Military Ridge State Trail

Wisconsin

At a Glance

Name: Military Ridge State Trail
Length: 40 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Fishing, Wheelchair Accessible, Snowmobiling, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Dane, Iowa
Surfaces: Asphalt, Crushed Stone
State: Wisconsin

A Brief History

The Military Ridge State Trail encompasses 45 miles of the former Chicago & North Western (C&NW) right-of-way between Madison and Dodgeville. This particular line was fairly typical of the numerous secondary branches the C&NW operated; however, when built during the latter 19th century, its specific purpose was to connect with a handful of narrow-gauge lines the company had acquired in southwestern Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois. Some of these segments survived only until the 1920s, while the remainder held on for several decades following. As the C&NW continued pruning its network to improve the company’s bottom line, much of the remaining trackage was abandoned back to Madison during the early 1980s.

The history of the C&NW system begins with the chartering of the Galena & Chicago Union (G&CU) in 1836, notable as operating the first steam locomotive out of Chicago in 1848, the “Pioneer.” Its direct roots begin in June 1859, when the Chicago & North Western Railway was formed to take over the bankrupt assets of the Chicago, St. Paul & Fond du Lac Railroad. In 1864, the new C&NW and G&CU merged, creating a system of 860 miles across northern Illinois, into Wisconsin, and reaching Iowa. Throughout the 19th century, the C&NW grew largely by acquiring other roads, with some of the more notables including the Freemont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley; Milwaukee, Lake Shore & Western; and the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha (“The Omaha Road”). By 1893, including subsidiaries, it boasted a system of 7,951 miles.

From its early years, the C&NW relied heavily on the movement of agriculture and, along with the Milwaukee Road, boasted the most expansive network of branches and secondary lines throughout the Midwest; tracks blanketed Wisconsin, Iowa, southern Minnesota, and northern Illinois. They also stretched into parts of South Dakota, Nebraska, and as far west as Lander, Wyoming (it even reached into southern North Dakota at Oakes). What is now the Military Ridge State Trail was actually constructed new by the C&NW. The 60-mile line ran west from Madison to the small hamlet of Montfort, via Dodgeville, and was completed in 1881. This corridor was built to connect with a collection of unfinished narrow-gauge lines that had come under C&NW control in 1880. According to George Hilton’s book “American Narrow Gauge Railroads,” the earliest was known as the Galena & Southern Wisconsin Railroad, incorporated on March 2, 1857, to serve lead and zinc mines in southwestern Wisconsin. Lack of financial backing delayed the project until 1872, when construction finally began north from Galena, Illinois. By January 1, 1875, service was opened to Plattesville, Wisconsin (30 miles), and promoters attempted to reach Montfort. Rails made it only as far as McCormick’s, 8 miles away, before financial issues precluded further construction.

During 1878, the G&SW entered bankruptcy and operations were discontinued entirely. Following a year of legal wrangling, the property was reorganized as the Galena & Wisconsin Railroad in May 1879, and service resumed until it was taken over by the C&NW the following year. The other notable system was the Chicago & Tomah Railroad, formed in 1872. This ambitious project was to extend from Chicago to Freeport, Illinois, and then turn northwest into Wisconsin, reaching as far as Tomah, where it would handle timber products. Along the way, the railroad would also serve agricultural interests and any other freight it could generate bound for the Windy City and other points. In 1878, construction was underway, and by 1879, the line had opened between Woodman and Montfort, Wisconsin, with a branch to Lancaster via Lancaster Junction. It then began working on the northern extension above Woodman toward Tomah, grading 30 miles to a point near Gays Mills. This line remained unfinished because of funding issues, and eventually the Kickapoo Valley & Northern Railway acquired the right-of-way in 1889, which became part of Milwaukee Road’s La Farge Branch.

After the C&NW had control of both properties, totaling 92 miles, they were merged into a subsidiary known as the Milwaukee & Madison Railway. The company then connected the two by constructing a new route between McCormick’s and Montfort. It also worked quickly to convert all of the lines to standard gauge. This process was completed by 1882 except for the 16.4 miles between Woodman and Fennimore, which featured a 250-foot radius horseshoe curve through the narrow Green River Valley. The curve didn’t allow enough room to convert the route (which became affectionately referred to as the “Dinky Line”), and the C&NW continued narrow-gauge operations until abandoning the segment on December 29, 1925. The last train operated on January 30, 1926, and rails were removed during spring and summer that year.

Colloquially the North Western’s trackage west of Madison gained the moniker “Ridge Runner Line” because it ran through the Driftless Area of Wisconsin and along Military Ridge. Since the lines handled primarily only agriculture traffic and were located in remote regions of the state, they were early victims of abandonment, according to Stanley Mailer’s article “The Ridge Runner” (from the June 1971 issue of Trains Magazine;local passenger service survived until December 1950). The section to Galena was cut back to Hazel Green Junction in 1939 and eventually removed as far as Cuba City by 1967. The remainder of the property continued to see use for more than a decade and was a classic Midwestern branch line of the 1970s; a single locomotive could often be seen trundling along weed-choked tracks with a handful of cars and caboose in tow. That decade also witnessed the C&NW embarking on a wide-scale endeavor to shed hundreds of miles of redundant, unprofitable branches, which included most of the Ridge Runner Line. Following approval, the property was abandoned in 1980.

Railroad attractions in Wisconsin include the Brodhead Historical Society Depot Museum in Brodhead; Camp Five & Lumberjack Steam Train in Laona; East Troy Electric Railroad Museum in East Troy; Green County Welcome Center located in Monroe’s restored Milwaukee Road depot; the Historical Village in New London, featuring C&NW’s restored depot as well as other railroad rolling stock; Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom; Monticello Depot Museum & Hostel located within the town’s restored Milwaukee Road depot; National Railroad Museum in Green Bay; Osceola & St. Croix Valley Railway in Osceola; Railroad Memories Museum and Wisconsin Great Northern in Spooner; the miniature Riverside & Great Northern Railway located in Wisconsin Dells; the Whiskey River Railway located in Marshall (another miniature railroad); and Zoofari Express Milwaukee County Zoo miniature train in Milwaukee.

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