Last revised: December 5, 2023
By: Adam Burns
Wisconsin is one of the great states in railroading. Historically, it was home to many famous granger lines like the Milwaukee Road, Chicago & North Western Soo Line, Green Bay & Western, Illinois Central, and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy.
The state was blanketed with railroads which snaked their way to small communities like Platteville, Nekoosa, and Cornell to serve local agricultural businesses. In addition, main lines handling fast freights and gleaming streamliners were also present where named trains like the Hiawatha, California Zephyr, and Twin Cities '400' hurriedly whisked passengers between Chicago and the Twin Cities.
If you were a train enthusiast in the days predating the 1980s, it was a colorful era as one could see the trains and railroads noted above, as well as many other smaller lines.
Today, several heritage railroads and museums can be found throughout Wisconsin, which tell the history of its railroad network that once topped over 9,000 route miles of track.
These organizations include the Brodhead Historical Society Depot Museum, Camp Five & Lumberjack Steam Train, Chippewa Valley Railroad, Colfax Railroad Museum, East Troy Electric Railroad Museum, Green County Welcome Center, Historical Village, Mid-Continent Railway Museum, Mineral Point Railroad Museum, Mining & Rollo Jamison Museums, Monticello Depot Museum & Hostel, National Railroad Museum, Osceola & St. Croix Valley Railway, Pinecrest Historical Village (Manitowoc County Historical Society), Railroad Memories Museum, Riverside & Great Northern Railway, Whiskey River Railway, and Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad.
A few of the train rides available are large enough to host trips lasting a few hours, and with on-board accommodations that include food service. The information below highlights those which offer dinner trains, or some type of available food service.
Operated by the Minnesota Transportation Museum, located in nearby St. Paul, Minnesota, the Osceola & St. Croix Valley (O&StCV) is based out of Osceola, Wisconsin on trackage formerly owned by the Soo Line.
They currently host excursions along two different segments of track; a 20-mile round trip from Osceola, Wisconsin to Marine on St Croix, Minnesota (90 minutes) and a 10-mile round trip from Osceola to Dresser, Wisconsin, which lasts about 50 minutes.
The railroad does not host a dinner train but does run Pizza Trains during the operating season. The train runs from early May through early September. In addition to riding the O&StCV check out the Minnesota Transportation Museum's collection at the Jackson Street Roundhouse in St. Paul. It features steam and diesel locomotives, as well historic freight and passenger equipment.
The East Troy Electric Railroad, based in East Troy is actually a trolley/interurban operation. However, it also hosts a popular dinner train during the operating season. In addition, the organization hosts special dinner trains throughout the year and even pizza trains.
The museum maintains the final stretch of electrified interurban trackage (7.5 miles) interurban trackage in the state. At the time the line shutdown (1939) it had been operated by the Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company.
The town of East Troy subsequently purchased the trackage to maintain service, and continue owning the property until 2000 when it was purchased by the Friends of East Troy Railroad. Today, the museums sees about 15,000 riders annually.
Also a museum based in North Freedom, this tourist railroad features full course dinners aboard its train in February, May, and October. There are numerous specials hosted throughout the year which include on-board food service.
The earliest history of the museum dates back to 1959 under a group by the name of the Railroad Historical Society of Milwaukee. The name was changed to the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in 1962, the same year the group purchased a 7-mile segment of a former Chicago & North Western branch line running from the Quartzite Quarry to North Freedom, where the railroad interchanges with the Wisconsin & Southern.
Aside from available train rides, the group has a large collection of historic locomotives and rolling stock to see, including a preserved, 1894 C&NW depot in North Freedom (the building was originally located in Ableman/Rock Springs, Wisconsin and moved to its current location in 1965).
Based in Spooner, Wisconsin this tourist railroad offers many different meals aboard a select number of its trains from full course dinners to brunches, buffets, and BBQs. They also host a Pizza Train for the Christmas season. Finally, they provide host bed & breakfast accommodations!
This railroad has grown quite a bit since it first began operations on April 1, 1997. Their trips are now hosted extravagant passenger cars with dinner trains lasting about 2.5 hours. The WGN also operates an overnight bed & breakfast train!
In terms of on-board services and accommodations, the Wisconsin Great Northern is not only one of Wisconsin's best excursions, but also nationally is on par with Strasburg, Grand Canyon Railway, and the Durango & Silverton. If you enjoy these kinds of trips, the railroad is a must-visit!