Last revised: June 22, 2023
By: Adam Burns
Wisconsin's historical importance to the railroad industry is unquestioned; it not only contained several important cities but was also the gateway to the Pacific Northwest as main lines of the Great Northern and Northern Pacific (via the allying Chicago, Burlington & Quincy) passed through the state to reach Chicago.
In addition, the Milwaukee Road linked Seattle and Chicago directly and the railroad's main line passed directly through Wisconsin. There were numerous other important lines serving this region including the Chicago & North Western, Soo Line, and Green Bay & Western.
In the days long before modern interstates and jet liners, one could watch everything from fast freights and gleaming streamliners to short locals serving small farms and agricultural centers.
There was also Wisconsin's dairy and cheese industry, which once saw nearly all of its products shipped by rail. For the general public, these services were taken for granted while a for a train enthusiast it was quite a sight.
Today, several museums and heritage railroads can be found throughout to state which are dedicated to preserving its history with the iron horse. A few also offer scenic trains, including specials during the holiday season.
These trips are briefly highlighted below while more information can be found by visiting their respective website. The organizations highlighted below offer Christmas-themed train rides during the holiday season. There are also others which host official The Polar Express events.
(East Troy): The East Troy Electric, based in East Troy, hosts excursions within restored trolley and streetcars.
They offer a number of special trips throughout the year including Christmas Trains which operate from the weekend after Thanksgiving through late December.
The East Troy Electric Railroad is a division of the East Troy Railroad Museum and its primary mission is to preserve the region's interurban heritage.
This organization is quite unique in that the track it owns has technically never been abandoned thanks to East Troy's foresight.
The current 6 miles from East Troy to Mukwonago was originally built as Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company (better known as TMER) incorporated in 1896 from what was formerly a local horse-car line that had served Milwaukee since 1890.
It continued to grow over the next two decades, reaching its peak size of 198 miles in 1909; its main line linked Milwaukee with Sheboygan while suburban branches ran west of the city to Watertown, East Troy, and Burlington.
With declining ridership and rising costs, abandonments began in 1938, the same year the company's name was changed to the Milwaukee Electric Railway & Transport Company.
The segment currently in use was dropped in 1939 although East Troy acquired the 6 miles to Mukwonago (where interchange was established with the Soo Line) for continued freight service.
In 1985 a deal was reached with the Wisconsin Trolley Museum to takeover the property as a heritage railroad; between 1995 and 2000 today's East Troy Railroad Museum purchased the right-of-way.
(North Freedom): This museum, located in North Freedom, also offers excursion rides throughout the year. One of their specials is the Santa Express hosted after Thanksgiving.
The historic cars used on this trip are heated with old-fashioned wood stoves during the 7-mile round-trip over former Chicago & North Western trackage. The journey lasts about an hour.
The museum was formed in 1957 to highlight the Midwest's rail heritage; this region contained the densest collection of railroads anywhere in the nation as they rapidly overbuilt due to competition to serve America's Heartland.
Unfortunately, by the post-World War II period a great of this trackage was superfluous and redundant. Famous names found here included the C&NW, Milwaukee Road, Soo Line, Rock Island, Burlington, and Chicago Great Western.
The Mid-Continent Railway Museum's noteworthy pieces include the original C&NW depot from Rock Springs (built in 1894) and a replica freight depot built in 1972.
They also have an impressive collection of steam locomotives which cannot be missed; there are currently 11 and three are under restoration.
(Trego): A unique twist on Christmas-themed train rides is Wisconsin Great Northern's Santa Pizza Train, offered on select weekends during November and December.
This event features a 2-hour train ride for kids to enjoy pizza and a ride with Santa. The kids also receive hot cocoa and cookies along with a small gift.
The Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad is a growing tourist attraction in the state's northwestern corner which operates about 20 miles of the old Chicago & North Western between Spooner and Springbrook.
The railroad began operations in 1997 and has grown from a single pizza train excursion to multiple events today which include sightseeing trains, wine and cheese trains, dinner trains, and a bed & breakfast train.
The railroad has also branched out into general freight service on an as-needed basis.