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Light at the end of the tunnel
Photo courtesy of Friends of the Badger Trail The Steward Tunnel offers a unique feature to the Badger State Trail that attracts as many as 500 users per day to the area. Completion of the last seven miles of the trail this summer will extend the trail from Madison to the Illinois state line.
BELLEVILLE - The signature Stuart Tunnel makes a unique contribution to an enchanting biking or hiking excursion along the soon-to-be-completed Badger State Trail, a 41-mile Rails-to-Trails pathway that extends from Madison to the Illinois state line.

Only seven miles of construction remain - a stretch that runs from the Capitol City Trail in Madison to Purcell Road just north of Belleville. The project is scheduled for completion in September of this year, according to Steve Johnston, Department of Natural Resources Green County Work Unit Manager.

Work began on the route in June, Johnston said. The effort consists of engineering of the slope and proper drainage as well as leveling, grading and reconstructing bridges. In contrast to the rest of the trail, consisting of finely ground limestone, this segment will feature an asphalt surface to comply with federal trail requirements which are slightly different than Wisconsin DNR trail construction standards.

Meanwhile, members of the Friends of the Badger Trail have stepped up efforts to erect a new kiosk providing visitors with maps and the location of trailheads and nearby facilities. "It will include an informational billboard describing the history of the train tunnel and recreational trail," said Dan Sullivan, a Friends member. The kiosk site is near the south entrance of the tunnel.

Sullivan has joined with other volunteers to clear tons of brush and debris to make way for the kiosk. The structure will have a hipped metal roof, cedar planking and curved laminate beams, he said.

The group will follow up by installing a brick surface floor intended to resemble a train station/depot on a small scale, Sullivan said. "Upwards of 500 people visit the tunnel - most by bike, some by walking in," he added.

Johnston points out that the trail would not offer the quality experience it does without the help of volunteers. "Perhaps our most active volunteer for day-to-day trail work is David Zillmer of Janesville," he said. "He's a great supporter of the trail and a tireless worker.

One of Zillmer's recent projects regards the water problems that have plagued both the north and south ends of the tunnel. "Rocks tumble into the ditch and dam up the water," he said.

To combat the problem, Zillmer has installed more than 200 feet of tile to drain away the excess water. "Otherwise, you had to wade through the water at the ends," he concluded.

I traveled south from Belleville on a recent Sunday morning to see for myself the severity of the water problems that Zillmer and Johnston had described. After several inches of rain had fallen a few days prior, I expected a quagmire.

Not so! The route through the tunnel was cool and comfortable with only minor puddles to contend with.

Zillmer has also removed graffiti from the walls and ceiling of the tunnel. "Some of it goes back 30 or 40 years," he said. While much of it is kids scrawling their names and some dates on the rocks, he has also encountered a few swastikas.

"It (working on the trail) is therapy for me," Zillmer said. "I love to ride, and I'm interested in railroads in general."

"I bought a book by Daniel J. Lanz - Railroads of Southern and Southwestern Wisconsin," he said. "He's from Monroe," Zillmer said. "His parents still live close to the trail."

In addition to the connection with the Jane Addams Trail going south into Illinois or the Cheese Country Trail heading west from Monroe, the Badger Trail also connects with the Sugar River Trail.

That trail runs from New Glarus through Monticello and Albany to Brodhead, a stretch of approximately 23 miles. The two trails intersect near Monticello which provides a convenient option for those seeking a change of pace.

A noticeable difference between the two is the nearly 300 foot gain in altitude riders experience on the Badger Trail. "It's literally uphill all the way from the Illinois State Line to County Highway DR," Zillmer said.

As for the 1,200-foot-long Stewart Tunnel, take along a flashlight and be prepared to soak up a little moisture dripping from the rocks above. And don't be alarmed by the sound of an occasional pigeon cooing from a ledge along the way - a minor inconvenience that detracts little from one of the area's most unique attractions.

- Lee Fahrney is the Monroe Times outdoors writer. He can be reached at (608) 967-2208 or at