Elroy-Sparta State Trail bridge

By Jay Syrmopoulos — 

Known as the bicycle capital of America, Sparta is nestled in the heart of the scenic Hidden Valleys region of southwest Wisconsin. This historic Wisconsin city offers a plethora of attractions and activities for visitors, including kayaking and canoeing on the Kickapoo River, Amish country tours, hiking, golfing, horseback riding, a family aquatics center, cross-country skiing, wineries, breweries, and, of course, bicycling!

The historic roots of Sparta stretch back to 1849 and the construction of a state road by the United States Army from Prairie du Chien to Hudson. During the years 1849-1850, the General Land Office surveyed the Sparta area.

With westward expansion and the California gold rush occurring, as well as government offers of cheap land in Wisconsin to potential settlers (i.e., 1849 Wisconsin Preemption Act), it’s not surprising that settlement soon followed in the Sparta area. 

Around this same time, a well-worn Indian trail was transformed into a road running through Sparta, between Portage City and La Crosse, Wisconsin. The Indian trail had traditionally been used as a means of getting to the La Crosse River and then on to the Mississippi River. Subsequently, this path became a regular stage road and a main artery of transport and communication for west central Wisconsin.

Sparta’s first permanent settlers to make land claims in the area were the Petit (aka Pettit) family. In 1849-1850, Frank Petit built a cabin near Castle Rock, but was eventually forced to leave the area because of trouble with the Native American inhabitants. Only a year later, Frank’s brother William arrived with their mother and father and bought a claim of 160 acres of land near the crossing of the two state roads. In the summer of 1851, the Petit family completed a log cabin on the west bank of Beaver Creek at the northeast corner of North Court and West Main streets in present-day Sparta. It is believed that the location of their one-room log cabin was the same as the current location of the Sparta Free Library. Later, the Petit family converted their cabin into a tavern to serve traffic that was bound to grow at this important transportation interchange. 

From these humble origins, a small new settlement emerged. The honor of naming the new settlement was given to “Grandma” Petit. The exact reason she decided to name it Sparta is actually unknown. While speculative, the story that has been passed down suggests that she was an avid reader and connoisseur of history. Accordingly, it is alleged that she thought the pioneers who came to their new settlement were brave, virtuous and persevering—like the ancient Spartans of Greece—and thus named the new settlement, Sparta.

In modern times, Sparta has come to be known as the bicycle capital of America, as it’s located in the center of 101 miles of state trails, with the world-famous Elroy-Sparta State Trail serving as the crown jewel. In 1965, Wisconsin pioneered one of the most successful and unique recreational endeavors ever attempted. Just one year after the last train used the railroad line from Sparta to Elroy, the Wisconsin Conservation Department purchased the right of way for $12,000 and began the development of the nation’s first railroad trail.

From this simple beginning, the Elroy-Sparta State Trail has grown into a famous bikeway with annual visitor attendance averaging over 60,000 patrons a year.

Considered the first “rails to trails” hiking/biking trail in America, this 32-mile stretch is a must for any serious bike rider. Built from the abandoned Chicago Northwestern main line, the trail features three amazing rock tunnels and dozens of old stone bridges where six passenger trains and 40 to 50 freight trains once passed through daily. These tunnels were cut through the rolling hills of Wisconsin in the late 1800s. The first two (starting at Elroy) took around two years each to complete. Both tunnels went directly through 1,680 feet of solid rock. The third tunnel is an amazing 3,810 feet long and took three years (finished in 1873) to complete. The Elroy-Sparta State Trail also boasts the only over-the-interstate bike bridge in Wisconsin, just 1 mile from Sparta over Interstate 90. Needless to say, the Elroy-Sparta State Trail is considered to be the “grand-daddy” of all bike trails, and a wonderful perk for those who enjoy the great Wisconsin outdoors.