Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Kickapoo Railroad

The first regular train of the railroad (then called the Kickapoo Valley & Northern) arrived in La Farge on October 11, 1897. Its coming caused a boom in the village as people scrambled to meet the business demands and possibilities of the new transportation system. The business district, which had been focused around the original corners of what today is Main and State Streets, began to stretch west towards the river and the train depot located there. Hotels and boarding houses were jammed with the increased populations brought by the railroad and resulting increases in business activity. Construction of places of business along Main Street was a constant for several years. New houses were being built to the north and east of the corners as the village’s population increased during this time. La Farge as we know it today was defined by the growth of that era when the railroad came.

It took a while for the railroad to get as far north as La Farge. It all started in 1889 with a grand scheme to run a branch line up the Kickapoo Valley from Wauzeka to Wilton. Even before that, in the 1870’s, a survey had been proposed and partially completed in anticipation of running a narrow gauge track up the valley all the way to Tomah. Then the Kickapoo Valley & Northern was organized in 1889 by a group of businessmen from Prairie du Chien, Muscoda, Baraboo, and Soldiers Grove. A new survey was started. In 1890, E.R. Burpee was brought in from Maine to be president of the new company and the survey was completed through to Wilton. Construction on the line’s road-bed was commenced from Wauzeka with intentions of building the thirty-four mile southern section of the line to Soldiers Grove.

From the beginning the fledgling railroad company had financial problems. When steel rails could not be secured due to lack of funds, wooden rails of maple were made and temporarily used to get the work train and crews out to the construction sites north of Wauzeka. Right-of-way easements were negotiated with landowners, as the company had no money to actually buy land. Additionally, local municipalities were petitioned to donate to the cause and many townships donated $500 or more to the project (the Town of Stark would make a $725 donation in 1898), while villages were solicited for even higher donations. Individuals also donated money and land, and many farmers agreed to help with team work in the actual building of the railroad. Finally in 1891, the line had reached Gays Mills and was completed to Soldiers Grove the following year. Soon the United States mail was being carried on the Kickapoo trains and the United States Express Company established offices in villages along the line and did a brisk business as well.

By 1892 when the line reached Soldiers Grove, the company was in dire financial straits. Construction had to cease while additional funding was sought. In 1894 the company went into the hands of a receiver, E.A Wadhams, who negotiated loans for the company to continue. Grading, bridging and track laying were eventually continued up the valley and by 1896 the line had reached the village of Readstown. Another loan was secured and the line continued north to Viola. (Expenses on the line’s construction had increased as the land needed for track right-of-way north from Soldiers Grove was now being purchased from the individual landowners.)

To get to La Farge, a tunnel needed to be dug through the hill on the Lawton farm located on the Richland-Vernon County line. The digging of the tunnel was a costly and involved construction project started around the beginning of the year in 1897. When it was completed, there were two more bridges to build (There were thirty-four bridges on the railroad line in all.) and then the line could reach La Farge. There the line ended.

In a press release in February 1898, the KV & N declared that the fifty-one miles of the line (from Wauzeka to La Farge) was in good shape, a mail car had been added and several passenger cars (built in the company’s shop in Wauzeka) had been put on the line. The company planned to expand south in the future, through Grant County towards Dubuque, Iowa or Galena, Illinois. No mention was made to extend the line north beyond La Farge.

In 1899 the K.V. & N. was sold to a company headed by Norman James of Richland Center. Mr. James had apparently arranged the earlier loan to complete the line’s construction. He became a capable manager of the railroad line and soon made it profitable. By 1903, the line earned a profit of $37,000 on passenger traffic alone and was handling 50,000 tons of freight annually. That same year, ownership of the railroad changed again as the Chicago, Milwaukee & St Paul Railroad Company bought the Kickapoo railroad and made it a branch line.

In those early days, the Kickapoo railroad usually had two trains running each way daily except Sunday. One train was for passengers and the other was called a mixed train, carrying freight as well as passengers. The first train to go down the valley each morning and the last one north in the afternoon usually carried the mail. Special freight runs were put on according to need, with a special stock train added each Tuesday in the fall for a number of years to handle livestock shipments. Special excursion trains would run to take passengers for events such as ball games and fairs. (The October 12, 1908, La Farge Enterprise reported 151 tickets had been sold in La Farge for the train to the Gays Mills Fair.)

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