Jagged limestone boulders hurled out from the cuts on both side of the tunnel, flying 500 feet through the air after a powder charge was set off. The railroad workers had to dodge the falling debris, and more than one shanty in Tunnel Town suffered holes in the roof and broken windows from the rocks that were continually falling from the sky.
From 1886 to1888 a large community of railroad laborers lived in shacks along the tracks in a place called at some times Tunnel Town or Tunnel Town four miles east of New Glarus. A quarter mile tunnel needed to be punched through a hundred foot high hill in order to connect Madison and Monroe.
When the project began few people in Green County wanted to work on the tunnel, so the railroad brought in one hundred Italians and sixty African-Americans to do the excavating and blasting through the hillside. The men worked through the night in two ten hour shifts, at first only using pick axes and shovels. Later the Chicago and Northern Railroad Company bought steam engines and boilers to power compressed air drills for the workers.
Two steam shovels were also used, one at each portal of the tunnel. The small steam shovel working at the south entrance could move up to one thousand cubic yards of earth and rock a day. It dumped the material into open railroad cars which were pulled by a little locomotive called the "Stella." The cars were then taken out to be dumped via a temporary trestle into Lynn Hollow, a half mile south of the tunnel. At the north entrance the large steam shovel called the "Giant" could handle three thousand cubic yards a day, but frequently broke down.
Tunnel Town itself contained itself a one hundred foot long boarding house on the south side of the tunnel. Blacksmith shops, eating houses, stores, and a bakery lined the tracks as well. In the Italian quarters several smaller shanties were built with bunks for sixteen men and a wood cook stove for preparing meals.
The local newspapers in Monroe and Albany kept their readers informed of the weekly progress of the tunnel, but muttered darkly of 'foreigners flooding into their towns and sleeping in the gutters."
From the Albany Vindicator it was learned that "two railroaders were laid out in town Thursday just west of the saloon. Too much benzine."
Excursion trains of prominent citizens from Monroe often ran up on Sundays. Tours of the tunnel and vicinity were given by chief engineer Wilder. His lofty house and headquarters, Sunnyside was built right on top of the hill directly over the tunnel. From this perch the church steeples of Monroe, thirteen miles away were readily visible with the aid of surveyor's telescope.
Quill, a correspondent for the Monroe Sentinel described one of these excursion party's dilemmas at Sunnyside"
"The ladies of the party took possession of Wilder's quarters and soon had a bountiful dinner spread. But when all was ready they discovered to their dismay that there was no way to boil the coffee on the office stove. Ingenuity however came to the rescue and the stove was opened, displaying a hammer head among the coals, which was kept on "toast" at all times for sundry mysterious purposes. This being dropped red hot int the water you may imagine soon brought the coffee to terms. The blowing of whistles and ringing of bells for dinner outside reminded us that we were in the midst of a very lively settlement."
Quill later contrasts the railroad workers quarters to Sunnyside:
"Heaven pity the poor laborers. The sleeping room consists of two rows of pens (bunks) along the wall arranged in a double tier. Each pen being about five by six feet long and eighteen inches deep, filled with marsh hay and supplied with one or two blankets stiff enough to stand alone, and we have no doubt possessing life enough to walk, too. In these filthy coops the tired men must rest as best they can. The place is almost without ventilation and, as a sick Italian who occupied one of the berths said, 'It is a terrible hole, and in fact one of the worst I ever got in, although I've worked in many parts of this and other countries.'"
Despite the poor living conditions, cave-ins within the tunnel, the threat of Cholera and Pneumonia, and the ever present danger from flying rocks and debris, the two hundred railroad laborers finished the tunnel in January of 1888. It was nearly a quarter mile long with a thirteen degree turn and twenty feet tall with a width of fourteen feet.
At the occasion of the opening the general manager of the Illinois Central Railroad had some trouble. He, along with other dignitaries rode the first train through the tunnel that winter. That special excursion car was a bit wider than normal cars and ice from the tunnel walls tore off its steps as it passed through.
The shacks of Tunnel Town were torn down or hauled away once the tunnel was completed. The migrant workers moved on to other railroad towns further west. For one hundred years Steam and Diesel trains ran through this tunnel between Madison and Freeport.
In the late 1980s service stopped and the tunnel fell into disrepair. Large rocks fell from the sides every year and and each winter ground water from above formed twelve to fourteen foot icicles hanging from the ceiling at each portal. At the north portal large ice stalagmites formed to block the way inside.
Now the tunnel is part of the bicycle Rails to Trails system and many push bike peddlers revel as they travel through it, not imagining the town that built it.
More Tunnel Pictures