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A History of Whitewater and the Railroad

The railroad link that came to Whitewater was part of the first successful rail line in Wisconsin.

Therefore, the history of early rail development in the state is important to understanding why

and how this line came to the community. The current depot, built as a passenger depot in 1890- 91 was the second depot; the first was the old “freight house” that stood near the current depot until the 1990s.


Rail History Background

Prior to the 1830s, transportation systems in the United States were limited primarily to

waterways. Roads were few and often little more than improved Native American trails, so

transportation of goods by water was the most efficient and economical method of moving goods throughout the country. As there were not always sufficient rivers for transporting goods directly from place to place, canal-building became popular in the eastern U.S., the most famous, of course, being the Erie Canal, built in 1825. By the 1830s, many farmers in the U.S. were engaged in commercial farming; that is, growing crops for export to distant markets. These included wheat, tobacco, corn, livestock, and cotton. As a result, they were looking for faster, more efficient transportation for these commodities. Many thought that railroads were the best answer to this problem (1).


The idea of rail lines started as early as 1800, when horses were used to power cars along tracks, usually in a mining or industrial setting. In 1830, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in Maryland built 13 miles of horse-powered railroad tracks. Steam locomotives were developed in England as early as 1804, but it was not until 1830 that the Baltimore and Ohio experimented with a steam locomotive. This locomotive operated at 18 miles per hour and sparked interest in steam locomotive development. Soon, many short-line steam-powered railroads were built in the eastern United States (2).


Like the rest of the country, the earliest form of transportation in Wisconsin was by waterway,

but most of Wisconsin’s rivers were not navigable for large boats carrying goods or people.

Land transportation was by old, somewhat improved, Native American trails. In the 1830s, early settlers used these trails to work their way inland from Lake Michigan and stage lines developed crude transportation routes along these “roads.” In 1835, when leading settlers met to discuss petitioning the federal government for the establishment of the Wisconsin Territory, one of their first tasks was to outline transportation needs. In their report to Congress, the territorial convention suggested the need for surveys of harbors for light houses, a survey of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers, a land road from Chicago to Green Bay, and a railroad that would link Lake Michigan to the lead mining district and to the Mississippi River (3).


After the formal establishment of the Wisconsin territory in 1836, most people expected the

territorial legislature to immediately give a charter for a rail line and several businessmen and

speculators developed plans for railroad companies. One of the most important efforts was in

Milwaukee. Byron Kilbourn (the founder of Milwaukee) and others were advocating a

Milwaukee to the Mississippi River line running through the lead region. But, when the

territorial legislature finally took up the railroad charter question in late 1836, only two lines

were given charters and none were given for the Milwaukee to Mississippi line favored by

Kilbourn. Politics, as usual, was to blame. Proponents of alternative shipping routes (waterways

and stage lines) lobbied the legislature to put a hold on railroad building. In 1837, a run on

exchanging paper money for gold and silver created a national financial panic and a largely

worthless currency, beginning a six-year economic depression in the U.S. Railroads were

proposed, but died for lack of funding in these times. During the 1840s, stage lines using land

routes and the building of wooden plank roads out of Milwaukee temporarily helped ease

transportation concerns, but they did not solve the long-term transportation problem (4)


As the economy improved, pressure from railroad promoters continued, spurred on by the need to get a very valuable crop to market in large quantities. That product was wheat, now being grown by almost all southern Wisconsin farmers as a cash crop. Large amounts of wheat needed to be marketed and moved and many thought that the most efficient way to do this was by rail. By the late 1840s, territorial legislators finally realized that something needed to be done to promote rail construction (5).


But just who would get a railroad charter was still a political hot-potato. Kilbourn’s Milwaukee

to Mississippi line was still not in favor with legislators and other rail lines were competing

strongly. So, Kilbourn and his supporters decided to alter their proposal, asking for only a 20

mile rail charter from Milwaukee to Waukesha, keeping quiet about any further expansion west. In 1847, they got their charter with only a small majority, but it was the first link in the chain that would become the first real railroad in Wisconsin. By the time of statehood in 1848, there were nine rail charters approved and Kilbourn had received another charter to extend his line to the Mississippi as he wanted. But money was still tight and it would be a struggle to raise the capital needed to actually built track (6).


After the formal establishment of the Wisconsin territory in 1836, most people expected the

territorial legislature to immediately give a charter for a rail line and several businessmen and

speculators developed plans for railroad companies. One of the most important efforts was in

Milwaukee. Byron Kilbourn (the founder of Milwaukee) and others were advocating a

Milwaukee to the Mississippi River line running through the lead region. But, when the

territorial legislature finally took up the railroad charter question in late 1836, only two lines

were given charters and none were given for the Milwaukee to Mississippi line favored by

Kilbourn. Politics, as usual, was to blame. Proponents of alternative shipping routes (waterways and stage lines) lobbied the legislature to put a hold on railroad building. In 1837, a run on exchanging paper money for gold and silver created a national financial panic and a largely worthless currency, beginning a six-year economic depression in the U.S. Railroads were proposed, but died for lack of funding in these times. During the 1840s, stage lines using land routes and the building of wooden plank roads out of Milwaukee temporarily helped ease transportation concerns, but they did not solve the long-term transportation problem (4)


As the economy improved, pressure from railroad promoters continued, spurred on by the need to get a very valuable crop to market in large quantities. That product was wheat, now being grown by almost all southern Wisconsin farmers as a cash crop. Large amounts of wheat needed to be marketed and moved and many thought that the most efficient way to do this was by rail. By the late 1840s, territorial legislators finally realized that something needed to be done to promote rail construction (5).


But just who would get a railroad charter was still a political hot-potato. Kilbourn’s Milwaukee

to Mississippi line was still not in favor with legislators and other rail lines were competing

strongly. So, Kilbourn and his supporters decided to alter their proposal, asking for only a 20

mile rail charter from Milwaukee to Waukesha, keeping quiet about any further expansion west. In 1847, they got their charter with only a small majority, but it was the first link in the chain that would become the first real railroad in Wisconsin. By the time of statehood in 1848, there were nine rail charters approved and Kilbourn had received another charter to extend his line to the Mississippi as he wanted. But money was still tight and it would be a struggle to raise the capital needed to actually built track (6).


Eventually, acquiring a rail link would be seen as vital to a community’s economic survival, but, during the 1840s, many people still needed to be convinced. Farmers, in particular, were concerned that a single rail line would have a monopoly on their business and could charge

excessive tolls. City investors were also skeptical. In Milwaukee, in particular, investors were

much more inclined to support plank roads going out of that city. They were cheaper than rail

lines and were a known quantity; they provided a smoother improved surface for wagon travel. Rail lines were expensive to build and were a relatively new technology. It was a vicious cycle. Few investors meant no rail lines were built so they could not prove their worthiness to potential users and attract more investment. Finally, in early 1849, funding for the initial building of Kilbourn’s Milwaukee to Waukesha line was raised primarily by the city government in Milwaukee whose city leaders saw the advantage of having rail lines bringing goods into their community, and the first railroad line built in Wisconsin was tentatively underway (7).


The company, which was initially incorporated as the Milwaukee, Waukesha, and Mississippi

River Rail Road Company, but is always referred to as the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad,

divided the project into five sections; Milwaukee to Waukesha, Waukesha to the Rock River,

Rock River to Madison, Madison to Mineral Point, and Mineral Point to the Mississippi River in

Grant County. Each section was to be built one after the other. The company estimated that they could complete the first section by June of 1850 (8).


Choosing a route for the Milwaukee to Waukesha section of the rail line was difficult.

Construction costs needed to be kept low, but it had to go through areas where there was

potential profit to keep the line going. Two routes were surveyed, both beginning at the junction of the Milwaukee and Menomonee Rivers and following the Menomonee River Valley inland. The “northern” route was selected, one that traveled almost west out of Milwaukee then south into Waukesha. Although filled with curves, it was a route with land easier to build on then the other route which would take a more direct southwestern approach (9).


Construction on the rail line began in October of 1849. Just the fact that this line had reached the point of construction was a major success. Other roads given charters had not been able to reach this point. It was probably due to the political savvy of Byron Kilbourn and his Milwaukee connections that his line was the first to get to this stage. It cannot be emphasized enough the challenges of building this line at this time. By following the “easier” river valleys, the route encountered much swamp land and the line literally had to be “carved” out of the wilderness that was Wisconsin at this time. Meanwhile, Kilbourn and others were also engaged in selling stock for moving the rail line west from Waukesha, a task that was easier after construction on the line actually started. It was difficult to sell stock in companies that had yet to begin actual construction, and many investors in other roads lost money when these “paper” rail lines failed (10).


Construction on the rail line to Waukesha halted for the winter of 1850, then started up again in the spring. The railroad company, still under the leadership of Byron Kilbourn was now

beginning to concentrate on a route farther west and in a speech in June of 1850, Kilbourn

encouraged people to rally behind (and buy stock for) the completion of the road to Whitewater on its way to Milton, then north to Madison. The other pressing matter was the acquisition of locomotives for the line. What was to become Milwaukee and Mississippi’s Engine No. 1 was a 46,000 pound steam locomotive built by the Norris Locomotive Works of Philadelphia. It had four large driving wheels in back and four small pilot wheels in the front and its boiler and firebox were of the “haystack” design, an English design with a large vertical steam dome that also housed the firebox. Although out of fashion in terms of modern locomotive design, this type of engine was the best in steam production and easy on valves and cylinders (11).


On September 25, 1850, Engine No. 1 was set on the first half mile of track laid in Milwaukee and Byron Kilbourn drove the locomotive to the end of this track and back. Unforeseen problems caused construction to be delayed, but there were five miles of track (Milwaukee to

Wauwatosa) completed by November of 1850. When the track was laid 10 miles to Elm Grove

(now a suburb of Milwaukee) by December 17, 1850, the charter allowed for operations to begin and for the rail line to actually begin charging for freight and fares. In the winter of 1851, work did not stop as it had the previous winter and the work crews became more experienced, laying track faster each work day. The rails were laid through modern-day Brookfield and by February of 1851, Waukesha was in sight. Waiting for the rails in Waukesha were two large stone buildings, a two-story depot and a large car barn where cars were to be built. When the tracks reached Waukesha, four passenger cars were waiting (12).


Wisconsin’s first railroad was officially opened on February 25, 1851 with a trip from

Milwaukee to Waukesha that, with about a dozen stops, took one hour and 45 minutes. On

March 4, 1851, regularly scheduled daily passenger trains began running between Milwaukee

and Waukesha. In April a freight train was added to this schedule. Although still financially

precarious, the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad started to plan for westward expansion. By

July 1851, the rail line extended seven miles southwest out of Waukesha to modern-day Genesee Depot. A rift between principles in the company threatened the rail line and affected contracts for further construction. Ironically, Byron Kilbourn, whose persistence in getting the company off the ground resulted in Wisconsin’s first rail line, was now seen as overextending his influence in the company and even selling illegal stock. In January of 1852, the board of

directors removed him as president of the company. Kilbourn tried to take over the board by

manipulating stockholders, but ultimately failed. He had overreached and despite being

Wisconsin’s most important railroad pioneer, Kilbourn was now out of the company (13).


The new president of the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad, John Catlin, was a well-respected businessman and public official and soon had the railroad’s financial affairs in order and the line was extended to Eagle by the end of January of 1852. The professionalization of the company continued with the employment of a certified civil engineer, Edward H. Brodhead whose task it was to supervise the continuation of the line to Madison. During the summer of 1852, the rail line was approaching Whitewater. The link to Palmyra from Eagle came in August, then reached Whitewater in September of 1852. A great celebration was had in Whitewater with about 300 people coming from Milwaukee and joining a crowd that the Milwaukee Sentinel estimated was between two and three thousand people (14).


Why did the line come to Whitewater? General literature does not explain how the route was

devised, but it is probable that this first line wanted to serve the heavily wheat-producing areas of Walworth and Rock Counties without straying too far from the westerly course to Madison and the Mississippi. Did the community lure the road? According to the Early Annals of Whitewater, meetings were held in the fall of 1849 regarding the purchase of stock in this line by local people. The Early Annals state that Leander Birge, Rufus Cheney, and Prosper Cravath were appointed as a committee to meet with the railroad board of directors to “have the road pass through Whitewater.” It was stated that the farmers of the area wanted an alternative route to take their grain to market in Milwaukee to the “slow, plodding . . . miserable. . . almost impassable roads.” (15)



The Early Annals reported that in the spring of 1850, the directors of the Milwaukee and

Mississippi Railroad began soliciting area farmers to purchase stock in the line. When the line

came to Whitewater, the Annals state, the community was all “astir; produce and provisions of

all kinds and in large quantities were daily coming in. . . and the town began to put on quite a

business-like air. All were excited, even the old fogies . . . were forced to acknowledge that . . .

there might be something new under the sun. . . . all rejoiced at the good time already come, and looked forward to the better times coming.” So, it may have been that due to the concerted interest of Whitewater’s citizens and the successful selling of stock (some of the local farmers even mortgaged their farms to buy stock) that the company, in part, decided to come through Whitewater (16).


After Whitewater, the Milwaukee and Mississippi continued southwest and in December, the rail line reached Milton, then the line forked with a branch built to Janesville to the southwest and the main line continuing northwest to Madison. At the end of 1852, tracks reached Janesville. This branch was actually under the direction of the Southern Wisconsin Railroad Company, which paid the Milwaukee and Mississippi to have it built (17).


The Milwaukee and Mississippi was the first railroad company to actually build track in

Wisconsin, but it was soon joined by other rail line development. The first of these were lines

developed to make connections between communities in southeastern Wisconsin and Chicago. These lines developed in the valley of the Rock River. The Rock River begins near Lake Winnebago then flows southwest through important towns like Watertown, Jefferson, Fort Atkinson, Janesville, and Beloit, continuing into Illinois until it ends at the Mississippi River at Rock Island. There was much interest in connecting these communities and others in Illinois

with rail lines and railroad companies were given charters. The successful line that developed

was the Rock River Valley Union Railroad, which intended to build a line from Janesville to

Lake Winnebago at Fond du Lac (18).


The first track for this line was laid near Fond du Lac in the spring of 1852, and the line had big

plans to hook up with an Illinois rail line as well as extend their line all the way to Minnesota.

More than a half-dozen additional rail lines were proposed during 1852, including a line backed by Byron Kilbourn, the Milwaukee and LaCrosse Railroad. But, little activity took place on any of these routes, illuminating just how significant it was that the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad had actually built and was continuing to build track and provide service. It also suggests that Whitewater was probably one of the most fortunate communities in the state, having rail service so early. The line quickly became popular for passenger travel. One could board in Milwaukee and ride to Janesville, then spend only a brief period on a stage coach to Rockford where they could get another train to Chicago.


Freight records show the importance of the railroad for the Whitewater economy. Out of

Milwaukee the freight trains carried retail merchandize, lumber, wood products, coal, stoves,

brick, and livestock. Going east, the trains carried wheat to the Milwaukee markets as well as

other agricultural products like corn, oats, barley, potatoes, hogs, wool, lead, and shot. Farmers had another profitable venture with the railroad, selling wood for the engines. Whitewater grew significantly during this period, fueled by trade no doubt fostered by the railroad.


The early 1850s success of the Milwaukee and Mississippi spurred lots of other railroad charters in 1853, but, again, little actual progress was made in laying track. The Rock River Valley Union Railroad was laying track from Fond du Lac to Waupun but had to stop due to lack of funds. The Milwaukee and Watertown Railroad began building a line from the Brookfield stop of the Milwaukee and Mississippi to Watertown, but it was slow going. Finally, in the fall of 1853, the Beloit and Madison Railroad company began its line which would connect with Illinois’ Galena and Chicago Union Railroad, a road that had just completed its branch line between Belvidere and Beloit in November. This was significant because people could now travel by rail from Beloit all the way to the east coast via Chicago (19).


The Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad continued to move north to Madison, reaching

Stoughton in January of 1854 and by May of 1854, the tracks came to Madison, itself. Now

people could travel, albeit not exactly due west, between Milwaukee and Madison entirely by

rail. For a brief moment, the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad could boast of being the only

rail line in Wisconsin, but this was short-lived. By the end of 1854, 152 miles of track existed in

Wisconsin. Most of it was owned by the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad, but there were

lines completed between Fond du Lac and just north of Waupun, between Beloit and Footville, between Brookfield and Watertown, and between Racine and Walworth county (20).


In 1855 and 1856, railroad expansion reached new heights. The Milwaukee and Mississippi was successful in moving from Madison almost to the Mississippi River, reaching Boscobel by the end of 1856. The LaCrosse and Milwaukee Railroad was built between Milwaukee and Portage and connected to the old Rock River Valley Union Railroad, now the Chicago, St. Paul & Fond du Lac Railroad. The Milwaukee and Horicon Railroad built a line from the LaCrosse and Milwaukee Railroad to Ripon and the Racine and Mississippi Railroad built a line from Racine to Beloit. The Chicago, St. Paul, & Fond du Lac Railroad also built from Illinois to Janesville and two small roads were built from Illinois to Lake Geneva and from Illinois to Darlington. Because so many lines connected, a genuine rail network was forming in Wisconsin (21).


As the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad continued to drive to the Mississippi River, other

roads were making plans to do the same. But, the Milwaukee and Mississippi was first,

completing its road at Prairie du Chien in April of 1857. The pre-Civil War period was a volatile

one for the small railroad companies in Wisconsin, and small companies started merging while even more new companies were formed. Despite the sometimes financial uncertainty of the

railroad industry at the time, the railroad was now a permanent fixture in the southern third of the state and no matter how the companies changed over the next few decades, railroads were nolonger a fad, but an integral part of the state’s transportation system. The economic depression that began in 1857 would make a significant impact on the railroad industry and change the major players, but the physical railroads were here to stay (22).



The Development of the Milwaukee Road

The financial crisis of the late 1850s speeded up railroad consolidation as smaller companies

went under or were purchased by better financed companies. One of the major players to come out of this era was the Chicago and North Western Railroad, which built a continuous 198-mile line between Chicago and Oshkosh. This line would become the main rail line in eastern Wisconsin well into the twentieth century. The crisis in the late 1850s would also see the corporate demise of the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad, but soon would come the rise of what could be called its successor, the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad, or the Milwaukee Road (23).


In late 1860 the Milwaukee and Mississippi was bankrupt and its assets were sold in January of 1861 to the newly-formed Milwaukee & Prairie du Chien Railway Company. Then, like the

1857 depression that significantly affected the railroad company’s fates, the Civil War,

beginning in the spring of 1861, would hasten consolidation of the small lines into larger, more

profitable and stable, companies like the Chicago and North Western. The most important of

these to Wisconsin was the Milwaukee Road (24).


Under the leadership of Alexander Mitchell of Milwaukee, in 1863, the Milwaukee & St. Paul

Railway Company was organized and began buying up smaller railroads, including, in 1867, the Milwaukee and Prairie du Chien (old Milwaukee and Mississippi). By 1869, the Milwaukee & St. Paul had consolidated enough lines to control every through route in Wisconsin from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi and was a major competitor with the Chicago and North Western for rail dominance in the state (25).


It cannot be stated too strongly that the development of rail lines in Wisconsin prior to the Civil

War was a factor in the north finally winning that conflict. It also brought a heady economic

prosperity to Wisconsin and to Whitewater. During the Civil War era, Wisconsin was the largest producer of wheat in the country and rail lines were crucial to getting this crop to markets. In Whitewater, the railroad was an important link for farmers in Walworth County, but also influenced the decision of George Esterly to locate a factory in the community for the production of his improved wheat harvesters. This factory and other industrial production, along with the retail trade from successful area farmers, drove Whitewater’s economy for decades. Moving goods in and out of the community via the rail link was vital to Whitewater’s growth and development during the second half of the 19th century.


After the Civil War, the Milwaukee and St. Paul line began looking to grow beyond Wisconsin

and the 1870s saw rapid growth in that development. In 1872, the company acquired the St. Paul & Chicago Railway Company with its routes along the Mississippi River. In 1873, the company opened its own route to Chicago, prompting the name change to the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Company (CM&SP), a name that would stick until 1928. By the end of 1874, the CM&SP controlled almost 1,400 miles of track and was looking to expand into the newly opened settlement areas of Iowa and the Dakotas. The company either built track or acquired smaller companies to make this happen and in the mid-1870s, they built two bridges over the Mississippi River (to take the place of ferries); one at Prairie du Chien and one at Marquette, Iowa. In 1876, they built a bridge to connect La Crosse and Minnesota (26).



By 1880, the CM& SP controlled almost 4,000 track miles, up from the 1,400 controlled in 1874. Then in 1884 the line reached Fargo, North Dakota, and in 1887, it reached Kansas City. In 1890, the line made an agreement with the Union Pacific Railroad to extend its service into

Omaha, Nebraska. At the same time, the emphasis of the company shifted from its historic

origination point of Milwaukee to Chicago, which was rapidly becoming or had already become the leading mid-western rail center. At the end of 1887, the CM & SP controlled 5,669 miles of track, had 740 locomotives, 375 passenger cars, 14,312 box cars, and 7,201 freight cars under its control and was no longer just a player in the upper Midwest, but was becoming a national railroad force (27).


In 1890, when Whitewater received its new passenger depot, the CM&SP was carrying 9.2

million tons of freight and 7.5 million passengers per year. But, the economic depression

beginning in 1893 resulted in slower expansion in favor of existing line improvements. By 1900, cross-country transportation links were thriving. The C M & SP wanted access to the Pacific Northwest even though other lines had forged this connection. Rather than piggy-back on other lines to make these connections, the CM&SP, always considered an independent minded rail line, decided they would build their own line and in 1906 the company began construction from their current westernmost point in South Dakota to the Puget Sound. Although the company did much of their own construction, they made a wise purchase of the Montana Railroad that already had an important line running through mountain passes. By May of 1909, the CM&SP line to the Pacific was completed and by May of 1911, the company began offering passenger service between Chicago and Seattle. The company also built many branch lines, expanding their connections in the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, and Washington to serve the main line. By 1913, the CM&SP had almost 10,000 miles of track, but the decision to build their own line to the west coast added to the company debt and they had fierce competition with the other lines already serving the northwest (28).


While the company did not know it then, railroads as the primary transportation system in the

United States had peaked and the two-year period of World War I, 1917-1919, when the

company came under the control of the federal government, was costly to the profitability of the line. After the war, in an attempt to control coal costs, the company expanded to Indiana to gain direct access to coalfields near Terre Haute. The great debt taken on by the company prior to the war to have independent access to the pacific northwest, then the cost of gaining access to cheaper coal did not pay off, especially when the federal government began controlling freight rates in the 1920s. The opening of the Panama Canal offered even more competition to the west coast from water route carriers, further eroding railroad profits (29).


In 1925, the company entered the first of three bankruptcies of the twentieth century. The first

bankruptcy resulted in a reorganization and a new name, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad Company, made official in 1928. It was at this time that the moniker “The

Milwaukee Road” became the popular and preferred company name. The name came from the common use of the first name of a railroad company to refer to a particular line. Prior to 1928, the railroad’s common name, whether under the auspices of the Milwaukee and Mississippi or the Milwaukee and St. Paul always began with “Milwaukee,” i.e., the Milwaukee line or Milwaukee railroad. The reorganized company, with its longer name, took advantage of this common usage by making “The Milwaukee Road” its advertising and corporate identity. This identity would remain until the demise of the line in 1985 (30).


The bankruptcy and reorganization of the Milwaukee Road gave it little financial flexibility, then came the Great Depression of the 1930s. Added to the poor economy was the multi-year drought conditions in the wheat-growing areas of Minnesota, the Dakotas and Montana, lowering agricultural revenue for the line. Passenger revenue declined by half, but the company still had to maintain most of its passenger schedules. In the meantime, automobiles and trucks were taking away from what little business was available. The result was a second bankruptcy in 1935, and a reorganization process that would drag on for 10 years (31).


Part of the reason for the 10-year bankruptcy trauma was World War II, when the Milwaukee

Road played a vital role in moving men and war materiel across country. Unlike the first world

war, the company was not taken over by the government, but compensated, and with the increase on wear and tear of equipment, the compensation did not spell increased profitability for the company. After the war there were more challenges with an ever-increasing decline in revenue, shortages of materials for maintenance, and higher costs. While much freight still traveled along the railways, passenger numbers continued to decline as automobiles for short trips and airplane travel for longer trips almost entirely eliminated the demand for passenger rail service (32).


Ironically, the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s is, perhaps, known as the heyday of elegant long distance transportation despite the economic and other problems of this era. This is because

railroads tried to lure passengers with new train innovations and style. Streamliner locomotives and clean, modern, passenger trains with amenities were introduced and traveling by long distance train was seen as glamorous.


This era is associated with the Milwaukee Road by two important names, Olympian and

Hiawatha. The Olympian was the named train that provided the service between Chicago and

Seattle. Beginning in 1911, the Olympian trains were beautifully painted yellow-orange with

maroon trim and had electric-lighted interiors finished with carved hardwood trim. There was an observation car with library, smoking room, buffet, barber shop, and bath along with drawing room, compartment, sleeping, and dining cars. Refurbished in 1947 and renamed the Olympian Hiawatha, the cars were now being pulled by distinctive Hiawatha locomotives, which had been introduced around 1935 as modern distinctively streamlined engines (33).


Designed during the Art Deco period in American design, the Hiawatha locomotives became

almost a trademark for the Milwaukee Road. Advertised as “America’s first integral streamlined steam locomotive,” the distinctive steel trim and rounded nose of this engine suggested speed and efficiency and, above-all, modern luxury travel. The Hiawatha locomotives were used first on the Milwaukee Road’s Chicago-Minneapolis route and it cut the time from 11 hours to 7. Between 1941 and 1946, Hiawatha engines were converted or constructed as diesel fueled locomotives, and the brand name, Hiawatha, was given to other routes, like the Olympian. Although passenger service after World War II kept declining, the glamour of long-distance travel on streamlined trains remained popular into the 1950s and early 1960s, and it is this era that many railroad travel buffs look at with the most nostalgia (34).


But, even as long-distance train travel was still popular with many travelers, short-line passenger service was dying fast as personal automobile travel became the preferred way to make trips to nearby towns. In Whitewater, one of the first stops on the first railroad in Wisconsin, passenger service ended in 1951. In 1956, the Federal Highway Act established the Interstate Highway system, further assisting the quick movement of trucks in carrying freight and depriving the railroads of revenue. The airline industry was taking off and by the late 1960s, most long distance travelers took to the skys and not the rails for long trips. Maybe the last straw was when the airlines took over the U.S. Mail service (35).


In the mid-1950s, the Milwaukee Road looked into a merger with the Chicago & North Western Railroad, but it was dropped, revisited, then failed to get federal approval. By the late 1960s, the Milwaukee Road was still profitable, but just barely and any crisis could send the company under. That happened in 1969 when a national recession and severe weather came together to eliminate any profitability of the line. A continued downward spiral between 1970 and 1985 saw the demise of the company entirely. The beginning was the end of long-distance passenger train service in 1971, when Amtrak, operated by the federal government took over this service in the United States. The Milwaukee Road joined Amtrak to run trains to and from the Pacific Northwest, then joined the Regional Transportation Authority in northeastern Illinois to handle commuter trains into Chicago. But, in 1982, this cooperation ended and the Milwaukee Road was pretty much out of the passenger business (36).


Gradually, over the 1970s, the Milwaukee Road began to contract its operations in the west and northwest part of the U.S. In the late 1970s, the company began a revitalization plan that would concentrate on operating a “core” system, rehabilitating facilities, and securing new business. One of the problems was that there was so much needed maintenance and upgrading and the financial condition of the company was such that it could never keep up with needed improvements with the revenue it could generate (37).


But, the improvements the company did make to the railroad’s physical facilities made it an

attractive property for another railroad to acquire and in a turn of events, the Chicago and North Western stated an interest in buying the company. This merger would, though, have duplicate trackage so the Soo Line, with a majority stock owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway, offered a bid in 1984. With this merger, the trackage of the Milwaukee Road and the Soo Line would be end-to-end and not duplicate, so the Soo Line offer prevailed and in February of 1985, the Soo Line became the owner of the Milwaukee Road. At that inauspicious point, the corporate entity of the Milwaukee Road died, as, ironically, did the Soo Line, which in 2005 was now under the corporate logo of the Canadian Pacific Railway (38).


In Whitewater, the legacy of the Milwaukee Road was long gone by 1985. In the 1960s, the

Whitewater Passenger Depot was being used as a feed store. After much lobbying, the city of

Whitewater acquired the Whitewater depot in 1973, then leased it to the Whitewater Historical

Society for a museum that opened in July of 1974. The old freight house remained until 1990,

when it was demolished for improved parking facilities.


During the late twentieth century, railroad activities through Whitewater slowed as many of

Wisconsin’s trackage was being used by new, short-line freight-hauling companies. The route

by the depot was used by a new short-line company, the Wisconsin Central, for a time and

currently the route is being used by the short-line company, the Wisconsin Southern. Freight

traffic has picked up during the last 20 years as gasoline prices have made railroad transportation more competitive with trucking, but it is doubtful that the rail lines will ever be as productive as they were prior to 1950.


Whitewater Passenger Depot



The first Whitewater Passenger Depot building was a large frame building constructed in 1852

when the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad first came to town. It served as both a passenger and freight depot. By 1890, this depot was old and business people in Whitewater, like those in most other communities with old depots, were highly interested in new facilities. They felt that as the railroad was the most important transportation system and the depot was the entrance into the community, a good depot was necessary to foster a good impression on business people and other visitors coming to Whitewater.


So, in January of 1890, the Whitewater Business Mens’ Association reported that E. M. Johnson and J. S. Partridge had visited the Milwaukee offices of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad on behalf of the Committees of Transportation and Public Improvements. They spoke to an executive of the company and suggested that a new depot was needed in Whitewater. Perhaps the report was a bit exaggerated, but supposedly the railroad executive immediately called in his Chief Engineer and others and gave the order to make plans for a new depot at once. He indicated that the work could begin as early as the spring of 1890 (39).



The depot was not started in the spring, but progress was made. In May of 1890 the newspaper editor reported that the railroad’s architect, J. T. W. Jennings, was in town looking over the new depot site. The editor stated that Jennings showed him the plans for a 60 x 22 foot building of stone and red brick with a large overhang. He noted a gabled tower that projected from each side of the building and that there would be seven large windows on each side. The interior would include a 20x40 foot waiting room, a 14 x 14 foot gentlemen’s smoking room, an 8 x 14 foot office, a ladies toilet and two closets. There would also be space in the attic for railroad use. The interior was to be finished in hardwood and heated by a furnace (40).


In June the depot had not yet been started and the newspaper reported that it was expected to be built the next month and finally by the end of July, the newspaper reported that five carloads of brick and other building materials were on site. Still, there was no substantial work on the depot until the fall of 1890 when it was reported that excavating for the building was finally being addressed. And, in early October, the newspaper reported that the Depot was being built rapidly, with a frame already up and masons at work. By the end of the month interior work was being done, but had been going slowly due to the lack of materials arriving quickly enough (41).


Working through the winter of 1890-91, the depot was completed and it was reported that the

telegraph and ticket office finally moved into the building in April of 1891. Just what caused

more delays is unclear, but perhaps it was a continuation of lack of availability of materials

and/or a work force (42.


The depot served railroad passengers until 1951, when passenger service ended. Then the depot went through a period of change. In the 1960s, it was rented to the Walenton family for a feed store. After the Whitewater City Hall was demolished in the late 1960s, a movement began to preserve the depot for public use, in particular, use for the Whitewater Historical Society. The railroad company would not give the depot to the city or sell the building to the city for a nominal fee as is often the case today. Rather, the city had to come up with funds to purchase it at a fair market value. After much lobbying, the city did purchase the building and entered into a lease agreement with the Whitewater Historical Society to use the building as a museum. In July of 1974, the depot museum opened. The WHS and the city have an agreement whereby the city owns the building, but the WHS curates it and the museum and both parties are responsible for various maintenance costs.


Why is the depot important?

The Whitewater Passenger Depot is historically significant at the local level because it was and still is the most important symbol of rail transportation in the city. Rail transportation was the most significant form of transportation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and depots were the center of this activity. The old freight house was demolished in the 1990s, leaving the passenger depot the only link to this important activity in the community. Because of its importance in representing rail transportation, the most important historic form of transportation in the city, the Whitewater Passenger Depot is eligible for the National Register.




The Whitewater Passenger Depot is architecturally significant because it is a fine and unusual

example of a small town railroad depot with High Victorian Gothic style details and because it was the work of a master architect, J. T. W. Jennings. According to Wisconsin’s Cultural Resources Management Plan, the High Victorian Gothic style exhibits heavier detailing and massing than the earlier Gothic Revival style. High Victorian Gothic style elements include pointed arched openings, foliated and geometric patterns decorating wall surfaces, and polychromatic effects using materials of differing colors and textures. Examples of the style are relatively rare in Wisconsin and largely seen in public or institutional buildings (43).


The Whitewater Passenger Depot has a typical small depot plan; that is, it has a rectangular form with large hip roof and wide overhanging eaves. But, its stylistic details make it stand out from other small depots. First, it has the polychromatic appearance typical of the High Victorian Gothic style. The smooth, vermillion colored bricks are heavily accented by the rusticated grey limestone that forms the foundation, the trim around the openings, and the decoration in the two Gothic-inspired gables. These details provide the materials of differing colors and textures that is distinctive of the style. The gables, with their pilasters that suggest pinnacles and panels that have the small squares and trefoil decoration, also strongly suggest a Gothic motif.


The integrity of the building is extremely high, with almost all of its historic details intact. The

exterior is almost totally intact and only a few details of the interior have been changed. The hardware on doors, trim around openings, wood floors, and the extensive original wood paneling are all extant.


In a comparison with small town depots in the area, it is clear that this depot stands out for its style characteristics. That is probably because it was the work of master architect J. T. W. Jennings. During Jennings’ early career, he worked for the Milwaukee Road, but only for a few years. In 1899, Jennings would become the Supervising Architect for the University of Wisconsin, where he designed several of that campus’ important buildings. In 1905 he began working as a successful architect inprivate practice in Madison before leaving the state to continue his career elsewhere. It was Jennings’ brief tenure with the railroad and his obvious talent that resulted in Whitewater’s unusual and decorative depot design.


*If using this article, please cite: Carol Lohry Cartwright, “A History of Whitewater and the

Railroad,” 2012, Whitewater Historical Society website, Whitewater, WI.




Sources

(1) Axel S. Lorenzsonn, Steam and Cinders The Advent of Railroads in Wisconsin 1831-1861 (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2009), 4.

(2) Ibid., 5.

(3) Ibid., 18-28.

(4) Ibid., 32-49.

(5) Ibid., 51-55.

(6) Ibid., 56-59.

(7) Ibid., 64-70.

(8) Ibid., 70-71.

(9) Ibid., 73-80.

(10) Ibid., 81-89.

(11) Ibid., 90-101.

(12) Ibid., 102-109.

(13) Ibid., 110-127.

(14) Ibid., 127-133.

(15) Prosper Cravath and Spencer Steele, Early Annals of Whitewater (Whitewater: Whitewater Federation of Women’s Clubs, 1906), 84-85.

(16) Ibid., 86, 93.

(17) Lorenzsonn, 133-136.

(18) Ibid., 137-143.

(19) Ibid., 170-177.

(20) Ibid., 179-189.

(21) Ibid., 221.

(22) Ibid., 236-247.

(23) Ibid., 282-287.

(24) Ibid., 287-295.

(25) Tom Murray, The Milwaukee Road (St. Paul: MBI Publishing Company, 2005), 20-22.

(26) Ibid., 22.

(27) Ibid., 22-25.

(28) Ibid., 27-45.

(29) Ibid., 47-50.

(30) Ibid., 24, 50-53.

(31) Ibid., 53-56.

(32) Ibid., 59-65.

(33) Ibid., 82-86.

(34) Ibid., 86-92.

(35) Ibid., 104-105.

(36) Ibid., 118-127.

(37) Ibid., 128-143.

(38) Ibid., 144-148.

(39) “Proceedings,” Whitewater Register, January 9, 1890.

(40) Whitewater Register, May 29, 1890.

(41) Whitewater Register, June 26, 1890; July 24, 1890, September 11, 1890; October 2, 1890;October 30, 1890.

(42) Whitewater Register, April 23, 1891.

(43) Barbara Wyatt, Cultural Resource Management in Wisconsin (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1986) Architecture, 2-10.

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