Chippewa River State Trail History


At a Glance

Name: Chippewa River State Trail
Length: 38.5 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Fishing, Wheelchair Accessible, Mountain Biking, Snowmobiling, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Dunn, Eau Claire
Surfaces: Asphalt, Boardwalk, Cinder, Concrete, Gravel
State: Wisconsin

A Brief History

The Chippewa River State Trail winds its way northward along the waterway for which it is named, running between Durand and Eau Claire along a former branch of the fabled Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific (CMStP&P), better known as the “Milwaukee Road.” The property was originally built in the early 1880s and became one of countless secondary (branch) rail lines scattered throughout the Midwest. Known as the Chippewa Valley Line or Chippewa Valley Division (CV), it is fondly remembered for its use of a unique—and rare—pontoon bridge that spanned the Mississippi River near Wabasha, Minnesota. Here the corridor branched from the Milwaukee’s main line, connecting Milwaukee with St. Paul/Minneapolis. The railroad began abandoning sections of the CV Line during the World War I era and slowly cutback other portions over the years before relinquishing the entire route by the late 1970s.

The origins of a railroad running up the Chippewa River valley begin in 1881 when the Chippewa Valley & Superior Railway was organized in 1881 to build from Wabasha, Minnesota, across the Mississippi River, and extend northward to Eau Claire. Construction began soon after, and the 50-mile line was completed in November 1882. According to the “Historical And Biographical Album of The Chippewa Valley,” by George Forrester, the property was conveyed to the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul (CM&StP) on November 15 that year. The CM&StP was an early predecessor of the later Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific. It was created in 1874 and rapidly expanded across the Midwest through new construction and acquisition of smaller railroads. By the turn of the 20th century, the CM&StP was one of the largest in the Midwest. Running west out of Chicago, it reached Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, opened a connection with Union Pacific at Council Bluffs, Omaha, served the Twin Cities, stretched to Kansas City, and served parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota. The company then turned its attention westward and made the bold move of opening a transcontinental route to the Pacific Northwest in 1909 to serve Seattle and the Puget Sound region. At its peak size the Milwaukee Road stretched nearly 11,000 miles, making it one of the largest railroads west of the Mississippi River.

Soon after the CM&StP took ownership of the Eau Claire line it set its sights farther north to Chippewa Falls. This extension opened on December 31, 1883, offering connections there with the Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste Marie (the “Soo Line”) and Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha (later part of the Chicago & North Western). There was also a short branch that ran from Red Cedar Junction to Cedar Falls via Menomonie completed around the same time. All of the trackage north of Wabasha was originally known as the Chippewa Valley Division, built primarily to serve the region’s extensive lumber interests. There was once hope to see rails pushed north as a through-route to Duluth, Minnesota, but rails never reached beyond Chippewa Falls. According to the March, 1931, edition of The Milwaukee Magazine (the Milwaukee Road’s officially company publication) in a piece titled “The Menomonie Line,” sawmills were once located at Downsville, Menomonie, Cedar Falls, Plummers Mills, Durand, Old Meridean, Porters, Shawtown, Eau Claire, Dells Mills, LaFayette, Badger Mills, and Chippewa Falls.

To cross the Mississippi River near Wabasha the line used a unique pontoon bridge just north of town at a place called Reed’s Landing. Here the river was narrower—only around 2,400 feet wide. Since the bridge was not high enough to allow river traffic to pass beneath, the pontoon could swing open and closed. The original was built in 1882 entirely from wood. According to Engineering News (Vol. 59, No. 18), from 1908 the bridge’s trestle portion was 2,300 feet along with a pontoon draw of about 400 feet, providing an opening for river traffic of 350 feet. The bridge was rebuilt twice over the years because it was damaged from ice and flooding, first in 1891 and again in 1908. The latter rebuild used some creosote timbers to prevent rotting.

The Chippewa Valley Division’s once-booming timber business largely dried up during the early 20th century. The railroad then discontinued service over the northern 11.5 miles between Magenta (just north of Eau Claire) and Chippewa Falls in 1919. It also pulled up trackage between Cedar Falls and Menomonie. To continue reaching customers in Chippewa Falls, the railroad acquired trackage rights over the Soo Line. Despite the loss of timber, the branch subsisted on other business and local agriculture, enough that daily rail service remained. Its next blow came in 1951. The May issue of The Milwaukee Road Magazine notes spring flooding, again severely damaged the pontoon bridge and washing it away downstream. This time the railroad elected not to fix the structure. Instead, it abandoned the short stretch of trackage from Reed’s Landing to the small railroad junction of Trevino, Wisconsin. To access its line north of this point, the Milwaukee again acquired trackage rights, this time from the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy between Winona (about 30 miles south of Wabasha) and Trevino. The arrangement lasted for the next two decades until the 1970s, the final years of service on the branch.

In 1973, the segment to Menomonie was discontinued, and later that decade the railroad stopped serving the Durand–Trevino section. The railroad again opted to use trackage rights over another carrier—the Chicago & North Western out of St. Paul—to reach its remaining segment between Durand and Eau Claire. It also continued into Chippewa Falls via the Soo Line. In December 1977, the financially strapped Milwaukee Road entered bankruptcy and sold the Durand–Eau Claire segment to a new short line known as the Chippewa River Railroad in 1979. Unfortunately, despite its efforts to sustain service and repair the line’s many years of deferred maintenance, the new company operated for only a year before all service ended in 1980.

Railroad attractions across Wisconsin include the Brodhead Historical Society Depot Museum in Brodhead; Camp Five & Lumberjack Steam Train in Laona; Colfax Railroad Museum in Colfax; East Troy Electric Railroad in East Troy; Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom; Monticello Depot & Hostel in Monticello; Osceola & St. Croix Valley Railway in Osceola; Railroad Memories Museum in Spooner; Riverside & Great Northern Railway in Wisconsin Dells (scale train rides); Whiskey River Railway in Marshall (scale train rides); and the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad in Spooner.

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