Wisconsin railroads date back to 1847 when the Milwaukee & Waukesha
Railroad was chartered by Byron Kilbourn to connect Milwaukee with
Madison. While construction of the railroad began two years later in
the fall of 1849 soon after it changed its name before even beginning
operations, to the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad. By late
November, 1850 the M&M had five miles open and operable on a wide,
6-foot gauge line running west from Milwaukee. By 1860 the M&M
operated a system of 238 miles although a year later due to financial
troubles it fell into receivership and soon emerged as the Milwaukee
& Prairie du Chein Railway. The M&PdC operated independently
until late 1867 when it was purchased by the Milwaukee & St. Paul
Railroad, an early predecessor of the venerable Milwaukee Road (whose
full name was the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific).
Following the construction of the M&M, with ports along Lake Michigan and the natural resources and agriculture traffic available in Wisconsin railroads quickly flocked to the Badger State attempting to tap these resources. In the succeeding years several classic railroad companies would operate within Wisconsin.
Today, many of the hundreds of miles of branch lines laid down by the
C&NW and Milwaukee to serve grain elevators and other agricultural
business have been abandoned although some still operate under names
like the Wisconsin
& Southern, the historic Escanaba & Lake Superior Railroad,
Wisconsin Northern Railroad, and the Tomahawk Railway. The key main
lines that see movements of things like coal and intermodal are the
realm of BNSF, Union Pacific, Canadian Pacific and Canadian National. Because Wisconsin was another of the granger states it was hit
hard by abandonments and service cutbacks between the 1960s and 1980s.
Where once there were numerous branch lines sprawling all across Wisconsin
today just 45% of the state's original rail infrastructure remains in
use. During the 1920s, at the height of the railroad industry the state
boasted a rail network of more than 7,500 miles. For more information
on the Badger State’s rail mileage over the years please have a look at
the chart below.
In all, Wisconsin railroads offer a little of everything whether
you’re interested in main line railroading or just a relaxing ride
behind a steam locomotive while watching Wisconsin's bucolic countryside
roll by. While the CMStP&P's famous Hiawathas or the C&NW's 400s
no longer fly through the Heartland at 100+ mph Amtrak still uses the
name for its passenger operations between Chicago and Milwaukee, and the
Empire Builder makes several stops in the state. To learn more about the historic streamliners that once operated in Wisconsin please click here to visit the section of the site covering the subject.
For more reading about Wisconsin's railroad history you might want to consider a copy of Steam and Cinders: The Advent of Railroads in Wisconsin
from author Axel Lorenzsonn. The book includes over 300 pages of
information and historic photographs covering the state's rail history,
particularly during the early years of the mid and latter 19th century.
If you are interested in the
state's railroads and how many of the classic lines came to be found in
Wisconsin this is certainly a book you should consider checking out. In
any event, if you're interested in perhaps purchasing this book please
visit the link below which will take you to ordering information through