By KAREN PARKER | County Line Publisher

Years ago, when the Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail crossed Highway 71 just east of Norwalk, I used to take exception to the insanity of mixing vehicle traffic zipping along at 55-70 mph with bikers on fragile contraptions. I think bikers on city streets and highways tend to be far more alert than those peddling down a trail through forests and cow pastures. To the best of my knowledge, a fatal accident never occurred at that intersection, but I bet there were more than a few close calls.

Finally, somebody got smart, and a box culvert was installed, allowing trail users to zoom safely under the highway. The only bike trail highway crossing now is in Kendall, and at least that intersection is still within village limits and subject to slower traffic speeds. There are, of course, many secondary roads that cross the trail.

As a devoted student of bike trail history, I find the current dispute surrounding the proposed Mathy quarry intriguing.

Isn’t it odd how we seem to accept dangers already in existence and barely give them a second thought, but if someone propose a new one (Mathy trucks crossing Logan Road), wow, does the you-know-what hit the fan?

It isn’t the first time the peaceful countryside has been disturbed by the advance of industrial progress. Once upon a time, the Chicago and Northwestern had to sell people on the idea of a railroad. If you don’t like the idea of gravel truck traffic, then imagine welcoming tons and tons of iron speeding down the tracks, billowing black smoke, and disturbing your slumber with screaming whistles dozens of times a day. Cattle straying onto the track soon were in bovine heaven, and even horse-drawn buggies occasionally were crushed between the wheels of the behemoths, as were cars much later.

Some of the homes, such as what is now Dolly’s Pedaler’s Rest outside of Kendall, were so close to the track that one could almost give the engineer a good morning kiss. Tom Cordner, who lives at the west end of Tunnel No. 3, recalled that when he was a boy, the conductor would toss a Chicago Tribune to his dad and a candy bar to him.

I moved a step closer to blindness, wading through the microfiche of old newspapers and other research material, for “Indomitable Pluck,” my book on the history of the trail a few years ago. I found no indication that the coming of the railroad was greeted with anything but universal acceptance. The economic opportunities were simply irresistible. The ability to move crops, cattle and materials in and out of the area, along with the ease of travel, caused people not only to embrace the coming of the railroad, but also to reach into their pockets to purchase bonds to support it.

The transition to a bike trail nearly 100 years later was more problematic. Not only were people smarting from the loss of the railroad, but also they were skeptical of the notion of having a bunch of strangers biking through their property.

At heated public meetings, concerned neighbors adjoining the proposed trail forecast a litany of the coming troubles. Bikers would open gates and free the cattle, vandalism of farm property would accelerate, and the idea of having the DNR managing property in the back 40 was an unspeakable horror. No one thought or even cared much about tourism. The county’s economy in 1964 was based on farming and manufacturing, not the idle play of a bunch of bored city folks on bicycles.

Despite the opposition, the DNR prevailed, purchasing the 32 acres of railroad right-of-way for a paltry $12,000.

Of course, none of those fears ever quite materialized. Bikers, as it turns out, are a peaceful bunch, spending more time fussing over their bike gears than sending the cattle stampeding. In fact, they are far less of a threat to peace, quiet and the environment than the railroad ever was.

How ironic that 50 years later, the protesters are rising up to protect a trail that was once feared and maligned.

The bogeyman now is Mathy Construction, which, from all reports, will send regiments of gravel trucks pell-mell down Logan Road, turning Amish buggies to kindling and flattening trail users like so many pancakes on a griddle.

Last week, the Sparta Chamber of Commerce circulated an email with the ominous headline, “Proposed Mathy quarry will affect bike trail tourism in a BIG way.”

The email alleges that Mathy already has purchased the property for the quarry. The company has not, and why would it until it receives a permit from the Wilton Town Board and a variance from Monroe County?

Another part of the email, evidently from Eric Zingler of the Elroy-Sparta Trail Board, draws a parallel with the quarry to the unfortunate tree-trimming job undertaken along the trail in 2012. The relationship between miles and miles of ugly, mangled trees along the trail and truck traffic on one road crossing seems a bit weak.

Landowners adjacent to the quarry, particularly Tunnel Trail Campground, can make compelling arguments against the quarry. But not a shred of evidence suggests that the quarry will have a significant impact on the overall tourism dollars now rolling into Monroe County.

It will be the Wilton Town Board’s challenge to weigh the facts on both sides and to balance the regional needs for gravel and rock against the concerns of those who will neighbor the quarry. Hysteria and fear mongering will add nothing to the discussion any more than they did 50 years ago, when a railroad bed evolved into a bike trail.

On Oct. 21, the town board will hold another hearing with Mathy on the proposed quarry. They can’t kick the can down the road forever.

Or can they?