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The Whitewater Depot

The information in this account of the depot is taken from: Cartwright, Carol L. National Register of Historic Places nomination form for the Whitewater Passenger Depot. On file in the Wisconsin Historical Society, Division of Historic Buildings and Local History, Madison, Wisconsin.

Whitewater Passenger Depot, c.2013 Image courtesy of Carol Lohry Cartwright


The Whitewater Passenger Depot is a fine example of a small town railroad depot built in 1890-91 with details from the High Victorian Gothic style and the Richardsonian Romanesque style. It was the work of a master architect, J. T. W. Jennings, who, at that time, was working for the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad and who would have a career as the University of Wisconsin architect and as a private architect in Madison. 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 (1). In its use of heavy rusticated limestone in its foundation and tabbed widow surrounds, the building also recalls the small train stations designed by H.H. Richardson in the 1880s. Richardson’s work would later be copied by others and the Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style was popular in the late nineteenth century.

The Whitewater Passenger Depot has a typical small depot form; that is, it has a rectangular footprint with a 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 and details in the two Gothic-inspired gables that are typical of the High Victorian Gothic style. These details provide the materials of differing colors and textures that are 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 smooth, vermillion red bricks are heavily accented with the rusticated grey limestone that forms the foundation and the trim around the openings. This stonework treatment is seen in examples of the Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style.

While the exterior of the depot is highly decorative, the interior of the building is also distinctive. The use of the wide wainscoting or “box car” paneling is unusual, especially since it is also used for the ceiling throughout the building. The fireplace is also a notable feature. This classically-appointed detail contrasts somewhat with the simplicity of the wall and ceiling materials, but gives the depot’s waiting room the ambience of a Victorian-era parlor. Most visitors to the depot question whether the fireplace was original to the building, but it appears in the plans executed by Jennings.

In a comparison with small town depots in the area, it is clear that this depot stands out for its stylistic characteristics. That is probably because it was the work of master architect J. T. W. Jennings (1856-1944). During Jennings’ early career, he worked for the Milwaukee Road, from 1883 to 1893. In 1899, Jennings became 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 in private 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.

A review of the original plans provided by the Milwaukee Road Historical Society reveal that Jennings’ design, with large hip roof, supporting brackets and masonry dormers, and its unusual interior features was implemented closely to his original intent. Jennings hand written notes appear on the drawings indicating that he personally authorized design changes.

One of the most important details of this building is its integrity. Almost all of the building’s historic details are intact. All of the historic features of the building’s exterior are extant with the exception of the metal roof cresting and the addition of the aluminum storm windows (the cresting was replicated and restored in the 2012 renovation of the building and the aluminum storm windows were removed). The interior, despite decades of use as a museum, has also had few changes. Only the wall between the ticket office and the smoking room was removed along with some of the trim of the original ticket window. (The wall was restored in the 2012 renovation, along with original details of the ticket window.) The rest of the depot’s original plan is intact. The historic materials of the interior are also almost all intact, including the hardware on doors, trim around openings, wood floors, and the extensive original wood paneling.

The 2012 renovation of the building altered only one area, the back wall of the waiting room with a storage closet and bathroom. The closet was extended to create a required handicapped-accessible bathroom for the museum and the old bathroom area was altered into an interior staircase to the renovated basement. Prior to this change, the only access to the basement was from the outside and was not compatible with museum uses. The remaining renovation was done in a way that restored the original historic features of the building, while updating the physical plant. The renovation left the building with almost as much integrity as it found.

History and Significance of the Depot

The Whitewater Passenger Depot fits into the history of rail transportation in Wisconsin during its peak importance in the state. According to Wisconsin’s Cultural Resource Management Plan, rail construction in the state began in the 1850s with several small companies laying track. By 1865, most of these small lines were consolidated under three large railroad companies and by 1868, there were over 1,000 miles of track in the state, almost all in southern Wisconsin. Consolidation of rail lines continued in the later nineteenth century and by 1900, the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul (Milwaukee Road), the Chicago & NorthWestern, and the Minneapolis, St. Paul, & Sault Ste. Marie (Soo Line) railroads dominated the state. These large lines built extensively as railroad transportation reached its peak. By 1900, there were 6,500 railroad miles constructed in Wisconsin. Construction peaked in 1916 and railroad transportation began a decline after World War I. After World War II, highways took over as the most important American transportation system and railroad companies shrank their operations considerably, along with a reduction in the miles of track (2).

History of the Railroad in Whitewater

Whitewater’s railroad link was the result of the earliest rail line construction in the state. 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 (3).

No rail lines were given charters until the late 1840s due to economic problems and political infighting between rail line promoters and companies building stage lines and plank roads. In 1847, Kilbourn and his supporters finally received a charter for a rail line from Milwaukee to Waukesha. 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. However, money was still tight and it would be a struggle to raise the capital needed to actually build track (4).

Kilbourn’s railroad was initially incorporated as the Milwaukee, Waukesha, and Mississippi

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

Its initial funding came almost entirely from the City of Milwaukee, which saw the link between

Milwaukee and the Mississippi River as a boon to its economic success. The construction of the rail line was divided into five sections: Milwaukee to Waukesha, Waukesha to the Rock River, the Rock River to Madison, Madison to Mineral Point, and Mineral Point to the Mississippi River in Grant County. The company estimated that they could complete the first section by June of 1850 (5).

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 since other roads given charters were unable to obtain enough funding to begin planning. It was probably due to the political shrewdness of Byron Kilbourn and his Milwaukee connections that his line was the first to get to this stage. And, the challenges of building this line at this time cannot be emphasized enough. The route

encountered much swampland and the line literally had to be “carved” out of the wilderness that was Wisconsin. 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 (6)

On September 25, 1850, the Milwaukee and Mississippi’s 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. Five miles of track (Milwaukee to Wauwatosa) were completed by November of 1850 and when the track was completed 10 miles to Elm Grove by December 17, 1850, the charter allowed for operations to begin and for the rail line to actually begin charging for freight and fares. The line was built 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 (7)

Wisconsin’s first railroad reached Waukesha in February of 1851 and, 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 principals 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 (8)

The new president of the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad, John Catlin, 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, and then the line reached Whitewater in September of 1852. A great celebration was held in Whitewater with about 300 people coming from Milwaukee to join a crowd that the Milwaukee Sentinel estimated was between two and three thousand people (9)

Why the line came to Whitewater is a valid question as it was certainly not on a direct route west. 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 to the “slow, plodding . . . miserable. . . almost impassable roads” between Whitewater and Milwaukee (10).

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 (11)

Freight records show the importance of the railroad for the Whitewater economy. Out of Milwaukee, the freight trains carried retail goods, lumber, wood products, coal, stoves, brick, nd 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 Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad continued to move west, then north to Madison. The line was built out of Whitewater to Milton, and then the company was paid to build a spur line to Janesville. The line then moved north, reaching Stoughton in January of 1854, and by May of 1854, the tracks came to Madison. 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 shortlived.

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 (12).

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 no longer 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 railroad tracks were here to stay (13).

The Development of the Milwaukee Road and the Whitewater Passenger Depot

The financial crisis of the late 1850s sped 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 NorthWestern 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 (14).

In late 1860, the Milwaukee and Mississippi was bankrupt and its assets were sold in January of 1861 to the newly-formed Milwaukee and Prairie du Chien Railway Company. Then, under the leadership of Alexander Mitchell of Milwaukee, in 1863, the Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway Company was organized and began buying up smaller railroads, including, in 1867, the Milwaukee and Prairie du Chien. By 1869, the Milwaukee and 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 NorthWestern for rail dominance in the state (15).

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 and 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 and 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 (16).

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 becoming a national railroad (17).

In 1890, when Whitewater began construction of its new passenger depot, the CM&SP was

carrying 9.2 million tons of freight and 7.5 million passengers per year. Eventually, the CM&SP

would build its own line to the Pacific Northwest. In May of 1911, the company began offering

passenger service between Chicago and Seattle and, by 1913, the CM&SP had almost 10,000

miles of track (18)

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

first one did not destroy the company, rather it 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 toa particular line. Prior to 1928, the railroad’s common name, whether it was the old 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 1985.19

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 were 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 another reorganization (20).

After World War II, short-line passenger service died quickly 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. Gradually, in the later

twentieth century, the Milwaukee Road began to phase out some of its operations in the west and northwest part of the U.S (21).In the 1980s, the Milwaukee Road was on the market and in 1984, the Soo Line, with a majority of stock owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway, offered a bid that was accepted. At that point, the corporate entity of the Milwaukee Road died, as, ironically, did the Soo Line, which by 2005 was under the corporate logo of the Canadian Pacific Railway (22).

In Whitewater, the legacy of the Milwaukee Road was long gone by 1985. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Whitewater Passenger Depot was mostly being used as a feed store, although telegraph service continued during this time from the old ticket office. Then, after much lobbying, the city of Whitewater acquired the Whitewater depot in 1973 in order to lease it to the Whitewater Historical Society for a museum that opened in July of 1974. The old freight house remained until the 1990s, when it was demolished for improved parking facilities.

As can be seen in the above discussion, the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad and the resulting Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad (The Milwaukee Road) were significant transportation providers in Wisconsin during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The stop at Whitewater, beginning in 1852, saw almost the entire growth and development of the historic first rail line in the state and the development of one of the most important, if not the most important, rail line in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Road. The Whitewater Passenger Depot was built at what might arguably be considered the height of rail transportation in the state. It was a showplace for both the Milwaukee Road and the local community.

Therefore, 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.

*If using this article, please cite: Carol Lohry Cartwright, “The Whitewater Depot,” 2011, Whitewater Historical Society website, Whitewater, WI.


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

(2) Barbara Wyatt, ed., Cultural Resource Management in Wisconsin (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1986), Transportation, 6-1—6-2.

(3) Axel S. Lorenzsonn, Steam and Cinders The Advent of Railroads in Wisconsin 1831-1861 (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2009), 32-49.

(4) Ibid., 56-59.

(5) Ibid., 70-71.

(6) Ibid., 81-89.

(7) Ibid., 102-109.

(8) Ibid., 110-127.

(9) Ibid., 127-133.

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

(11) Ibid., 86, 93.

(12) Lorenzsonn, 179-189.

(13) Ibid., 236-247.

(14) Ibid., 282-287.

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

(16) Ibid., 22.

(17) Ibid., 22-25.

(18) Ibid., 27-45.

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

(20) Ibid., 53-56.

(21) Ibid., 128-143.

(22) Ibid., 144-148.

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