M. E. Perret
Spring 1966

Under the changing pattern of railroad passenger service we are going to examine two different aspects. The relation between railroad and population, and the role of the railroad as a carrier of passengers. Both aspects are illustrated by the same maps. We have limited our comparisons to four periods at about 30-year intervals: 1871, 1900, 1930, 1965.

Railroad building being done by private corporations has as its aim not only service to the parties interested, but also profit for the stockholders. Therefore, lines are only established when it seems that there will be some profit.

The revenue (from freight, passengers and mail) will be proportional to the population and to the importance of the localities. Therefore, the railroad companies are first trying to connect large cities, then to connect large cities with smaller cities, smaller cities between themselves, and finally smaller localities with cities.

For the first map we have taken the year 1871 when the first general railroad guide was published. In Wisconsin the first line had been opened in 1850. During this 21-year interval, many railroad companies had been constituted with the purpose to build lines. Not all of them remained in existence, but most were successful and the map shows the result of their efforts.

In 1850 the population of Wisconsin was only 305,391: Milwaukee was the only city of importance and as it was situated on the lake it had water transportation to Chicago and to other places on the Great Lakes. For this reason railroads developed towards the interior of the state. But, Chicago becoming the nodal point of a large area, Milwaukee rapidly came to be an intermediate stop on lines having their starting points in Chicago.

Between 1850 and 1870 the competition was not yet keen between railroad companies in Wisconsin; there was much space and lines were built mainly to connect the cities between themselves and with Milwaukee. In 1871 the lines were in close relation with the population; they formed a dense network between Portage, Madison, Milwaukee, and the Illinois State Line. Some extensions connected the network with the other cities of the state: Fond du Lac (the second largest city in the state), Fort Howard (which with Green Bay on the other side of the river makes an important city), Oshkosh, Sheboygan, Eau Claire, and La Crosse. The network served 15 of the 16 existing cities in the state. The exception was Manitowoc which, being a port on Lake Michigan, was not isolated. Most other cities and towns of more than 1,000 inhabitants had a railroad station: of the 42 agglomerations with more than 1,000 inhabitants, 29 had a depot of their own, and among the others, Two Rivers, Oconto, Hudson, Prescott, and New London had water transportation, whereas, West Bend, Fox Lake, Baraboo, Dodgeville, Galesville and Chippewa Falls were less than 15 miles from a railroad station. The only ones far from a railroad depot or from navigable waters were the localities in the center of the state: Stevens Point, Wisconsin Rapids (then called Grand Rapids) and Wausau roads were planned to reach most of these places. The rest of the state was sparsely populated, so no railroad had been built there yet.

Between 1870 and 1900 the population of Wisconsin doubled 1,054,670 to 2,069,042 inhabitants. It was also the greatest period of railroad building. Most of the lines were still built to connect centers of population, but at the same time railroad lines attracted new settlers and many of the stations became, in their turn, centers of population. One factor that changed the pattern of the railroad construction was the opening of the iron mines in northern Wisconsin and on the Michigan peninsula. Between 1870 and 1900, the first railroads were still built to establish connections that were lacking, but this was not enough for the railroad speculators who wanted to build more lines. Empty spaces were found only in regions that had a sparse population and therefore, were not suitable for speculation. Thus, the large companies became competitors and each tried to get for itself as much traffic as it could, building new lines parallel to existing lines operated by rivals.

In 1900 four railroads through Wisconsin -- two of them by way of Milwaukee -- connected Chicago and the Twin Cities. There were then three lines connecting Milwaukee and Madison, Milwaukee and Fond du Lac, Milwaukee and Green Bay; Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls, and in the north, several lines connected Superior with Ashland and mining districts of Michigan. But, first of all, the railroads had tried to reach all cities of any importance and therefore hardly any incorporated city or village did not have its own railroad depot. Among the 115 incorporated cities, only one, Mayville, (1815 inhabitants) in Dodge County, had no railroad depot but the city lies between the stations of Theresa and Lomira which were both at a distant of six miles. Among the 145 incorporated villages most had their own railroad station. A dozen were less than five miles from another station. The only ones at a greater distance were: Hillsboro in Vernon County (785 inhabitants), five miles from a station; Highland in Iowa County at seven miles; Ontario in Monroe and Vernon Counties at ten miles. Among these Hillsboro was soon to have its own railroad. the Hillsboro and Northeastern Railway Company, which would make connection with Union Center on a major line.

On the population map it is possible to trace the more important railroad lines in the central and northern parts of the state as the settlements had developed along these lines, the main ones being the line from Marshfield to Ashland with a branch from Mellen to Hurley; the lines from Chippewa Falls to Abbotsfort; from St. Paul to New Richmond, Turtle Lake, Ladysmith, and Prentice; and the line from Green Bay to Iron Mountain, Michigan.

After 1900 few railroad lines were added, most of them between 1900 and 1910. The Soo Line built a line from Marshfield to Superior. Two new lines were built to connect Chicago and Milwaukee, and one more to connect Chicago and Madison. A few more were added to connect existing lines or to serve communities showing some development. But, the automobile made its appearance and rapidly proved to be a means of transportation more practical for passengers, simultaneously, trucks became freight carriers. From 1870 to 1900 the increase of population in Wisconsin had been higher than 20 per cent for each decade. From 1900 on the increase was not as great (12.8% between 1900 and 1910 and between 1910 and 1920; 11.7% between 1920 and 1930.) The increase was mostly in the cities, especially in the cities of the southeastern part of the state (Milwaukee 578,249 Racine 67,544, Kenosha 50,262, Madison 57,849). The map of the population in 1930 shows the increase all over the state. The railroad lines built before 1900 in the north still mark lines of settlements, but lines built after 1900 have failed to attract many settlers and to create new localities of importance. In 1930 the railroad network was somewhat larger than in 1900. Although the passenger and freight services had decreased few lines had been abandoned due to the lengthy procedure for discontinuing services.

Between 1930 ant 1960 the population continued to increase, especially after the end of World War II. Again the cities benefited most. Industry had been introduced in a number of localities with a resulting boost in population; most rural areas showed a decrease. The major highways had been built parallel to railroads, therefore, some lines of settlements can still be traced. But, the railroads no longer had any influence on the increase. In fact, since 1930 the railroad companies still operating in Wisconsin, only five have kept passenger services and even these companies have reduced the number of passenger trains and the number of stations and offer passenger services on fewer lines. Of the five, two operate only between Superior and Minnesota. Of the others, two provide service between Chicago and the Twin Cities, only one through Milwaukee. These two companies still have several trains which show an appreciable number of passengers. Three lines are still operating between Milwaukee and Green Bay; the first one through Fond du Lac, Oshkosh and Appleton; the second through Sheboygan and Manitowoc (both are lines of the Chicago and North Western Railway Company). The third one, a line of the Milwaukee Road, crosses a less populated area and is used by trains mainly serving Michigan. Two other lines, both of the Chicago and North Western, extend north of Green Bay; one to Ashland, the other to Marinette and Michigan. Not serving large cities, they do not have many passengers and their service may also be discontinued in the near future. The same is true for the line extending from New Lisbon to Wausau, a line of the Milwaukee Road. At the beginning of 1965 there were still several lines in the southwest with passenger services. At present only one line from Chicago to Madison and one line from Chicago to Lake Geneva and Williams Bay, the end of a suburban line, remain.

Today the passenger service shows little relation with the population. Cities of more than 50,000 inhabitants have passenger trains. Connections are good between Chicago and Milwaukee; between Chicago and the Twin Cities; and between Milwaukee and the Twin Cities. But, there is no longer a direct connection between Madison and Milwaukee or between the capitol and other cities in the state except Janesville. The only remaining line with passenger service in Madison has two trains and connects Madison with Chicago. Not counting the cities in the Milwaukee metropolitan area, we can see that among the cities with more than 30,000 inhabitants, Beloit and Eau Claire no longer have any passenger service. Of the 13 cities between 10,000 and 20,000 five no longer have railroad passenger services. Of the 78 cities with population ranging from 2,500 to 10,000 only 21 still have railroad passenger service. But, for most of them, it is only one train a day. Several other cities are on railroad lines but passenger trains no longer stop there. In Wisconsin passenger trains stop at only 60 localities with less than 2,500 inhabitants; some of them are junction points. At most of the others, only one train a day stops in each direction, and in 20 of them it is only a flag stop.

Although passenger services have fallen very low and will probably continue to fall, it seems that they will not disappear completely in the near future, but they may be limited to connections between very large cities; Chicago, Milwaukee, and the Twin Cities. The Milwaukee Road and the Burlington Route seem to show that they are willing to keep the passenger service between Chicago and Minneapolis. Both have modern equipment and in September 1965, the Milwaukee Road opened in Milwaukee a new depot well adapted to the present conditions.


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