Shagwell’s, a friendly tavern where my
helmet on the bar sparked conversation
with a couple of townsfolk.
Not wanting to miss riding any of
the nearby rail-trails, next morning I
completed the 15-mile roundtrip on the
Harrisburg to Eldorado Bike Trail. On
the way north I passed four guys on ran-
donneuring (long-distance cycling) bikes
in the middle of a 125-mile “brevet” ride.
In keeping with randonneuring’s retro
aesthetic, most of them had old-timey
facial hair. Bearded Miles Stoneman, who
lives in nearby Marion, told me the best
thing about the Tunnel Hill State Trail is
how well maintained it is. “The fountains
and the bathrooms are always clean,” he
said. “I’m not a big fan of big govern-
ment but I’ve got to say this is tax money
El Dorado is a careworn old mining
town with 4,122 residents, according
to the last census. Although the town’s
name appears to be Spanish, it actually
was originally “Elder-Reado,” in honor
of founders Judge Samuel Elder and
Joseph Read. (Fun fact: In 1963, before
the Beatles became international sensa-
tions, George Harrison performed at the
Eldorado VFW hall with a local rock
band. He was in the area visiting his
sister, who lived nearby.)
I turned around and rolled back to
Harrisburg to start riding the Tunnel Hill
Heading south from the trailhead at
Walnut Street, for the first few miles the
route is a mix of paths and sidewalks run-
ning through neighborhoods and past
farm fields. There were many slope mines
in Saline County near the railroad, and
black patches marking the former loca-
tions of mines, loading areas and coal
spills can still be seen from the trail.
Five miles in I passed Ledford, a
former coal boomtown with quite a his-
tory. Charlie Birger, a Russian-Jewish
immigrant who had worked as a soldier
and cowboy in South Dakota, came to
Saline County to mine in 1912, and then
opened a saloon here. After Prohibition
passed in 1920, Birger ran a bootleg-
ging and organized crime operation out
of Ledford. He became a folk hero after
his gang murdered several leaders of
the nativist, anti-alcohol Ku Klux Klan,
greatly reducing the Klan’s power in the
region. In 1928 Birger was executed for
ordering the killing of West City’s mayor.
Three miles past Ledford I stopped
in Carrier Mills, another mining and
railroad town, to refuel with biscuits and
gravy at the Mills Cafe. By coincidence,
one of the women I met at the bar the
night before was waiting tables, and the
other, an older lady named Joan, was sit-
ting down to bacon and eggs. She invited
me to join her and told me about how
the tough economic times had impacted
the local economy.
Not far from Carrier Mills I pedaled
into the Shawnee National Forest.
The surrounding terrain gets hilly
here, although the trail retains a gentle
uphill grade. After a scenic 6.7-mile
ride through thick forest, I came to
Stonefort. Settled in 1858, the small
town boasts a well-restored railroad depot
containing three mini-museums—the
Railroad Depot Museum, the Stonefort
Community Museum, and the Hardware
Store Museum. The walls are covered
with photos from the area’s past, and one
of the building’s original walls is still vis-
ible, featuring names and dates carved
into the wood with pocketknives by rail-
road workers as long ago as the 1890s.
It’s another 4.4 miles to New
Burnside, a former mining and orchard
town of 242 people named for the gen-
eral. By 1917 it was the nation’s larg-
est shipping point for early-harvested
apple varieties. South of town, near the
Catholic cemetery, four hound dogs
approached me but seemed more curious
than threatening; a minute later I saw