Last revised: December 31, 2023
By: Adam Burns
The state of Wisconsin enjoys a long and fascinating history with railroads, which is very much worth exploring if you might be interested in the subject.
During a time long, long ago one could see everything from colorful and fast passenger trains, such as Chicago & North Western's '400s' and Milwaukee Road's "Hiawathas," to slow-moving freights serving bucolic farms and business via nearly forgotten, weed-covered branch lines.
Today, there are several locations in Wisconsin offering train rides and some even preserve the state's trolley/streetcar heritage! All of these organizations attempt to rekindle the bygone era of rail travel, offering such things as dinner on-board and other perks.
The locations listed below offer either train rides designed specifically to view the peak fall colors, or are still operating their excursions during the height of autumn.
(Laona): The Lumberjack Steam Train is located in Laona and operated by the Camp 5 Museum.
They feature a restored 2-6-2 "Prairie" steam locomotive, #4, and all rides board from the restored Soo Line depot in Laona.
During late September and October they host Saturday Fall Festivals for the entire family including a "...Green Treasure Forest Tour, pumpkin patch, face painting, a marshmallow roast, and fresh apple cider."
The steam locomotive was originally built for the Fairchild & North-Eastern Railway in 1916 by the Vulcan Iron Works. The F&NE was a logging operation located in Fairchild and owned by the N.C. Foster Lumber Company.
The locomotive later worked on the Laona & Northern Railway (Laona), a system owned by R. Connor Company, another logging operation. The L&N was a common-carrier tailored towards the movement of lumber products.
Its lines radiated to the southwest of Laona (where numerous spurs snaked their way into rich timerland) while its main line headed north.
Here, it roughly paralleled the Chicago & North Western's until reaching Laona Junction and interchanged with the Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie Railway (Soo Line).
The L&N was listed at 23 miles as of 1929. In 1965 the railroad was still operating #4 in a mixed train capacity (carrying both freight and passengers). Finally, in 1983 the 2-6-2 was donated to the Camp 5 Historical Society.
Today, only about 2 miles remain of the old L&N, from Laona to the Connor Farm at Camp 5. The museum's typical summer season runs from June through August while they also have a short fall season from late September through early October.
Your trip departs from east of Laona with the train skirting Scattered Rice Lake before arriving at Camp 5. Leading the way is #4!
(North Freedom): This museum's primary goal, since its 1957 inception, has always been to preserve the region's and state's rail history. In doing so it also operates public excursions over 7 miles of the old Chicago & North Western.
One of their annual special events is the Autumn Color Weekend held during October and just before the museum's season comes to an end.
Your trip departs from an original C&NW depot at Walnut Street (originally built in 1894 and located in Rock Springs) and heads south from their small yard. The line stays near the Baraboo River before heading through open farmland.
Tracks end at a point known as Rattlesnake Station whereupon the train returns to North Freedom. The beauty of this experience cannot be understated as trains roll past beautiful Midwestern farms intermixed with patches of woodland; a classic Americana setting.
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 hosted throughout the year. The company, which also operates freight trains when necessary, does not offer exclusive fall foliage trips.
However, they do host regularly scheduled excursions throughout September and October during the peak fall colors. This includes their popular dinner trains. The Wisconsin Great Northern operates some of the finest rail equipment in the state and is well worth a visit any time of the year!