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Development of the Railroads

Though the actual construction and operation of railroads did not take place until after Wisconsin became a state, railroads were one of the most widely discussed subjects among territorial officials and businessmen. Seeking to connect the lead mines of the southwest with ships on Lake Michigan, the legislative council of Michigan petitioned Congress to make an appropriation to survey a proposed line from the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan. Settlements along the Mississippi River competed to be named the western terminus, while Milwaukee fought back competitors from Sheboygan, Green Bay, Racine, Southport, and even Chicago.

In the fall of 1836, a public meeting was held in Milwaukee to petition the territorial legislature to incorporate a company to construct the proposed lead-mine route. Yet these early railroad projects were premature, as Wisconsin's population was small and railroads were only just beginning to be constructed in the east. As agriculture, especially wheat, began to replace lead mining in the 1840s as a major industry, the need for transportation routes and facilities to handle the large quantity of products needed in eastern markets increased.

Most of those concerned with the issue saw railroads as the only solution. Railroads had proven themselves in the East, and in the early 1840s there was already talk of uniting the Atlantic and Pacific with a continental railroad. A line across the Wisconsin Territory would provide a means of moving produce, consumer goods, and people that was independent of uncertain water and road transportation. Many businessmen and officials saw railroads as a way to unite the Wisconsin Territory by drawing the various regions together for a common interest. They also saw railroads as a way to encourage further settlement.

The opening of the Chicago-Galena line stirred the Wisconsin legislature into action. In 1847, the legislature authorized a line from Milwaukee to Waukesha that was later extended to the Mississippi. The first train ran from Milwaukee to Waukesha on February 25, 1851. By April of that year, one passenger and one freight train ran each day. Taking matters into their own hands, town officials in Prairie du Chien asked the legislature to charter a line from Madison. In 1857, the first east-west railroad from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi was complete. Soon after, a line from Milwaukee to La Crosse opened, and other lines were extended north from Chicago.

Though Wisconsin did not become an important link in the Atlantic-Pacific rail system, railroads provided farmers with better prices and expanded marketing opportunities by offering a more reliable way to get products to eastern markets. Railroads also gave immigrants and settlers from the eastern United States another way to populate the Wisconsin countryside with farms and villages.

[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vol. 2 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); "Railroad History of Central Wisconsin" Portage County Historical Society (online at http://www.pchswi.org/RRWEB/)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: A man recollects the development of the La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad  A man recollects the development of the La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad
Link to book: Descriptions of Wisconsin disasters and catastrophes, 1848-1948  Descriptions of Wisconsin disasters and catastrophes, 1848-1948
Link to book: A guide to the origins and evolution of Wisconsin's railroads.  A guide to the origins and evolution of Wisconsin's railroads.
Link to book: Folklore and folktales collected by Charles E. Brown  Folklore and folktales collected by Charles E. Brown
Link to book: A travel guide to healthful resorts in the upper Midwest, 1875  A travel guide to healthful resorts in the upper Midwest, 1875
Link to images: An Austrian painter depicts Wisconsin in the 1850s  An Austrian painter depicts Wisconsin in the 1850s
Link to images: 500 historic pictures of trains and railroads  500 historic pictures of trains and railroads
Link to manuscript: A German immigrant describes coming to Wisconsin.  A German immigrant describes coming to Wisconsin.
Link to manuscript: An Austrian painter describes sketches made while traveling Wisconsin, 1856-1860  An Austrian painter describes sketches made while traveling Wisconsin, 1856-1860
Link to manuscript: The 1857 diary of railroad surveyor Andrew M. Davis.  The 1857 diary of railroad surveyor Andrew M. Davis.
Link to manuscript: Milwaukee residents urge citizens to support railroads in 1857  Milwaukee residents urge citizens to support railroads in 1857
Link to map: The first railroad lines are advertised on a map.  The first railroad lines are advertised on a map.
Link to places: Four-star accommodations in 19th century Sheboygan County  Four-star accommodations in 19th century Sheboygan County
Link to places: The Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Depot in La Crosse  The Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Depot in La Crosse
Link to places: Old Spring Tavern  Old Spring Tavern
Link to places: Plough Inn in Madison  Plough Inn in Madison

Primary Sources Available Elsewhere

Link to article: Andrew M. Davis' 1857 diary as edited for publication.  Andrew M. Davis' 1857 diary as edited for publication.
Link to book: An 1872 report on a new bridge across the Mississippi  An 1872 report on a new bridge across the Mississippi
Link to book: Wisconsin Blue Books  Wisconsin Blue Books
Link to images: Historic postcards of Milwaukee  Historic postcards of Milwaukee
Link to images: A Wisconsin railroad advertises its advantages, 1857  A Wisconsin railroad advertises its advantages, 1857
Link to map: The Milwaukee and Superior Railroad lines in 1857  The Milwaukee and Superior Railroad lines in 1857

Related Links

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Search our catalogs for materials on this topic that aren't yet available online.
Borrow books about this topic through our interlibrary loan service
Borrow manuscripts about this topic through our Area Research Center network.
Learn about other topics from our new book, Wisconsin History Highlights
Read about the history of transportation in the La Crosse River Valley

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