Fearful Symmetries

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21 October, 2006

Madrail Part 2 - Early History of Rail in Wisconsin

(To Part 1.)

The history of passenger rail dates back to 27 September 1825 when Englishman George Stephenson drove a steam locomotive called Locomotion hauling cars of coal, flour, and passengers 9 miles in two hours. This was the initial run of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Two years later, the first railroad company was incorporated here in the United States – the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company. The B&O made its first run in 1830. The line's ability to haul goods to the East Coast faster than via the Erie Canal made it a success.

In 1836 Wisconsin officially became a territory with the town of Belmont as its capital. Milwaukee, being a port city on Lake Michigan, was its capital of commerce. That same year, the seeds of rail in Wisconsin were laid. Here's the description of events by Daniel Lanz, author of Railroads of Southern & Southwestern Wisconsin:

B.H. Edgerton, a member of the legislative council of the Territory of Michigan, outlined a program of internal improvements for the region west of Lake Michigan. Among other improvements he suggested that a survey be made for a railroad from Milwaukee to the Mississippi. On September 17, 1836, a number of citizens met in Milwaukee to exchange views and adopt measures concerning this proposed railroad. It was decided to petition the territorial legislature to pass an act incorporating a company for the purpose of constructing a railroad from Milwaukee to the Mississippi by way of Mineral Point, or as close to Mineral Point as practical.

On 7 December 1836 the DuBuque & Belmont Railroad was charted to connect the territorial capital of Belmont to an as yet unnamed town on the Mississippi River. About two weeks later, however, Madison was made the capital of Wisconsin so the plans of the DB&B were scrapped.

Reading about the history of Madison rail, it seems like Madison kind of lucked out. Had it not been named the capital, it probably would have been a low priority on the list of towns to get rail service. To the east was Milwaukee. It was the territory's major port and a center of commerce. West of Madison was an area rich in lead and zinc. Towns such as Mineral Point needed to get ore shipped out and this is why the first proposed railroad for Wisconsin included a terminus there. Prairie du Chien was located on the Mississippi River and was an import center of the fur trade. Plus Fort Crawford, a bulwark against Native American intrusion, was there. Curiously enough, Galena, now in Illinois, was the largest trading center of the area in the 1830s.

Before the building of the rails, people and goods still had move between towns & cities. During the 1830s, the settled part of Wisconsin was a rough triangle of land. Draw a line from Green Bay to Prairie du Chien. One side is to the east – Lake Michigan; another is to the south – the Illinois border; and that line is the third. That was Wisconsin at the time. Towns built on had immediate transportation advantages. For example, Prairie du Chien was situated near the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, which greatly abetted the fur trade. (The Mississippi went south to the Gulf of Mexico while the Wisconsin stretched east towards the central axis of the state and north.) Town dwellers without a river suitable for travel nearby, such as Madison, had stagecoaches. Lanz lists several stagecoach routes in his book: Milwaukee to Galena via Monroe, Beloit to Mineral Point via Albany, Verona to Belleville, Chicago to Prairie du Chien via Mineral Point, and Madison to Monroe via Belleville. A lead trail from Milwaukee to Galena through towns including Mineral Point was an artery of travel in the late 1820s. There was also a military road that was completed in 1835 that ran from Green Bay to Prairie du Chien and included a stretch from Madison to Dodgeville which is now Highway 18 and the Military Ridge State Trail. However, knowing how lousy the roads event today get during the winter, one can imagine traversing snow drifts, ruts, and holes in a wagon or stagecoach much have been hell. So you can bet that people were very keen on having a train run through their town.

While townsfolk lobbied to have their burg a destination, entrepreneurs made plans, some of them grandiose. Asa Whitney, for example, wanted to build a rail route that stretched from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean. At nearly 2,400 miles, it was projected to take 15 years. Not only were there insurmountable natural barriers but the price tag on this venture was huge. With dreams remaining just that, the first railroad in Wisconsin was quite a bit more practical.

On 11 February 1847, the Milwaukee & Waukesha Railroad Company was incorporated. The corporation's charter was to build a line from Milwaukee to Madison and then on to point on the Mississippi River to be determined later by the company. Wisconsin was admitted to the Union in 1848 as M&W's president, Byron Kilbourn, got things going. The stuff I've read about Kilbourn give me the impression that he was a pretty ineffectual CEO. This, combined with a lack of bling, meant that there were still no railroads being constructed in 1850. But changes were afoot. The following year, the company's named was changed to Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad Company and John Caitlin replaced Kilbourn as president. That year, the route from Milwaukee to Waukesha, about 18 miles, was completed giving Wisconsin its first regular train service. In 1852, Caitlin (from Madison) appointed Edward H. Brodhead and chief engineer and superintendent and he was able to really get things moving. The line was extended to the southwest to Eagle and then Milton. Track was then laid to the northwest where the line finally reached Stoughton in 1853. The Milwaukee & Mississippi finally reached Madison on 23 May 1854 where it was greeted by Governor William A Barstow and a crowd of some 2,000 people.

(To Part 3.)
|| Palmer, 5:17 PM

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