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Wisconsin Short Line Railroads

Published: April 27, 2023

By: Adam Burns

The short line railroads operating within the state of Wisconsin today utilize trackage spun-off from the larger Class 1's over the last 20-40 years.  The lone exception is the Escanaba & Lake Superior, which is largely concentrated within Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

The state's largest is the Wisconsin & Southern which maintains over 700 miles of trackage that consists of former Milwaukee Road and Chicago & North Western lines.

The history of railroads in Wisconsin dates back to the mid-19th century, when the state began to experience rapid growth and development. Railroads played a crucial role in this growth, providing a fast and efficient means of transportation for people and goods across the state.

The state's first railroad was the Milwaukee & Waukesha, formed in 1847 to link its namesake towns with the Mississippi River. In 1850 its name was changed to the Milwaukee & Mississippi and that same year opened 5 miles from Milwaukee to Wauwatosa.

Following a few more years of construction it reached Prairie du Chien, along the Mississippi River, running via Waukesha, in 1857.  The railroad would go on to form part of the modern Milwaukee Road.

Throughout the 19th century, several other rail lines were built throughout the state, connecting Wisconsin's major cities and towns with each other and with the rest of the country.

One of the most famous was the Chicago and North Western Railway, which was established in 1859.  Its heritage, however, can be traced back to the Galena & Chicago Union of 1836.

The classic C&NW connected Wisconsin with Chicago and other major cities in the Midwest such as Omaha, the Twin Cities, points in the Dakotas, Michigan's UP, and later Kansas City. 

Another important system was the previously mentioned Milwaukee Road. It served much of the same territory as the C&NW but also later opened a transcontinental route to the Pacific Northwest in the early 20th century.

Despite their importance to Wisconsin's economy and transportation industry, many of these rail lines declined in the second half of the 20th century as other forms of transportation, such as automobiles and airplanes, became more popular.  Today, just over 3,000 miles of trackage remains in Wisconsin, less than half of the state's historic peak of 7,554 miles in 1920.

Most of this mileage is currently operated by Class 1 carriers Union Pacific, BNSF Railway, and Canadian Pacific-Kansas City.  Overall, railroads have played a crucial role in the development of Wisconsin, and they continue to be an important part of the state's economy and transportation industry. 

Escanaba & Lake Superior Railroad

(reporting mark, ELS):  See Michigan.

Fox Valley & Lake Superior

(reporting mark, FOXY):  A division of Watco that launched on January 29, 2022, this short line utilizes much of the former Wisconsin Central Railway acquired by Canadian National in 2001.  

It operates 328.5 miles in Wisconsin, as well as the 142.6 miles of trackage in Michigan's Upper Peninsula which will be maintained by Watco's Grand Elk Railroad.  Essentially, this new regional will give Watco most of Wisconsin's secondary rail corridors, which also includes with the Wisconsin & Southern.

Tomahawk Railway

(reporting mark, TR):  This short line began operations in 2005 over trackage originally owned by the Milwaukee Road.  It currently owns about 6 miles running north and south of Tomahawk and handles chemicals, coal, and forest products.

Wisconsin & Southern Railroad

(reporting mark, WSOR):  This large, profitable Class II regional has been successful in resuscitating many secondary, left-for-dead branch lines in the state of Wisconsin and northern Illinois (Fox Lake although trackage rights give it access to Clearing Yard in Chicago) that once belonged to the Milwaukee Road and Chicago & North Western.  

It began service in 1980 and today operates more than 700 miles of track, some of which is owned by the state of Wisconsin.  The company, currently owned by Watco since 2012, plans to continue resurrecting lines in the region it sees as a potential profitable ventures.  The Wisconsin & Southern handles more than 60,000 carloads annually with freight traffic highly diversified.

Wisconsin Northern Railroad

(reporting mark, WN):  This road is headquartered in Lakeville and operates as a subsidiary of Progressive Rail.  It first began service in 1996 and currently runs between Chippewa Falls and Sand House, Wisconsin over trackage originally owned by the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha (later, C&NW).

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