompson

Among the dignitaries to speak was former Governor Tommy Thompson whose father helped establish the trail. Thompson, never shy about boasting his genuine love for his state, pointed out that it’s the Elroy-Sparta Trail and not the other way around because his father was from Elroy. He also gave a detailed history of the rail line, recounting all of the presidents, kings and other notables who had ridden those rails.

Keith Laughlin, President of Rails to Trails

I rode to the event on the shade and sun dappled section from Wilton to Kendall along with national Rails to Trails Conservancy President Keith Laughlin, who marveled at its beauty and acknowledged that this was the first rails to trails conversion in the nation – although an excessively picky person could argue about the particulars, we won’t get into that. In addition to a great ride on the trail I was able to introduce Keith to brats, cheese curds and Culver’s custard, so he got the full Wisconsin treatment.

Steve Yanna fwas riding all four trails

Before we headed back to Wilton, Keith and I chatted with another trail rider named Steve Yanna from Portage. Steve was riding all four local trails that weekend – the Elroy-Sparta, the 400, the Great River and the La Crosse River trails. He told us that he rides about 2,500 miles a year and almost all of it on trails.

Steve had just happened upon the celebration and was surprised to learn about some of the trail’s history. My guess is that the trail might have been established just about the year that Steve was born.

Keith and I prepare to head into the tunnel.

He looked down the trail and reflected what a “bargain” it was to pay only $20 for an annual trail pass.

“I ride these trails for the peace, serenity and just the quiet,” Steve said. “It’s special.”

The Bike Fed was proud to have played a role in the restoration of the state Stewardship Fund, which Governor Thompson had signed into law in 1990. The Joint Finance Committee recently voted to reject Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to zero out the fund for the next decade or more. Stewardship has been used to improve the Elroy-Sparta Trail and some thirty more trails around the state.

Lasting memories.

About Dave Cieslewicz, Executive Director

Dave Cieslewicz served two terms as mayor of Madison where he set the city on a path for Platinum status as one of the best biking cities in North America. Before that he started his own nonprofit, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which focuses on land use and transportation policy. He has been an adjunct professor at the UW Madison's Department of Urban and Regional Planning where he teaches a class called Bikes, Pedestrians and Cities. He pronounces his name chess LEV ich, but nobody else does.

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