Rappelling Lessons at the Stewart Railroad Tunnel

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Our last, free-hanging rappel from the tunnel apex
Our last, free-hanging rappel from the tunnel apex

My friends Kristin and B.J. were heading out to Zion National Park earlier this month and planned to try canyoneering for the first time via the famous Subway route. They asked if I could show them how to rappel before they left, and I was happy to oblige. Instead of driving to Devils Lake, B.J. suggested we cruise down to Belleville for a rappelling lesson atop the wonderful Stewart Railroad Tunnel. I had never been there before, and couldn't really imagine rappelling off a tunnel... so why not?

If you have never seen the Stewart Railroad Tunnel, it is worth a visit. Built in 1887 and placed roughly in the middle of nowhere, the tunnel is a solid 1/4 mile of stone and concrete, bending just enough that the middle is pitch black. The tunnel is wide (20'?) and tall (30'?), making for a fun walk through a cool, dank passageway. Bring your flashlight, or walk in the dark; if you choose the latter, you will probably run into the walls a few times (I did). The Stewart Railroad Tunnel is part of the Badger State Trail, one of the ubiquitous "rails to trails" conversions sweeping the state over the past twenty years. The Badger State Trail goes from Fitchburg to the IL line, following the old Illinois Central Railroad corridor.

While I initially had my doubts, the south tunnel entrance made for a decent rappel course venue. With a number of stout tree anchors atop the tunnel and scrambling access to the top, we were able to take numerous reps. The southeast "dihedral" of the tunnel wall makes for a steep rappel with a reasonable entry transition. For our finale, we rigged a much more difficult rappel with an 75-degree entry transition leading to a free rappel down the middle of the tunnel. B.J. and Kristin were stellar students and had no problems, but I would not recommend this for everyone... it was pretty tricky, with a good chance of flipping upside-down.

Not sure the opportunity will arise again for rappelling lessons out here, but I'll definitely be back to check out the Stewart Railroad Tunnel in spring conditions. B.J. says it is an ice palace, as the leaky tunnel roof creates enormous, beautiful ice stalactites during spring thaw. Sounds gorgeous.