Railroads had a major influence on the development of America. From their beginnings in the 1820s and 1830s to their importance in the Civil War and populating the “West”, railroads provided nearly all the medium to long distance land transport of passengers and cargo in the late 1800s. In rural towns like Fitchburg trains provided a vital means of transporting produce especially perishable milk. Horse drawn carriages and dirt roads just could not compete with trains. The first half of the 20th century was known as the golden age of railroads but by the end of World War II there began a steady decline in both passengers and cargo that was accelerated by the growth of personal automobiles, the creation of a national interstate, and the advent of commercial air travel. Railroads countered with diesel engines that needed less maintenance and flat cars that could transport truck trailers efficiently over long distances.
Today there has become a balance between modes of transportation in America. Passenger commuter lines within and servicing large metropolitan centers where parking is at a premium remains popular and the transport of high volume cargo such as coal remains economical. However, unlike Europe and Japan, Americans that live in rural towns to midsized cities rely heavily on automobiles, trucks and local bus service. The history of railroads in Fitchburg, being a rural as well as suburban community reflects the history of railroads in America.
ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD
Freeport, Illinois to Madison, Wisconsin
The Illinois Central Railroad built a line from Freeport, Illinois north to Madison, Wisconsin in 1888, and a two-story depot along what is now Wendt Road opened in February of that year to serve the early Fitchburg community. The depot building consisted of a lower level containing a ticket office, waiting room and freight room, with the upper level used as living quarters for the agent and family. A milk-loading platform was also nearby. In 1922, the Fitchburg depot was a busy place, with four passenger trains stopping there, plus four freight trains passing through each day.
By 1939, service had declined to just two trains daily, and the depot was removed. Freight service along the line continued into the 1990’s, operated by “short line” railroads during the final years. The tracks were eventually removed, and the right of way converted into today’s popular Badger State Bike Trail.
In addition to its main Fitchburg depot on Wendt Road, the Illinois Central built a “flag stop” waiting shelter and milk loading platform where the railroad crossed Seminole Highway. Known as “Stoner’s” to the railroad, the local residents referred to it as “Beanville”, and painted that name on the shelter in 1916. This was to comically honor a nearby farmer who grew a lot of soybeans near the structure. The shelter was removed by the early 1940’s after passenger service ended.
CHICAGO & NORTH WESTERN RAILROADS
Chicago, Illinois to Madison, Wisconsin
The Chicago & North Western Railway had two lines that passed through Fitchburg. In 1864, a line reached Madison from Chicago that became a main line with a lot of traffic. A depot was established, called “Syene” that was located in back of what is now a gas station/convenience store along Syene Road. This depot lasted until the mid-1930’s and was a stop for some of C&NW’s passenger trains. Traffic on this line peaked during World War II, when up to 40 trains daily passed through Fitchburg on this busy double track line, including passenger, freight, military equipment, troop and prisoner-of-war trains. The line was reduced to single track in 1953, but still had 14 daily passenger trains on it, plus freight trains. The last passenger train, a Madison – Chicago local, was discontinued in 1965. Daily freight service continued into 1986, and then the line was embargoed by then owner Union Pacific Railroad. The city of Fitchburg and village of Oregon eventually bought the line but the track remained unused for 18 years until 2014, when service was restored by the Wisconsin & Southern Railroad to serve the Lycon cement plant on the north side of Oregon. In the spring, summer and fall, during construction season, Wisconsin & Southern operates trains to the Lycon plant a few times a week, but currently the line is not used during the Winter.
Madison, Wisconsin to Galena, Illinois
The C&NW Railway also built a branch line from Madison westward to Dodgeville, Lancaster, Fennimore and Platteville in Wisconsin and on to Galena, Illinois around 1880. This was known locally as “The Ridge Runner” for its “hill and dale” profile along its way west. The line passed through a corner of Fitchburg, crossing what is today Highway PD (McKee Road). The line had passenger service over it until 1950, and freight service (on most of the line) into the early 1980’s. The last remaining track segment within Fitchburg served the feed mill, warehouses, and lumberyard at the industrial park on highway PD until 2001. The tracks remained in place for a few years, and then the right of way was converted into another bike trail.
Historic Fitchburg Railroads
Blue: Illinois Central; 1 – Fitchburg Depot; 2 – Beanville Flag Stop
Red: Chicago & North Western; 3 – Syene Depot
Black: Chicago & North Western; The Ridge Runner