Winston Tunnel

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Railway transport

The Winston Tunnel, completed in 1888, was built by the Minnesota and Northwestern Railroad (predecessor to the Chicago Great Western Railway, or CGW). The tunnel was located on the CGW main line 152 miles (245 kilometers) west of Chicago and nine miles (14.5 kilometers) west of Elizabeth in the isolated and hilly Driftless Zone of extreme north-western Illinois. In 1972, four years after the Great Western was merged into the Chicago and North Western Railway (C&NW), the CGW's largely redundant trackage in the area, including the Winston Tunnel, was abandoned. When it was completed and until the time of its abandonment, it was the longest tunnel in the state of Illinois at 2493 feet (760 meters).


The newly constructed Minnesota and Northwestern across northern Illinois utilized trackage rights on the Illinois Central Railroad between Stockton, Illinois and Dubuque, Iowa in 1886 before construction on its own line through the isolated wilderness could commence. Engineers quickly realized that a tunnel would need to be constructed in order to traverse the rugged landscape. The Sheppard, Winston and Company (for which the tunnel would be named) and hundreds of laborers worked by hand, digging through the silty and unstable shale for nine months starting in the spring of 1887. The work was backbreaking and dangerous, and at least one worker, a Finnish immigrant named John Hill, was killed.14

The tunnel proved to be a constant nuisance to the Great Western and its predecessors. Almost immediately, railroad engineers realized that the unstable nature of shale through which the tunnel was bored, ground water seepage, and the isolated location of the tunnel meant repairs would be frequent and costly. The tunnel was originally braced by wooden beams when it opened to rail traffic in January 1888, but these eventually proved inadequate, to be replaced in 1902 by brick and reinforced concrete. Constant deterioration of the supports meant large-scale reconstruction of the tunnel would be needed again in 1912, 1918, 1944 and 1947.28

The bore was also improperly ventilated at first. A shaft sunk into the top of the tunnel failed to provide enough fresh air, and the crews of the steam engines would often complain of the intense heat and smoke due to the poor air circulation. Piecemeal solutions failed to work, and by 1912 the railroad was forced to install a huge fan, staffed by operators all day and night, to ventilate the tunnel. The fanhouse, constructed by 1916, was abandoned by the CGW with the acquisition of diesel locomotives by 1947.25

When the Chicago Great Western was Federalized during World War I, a contingent of Illinois National Guardsmen were assigned to protect the tunnel.89

The operating nightmares of the tunnel forced the railroad's management to consider many schemes to rid themselves of the burden. In 1909, 1951 and again in 1964 (the same year the North Western and Great Western announced their intentions to merge) the CGW sought engineering proposals to reroute their trackage around the bore, to "daylight" the tunnel, or to completely rebuild and improve it. To the often cash-strapped Great Western, however, all these plans proved far too expensive.29

In the end, the 1968 merger with the Chicago and North Western sealed the Winston Tunnel's fate. The Great Western's main line through northern Illinois closely paralleled the North Western's own line, but through less densely populated and less commercially active areas. The steep grades of the line and the obvious financial burden of the Winston Tunnel also played a role in the decision to completely abandon the Great Western's trackage in the area. The C&NW operated its last train through the tunnel in 1971. Scrappers pulled up the tracks the following year. Upon abandonment, the C&NW placed chain-link fences over each bore of the tunnel to keep squatters and other trespassers out.

Present day

The Winston Tunnel still exists, although in a very isolated area, and in a much deteriorated condition. Nature has reclaimed the right-of-way; the fan house, unused since the 1940s, has been severely damaged by the elements; and the eastern bore, located on private property, has been almost completely sealed with earth.

The western half, however, was purchased by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources as a "satellite area" of Apple River Canyon State Park. The DNR installed a new steel gate to replace the chain-link fence covering the western bore , and is developing the area with nature trails and other improvements . However, and besides the fact that the tunnel is currently off-limits to general public visitation, it is a very dangerous place to visit, with the ever-present danger of further collapse and rattlesnake bite.

Technical Specifications

  • Completed: 1888 - Abandoned: 1972
  • Length of tunnel: 2440 feet (744 meters)
  • Grade of trackage through tunnel: 0.92 percent, rising east
  • Elevation of Eastern bore: 797 feet (243 meters) above sea level
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