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A Ride Along Tunnel Hill State Trail in Southern Illinois

Jul 14, 2018 Outdoors & Regional

Mother and son biking through a tunnel

Are you a cyclist, runner, or hiker? Then Tunnel Hill State Trail is a spectacular route for you.

45 miles of wonderous Southern Illinois, running along the route of the old Vincennes and Cairo Railroad. Join the trail in downtown Harrisburg and roll south to Karnak, through farmland, forests and wetlands.

The trail is well-maintained and surfaced with crushed limestone, making it suitable for mountain bikes and road bikes alike. There are some long climbs up to Tunnel Hill, so it’s a one-day ride for a fit cyclist, or you can take it easier, and break your trip at one of the communities along your way.

Midway, Tunnel Hill marks the highest point of the trail at 680 feet above sea level. The tunnel is 543 feet long—long enough to plunge yourself into total darkness! (Remember to bring bike lights.) 23 trestle bridges along the trail provide great spots to stop for a break and enjoy the panoramic views out over the countryside. The longest and highest is the 90-foot-tall Breeden Trestle, 2.5 miles south of Tunnel Hill.

Meet the Local Wildlife

The northern half of the trail passes rolling fields and wooded bluffs. The southern trail winds through wetlands, ponds, and marshes.

These diverse habitats mean you’re likely to encounter local wildlife. Reviews from cyclists and hikers mention wild turkey, quail, whitetail deer, lizards, turtles, and frogs. If you use the trail in summer, watch out for snakes warming themselves in the sun.

If you’re a wildlife enthusiast, take a couple of side trips from the trail to experience some of the spectacular wildlife preserves in the area. Heron Pond near Vienna is about a mile bike ride and a short stroll from the trail. Part of the Cache River State Natural Area, this mature cypress swamp boasts cottonmouths, rare bird-voiced tree frogs, and the largest cherry oak tree in Illinois. It’s also home to one or two mosquitos, so don’t forget your bug spray.

The trail ends in Karnak at the Barkhausen-Cache River Wetlands Center. Videos and displays introduce you to the natural history of the area and the flora and fauna that live here. Visit in the summer and enjoy the ruby-throated hummingbirds in the flowers and at the feeders.

A Tale of Railroads and Sideburns

The Tunnel Hill State Trail only exists because of the rise and fall of America’s mighty 19th-century railroad network. The trail follows the old Vincennes and Cairo Railroad, which began in 1872 to transport passengers, coal, salt, wood, local apples, and peaches.

The railroad build was headed by General Ambrose Burnside, who has gone down in history for his effervescent facial hair. And if you’re thinking that name is awfully appropriate with its proximity to “sideburns,” then you’ll be delighted to know that he’s actually the source of that very term. So majestic was his bushy side beard, his peers transposed the syllables of his surname to coin the term. Ah Ambrose! Fame is a fickle mistress. Your railway has been and gone, but your muttonchops live on.

In 1991 the last active owners of the railroad, Norfolk Southern, abandoned operations on the line and gifted the right-of-way between Harrisburg and Karnak to the State of Illinois. The Department of Natural Resources developed the railroad ballast as a trail, surfacing it with crushed limestone and installing restroom facilities and drinking water. The first sections of Tunnel Hill State Trail opened in 1998, and it was completed in 2001.

Salt and Slavery

The trail winds through seven communities, including Carrier Mills, Stonefort, and Vienna. Some, like Bloomfield, Sanburn, and Ledford, are barely more than hamlets. Others, like New Burnside (named for our good buddy Ambrose) are shrinking. You’ll also pass several abandoned ghost towns, that lost their lifeblood after the trains stopped running.

As you travel south from Harrisburg you’ll come to Carrier Mills, which has a proud African American history. Free African Americans founded the settlement of Lakeview, first named Pond Settlement, a mile south of Carrier Mills, shortly after the War of 1812. Lakeview is the oldest African American settlement in Illinois and the founding families hold an annual reunion.

Toward the close of the Civil War, Illinois became the first state to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which abolished slavery nationally. Sadly, the free community of Pond Settlement was less than 20 miles away from the Southern Illinois salt mines, where indentured slavery was still permitted, despite the Thirteenth Amendment.

It was also too close for comfort to the activities of local salt maker John Hart Crenshaw, who in 1842 was indicted for kidnapping a black woman and her children. Crenshaw was acquitted for technical reasons, but the evidence strongly suggests that he was connected to illegally holding African-Americans so that they might be sold into slavery in the southern states. Crenshaw’s mansion is owned by the state, and while there has been discussion of plans to open it as a State Historic Site, this project appears to be on hold due to lack of funding.

South from Stonefort

10 miles north of Tunnel Hill is little Stonefort, and right next to the trail is the Stonefort Depot Museum, with a wealth of information on local history and a large collection of old photographs and maps. Owner Linda Blackman is a treasure trove of information about the area and its history.

Minutes away from the Tunnel Hill station is Egyptian Hills Resort where you can stop for a pizza and ice cream overlooking the Lake of Egypt. If you want to break your adventure on the Tunnel Hill Trail, here you can even stay at one of their lakefront cabins.

Vienna offers the best selection of places to eat along the trail, with the Vienna Diner offering homestyle cooking, in an old-fashioned diner setting, and Ned’s Shed is a delightful retro burger joint, that’s beloved by the locals for their seasoned fries and homemade relish. If you fancy a historic detour while you’re in Vienna, check out the first coal-fired iron furnace in Illinois, now on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Ghost Towns of Tunnel Hill State Trail

The Tunnel Hill State Trail passes by five ghost towns, abandoned communities that grew up around the railroad then withered and died when it closed.

Near Carrier Mills is the site of New Castle, a small community of homes that included a church and a school. Journalist Linda Kelley of Rantoul writes a moving article about returning to New Castle to explore the site of her mother’s childhood home.

South of New Burnside you’ll come on a railroad pier shelter marked Parker City. Bushwhack your way off the trail and explore the foundations of the old buildings, watching out carefully for old wells as you scramble through the undergrowth. Local hiking enthusiast Shawn takes you on a video tour of the ruins of Parker City.

Parker City was founded at the crossings of the former Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway and the Marion to Brookport branch of the Illinois Central Railroad. At its peak the town had a population of nearly 300, with 40 houses, hotels, stores, a post office, places to eat, and two barbershops. In the 1920s it began to decline, the post office closed in the early 1940s, and since then the buildings have been removed, leaving only the traces of a bustling little railway town.

About halfway between Vienna and Karnak look to your right to see if you can see the ghost town of Forman. Founded in 1818 and built on logging and trapping furs it boomed when the railway arrived. Forman became the intersection of the CB and Q Railroad and the Penn Central Railroad, and passengers waiting to change trains often stayed overnight. In its heyday Forman was similar in size to Parker City, and the two towns declined at the same time, dying with the departure of the railroad.

Biking 45 Miles Not Intrepid Enough?

If cycling or strolling along the Tunnel Hill State Trail just isn’t energetic enough for you, fear not, because we’ve got you covered! The Tunnel Hill Run offers you the chance to run 50 miles on a flat, fast course. The truly hardcore clock up 100 miles, by going both ways! Let us know if you manage it!

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