Saturday, May 25, 2024

Finally.....A Ride Post - 2024/05/25

A Saturday with no employment responsibilities, finally some time for a decent ride.  All of the bikes have been out (again...finally), most have helped me get to/from my bus driving responsibilities each day.  I made a 'Tube video of my VStar ride to work this past week.

This morning early some chicken chores, a quick trip to town for 5 gallons of diesel and 10 gallons of gasoline to keep the machines running.  After that, I replaced a taillight bulb in the Breva (had it on hand!) and off I went.

No real plan other than avoiding a southeasterly direction and that was because next weekend is our Hiawatha BMW Rally at Money Creek....road southeasterly will have a great chance of being explored then.  So across the river to Wisconsin I went.  No GPS, I made the Route above after the fact, retracing my ride.  Lunch in Gilmanton at Donna Mae's, the Mushroom Swiss about perfect.  Contemplating a longer ride I decided that based on the forecast it might be best to make a mostly straight path home so that I could start burning up all that petroleum that I'd purchased early day.  Our lawn and adjacent weedy areas really needed a trim.

County NN, one of many favorites....

North out of Gilmanton, towards but not quite to Mondovi, I jumped back on to Hwy 37 and barely got moving when I went past the horse arena/racing facility.  I've been past many times and don't ever remember seeing anyone there doing anything.  Today was different.  I looked over as I passed....hmmmm....big work horses.....that's odd.  A mile down the road I understood.  A Horse Pull, something I'd never seen before.  All I knew about horse pulls was my grandfather's disdain for them.  As a farmer that never owned a tractor, he was convinced that the horses he knew would be abused and harmed by pulling.

All of this through my head and then some more quick thoughts.  My friend Jack has mentioned the Gilmanton area, work horses AND horse pulls.  He pulls or did, his son and now grandson still do.  Less than a mile and a half past the arena, I turned around and went back, hoping to just possibly see Jack.

At Donna Mae's cafe, a couple of old guys (more than me) were eating lunch while I was.  We gave a cheerful hello to each other and a nod of the hat, all acknowledging the beautiful day.  

Off the Guzzi and walking around, lo and behold, the two old (more than me) guys were sitting in a car.  I went over and asked them where they were from, satisfied they were local enough and asked them if they might know Jack....someone that knew work horses and horse pulls.  I had momentarily forgotten Jack's last name, only that it started with "D".

"Jack D____", well yes we know Jack, he should be here, are you lookin' for him?  I told them the story about my connection, we talked some more, I heard about potential other Pulls that Jack and his boys might be at and then one of the guys asked....

"When you were talkin' to Jack, did he give you a chance to say anything?"

With a smile I replied, "No".

"Same Jack D____"

Where they'll pull.....

Two competitors in the Lightweight class, combined weight of the horses not over 3500#.  These two came in at 3430.  Their first pull was 2500# and they pulled through.  The other competitor didn't pull, waiting for the next weight increment, blocks of concrete weight 1000# each.


Waiting their turn.....
Once the connection is made to the sled.....get out of the way!
Adding the 3rd block, now the sled weighs 5500#.  Both competitors were pulling through, 27.5' if I heard correctly.

Pulling the stone boat....

The other competitor in this class....from Hokah, MN

Too excited, the boys started pulling before the hookup was made..... 

Circle back and try again....

Really enjoyed watching, I didn't stay long enough to see the outcome of the Lightweight class and what they truly could pull.  It's possible that friend Jack showed up later, I don't know, we never saw each other.  I did get home in time to get the lawn mowed, the non-growing part of the garden cut down and about half of our 1.5 acres of weeds that aren't treated like lawn.

It was a great day.
School is almost done, my bus driving is almost complete....for the '23-'24 school year.  I'm very much looking forward to a full term driving session next fall.  I'll have some bus driving thoughts to share in a Post soon, possibly after our Hiawatha Rally weekend.

Hope you all have a great Memorial Day weekend!

Friday, May 3, 2024

The Omaha Line / Hudson to Ellsworth - 2024/05/03

It was (more than) a year ago that this blog Post began to take a semblance of shape though in actuality, it began even longer ago (than that).  Dad grew up in a small Wisconsin town that had a small branch of the Soo Line railroad.  The tracks of that line were pulled up in the early 60's and I can just barely remember seeing the slow train moving through town on one of its last runs.  Nicknamed "The Blueberry" from its transport of seasonal locals for their berry harvest, the memory of it one day had me doing an online search to see what I might learn and discovered that a regional author not only had put together a historical reference on that small line but had done other Western Wisconsin lines as well.

One of the those lines was the Hudson to Ellsworth (East Ellsworth) Railroad.  My interest has grown as has my appreciation and awareness over the years of how essential these now abandoned rail lines actually were to small rural communities, quite literally life lines to the bigger outside world.  The fact that the Ellsworth line ran so close to home and through an area that I've come to know so well made it easy to go back and dig deeper into the beginnings, the life of and finally the end of the line.

The sources that I've learned from have been plentiful, the fact finding fun and a journey all its own.  My interest in the Ellsworth Line specifically started with learning of Arlyn Colby's book.

I already owned The Blueberry Line book, very impressed with Arlyn's ability to gather and share all he'd learned.

When I purchased the Blueberry book directly from Arlyn, we made contact and shared some stories of that line's route from Barron to Ridgeland, Wisconsin.  His knowledge of my address resulted in a request of anything I might know or have regarding for another book that he, at that time, was working on, The Ellsworth, stories...connections.  It was then that I remembered that my first real knowledge of the railroad went back to discovering that friends of mine's driveway actually lay on the train's old roadbed, something I'd mostly forgotten.  Much if not most of the content below is from Arlyn's book, anything of his I was given permission to share.  I believe that I've given credit to other sources where appropriate.

Here some very quick map views of how the region's rail lines changed over time, this map from 1897....

This map primarily highlights the 1909 Chicago North Western routes though some competing railroads are shown ....


The Omaha routes, 1925.....

The 1960 trackage of the C&NW.....

Directly from Arlyn's book....

"Back in the 1800's when railroads were expanding into the Midwest and West, hundreds of railroads were chartered or planned.  Most of these didn't get very far, usually because of a lack of funding, and some started construction before going bankrupt or being purchased by a different company.  But some were completed, becoming part of an expansive network of interconnecting railroads....


 In 1857, representatives of the Superior and St. Croix Railroad Company went to River Falls proposing a rail line.  Residents were excited over the plan and came up with $50,000, which they donated to the company.  Construction was planned to start in the summer of 1858 but the project feel through and that proposed line never built."

That $50,000 was the equivalent of $1.76M today.....their hope and optimism about the growth and necessary path to viable, sustainable communities was common and occurred throughout the Midwest as immigrants arrived from the East and into their new homes.  The process repeated itself over and over, it was the same with the railroads in the northern part of the state pursuing the timber resources....the monies raised with legitimate hopes or otherwise were leaving the public wary.  Land grants were only one of the capital pursuits, any and all sorts of money-raising attempts were made, small railroad companies more often than not ended in bankruptcy.

In the early 1870's a rail line was completed from Minneapolis to Chicago (came to be known as the "400"), running north of River Falls through Hudson on its way southeast.  The route that 7 years later made its way to Ellsworth branched off from that which became a very busy main line.  A major force driving the need for a spur to the area was the increasing production of goods, primarily wheat though timber had been first.  Great amounts of wheat and the associated milled flour were being produced but the cost of shipping the products to market was becoming more and more prohibitive....the need to be competitive necessary.


  • West Wisconsin Railroad (eventually the C&NW)
  • St. Paul & Sioux City Railroad, previously the Minnesota Valley Railroad
  • St. Paul, Stillwater and Taylors Falls Railroad
  • Prescott, River Falls & Northern Railroad (bankrupt)


  • Red Wing & Menomonie Railroad (proposed)


  • Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad (Milwaukee Road) Offered to build from Prescott to Bayfield if a land grant could be obtained.  The railroad never was built.


  • River Falls was producing 250 barrels of flour each day and enrollment at the Normal School (now the University of Wisconsin RF) was increasing, both factors contributing to the need for improved transportation.  


  • Various proposals, competing companies, different plans and so on were coming closer to action being taken.  Regular gauge as well as narrow gauge were considered and 3 routes from Hudson to River Falls were surveyed.


  • The North Wisconsin Railway Company was incorporated and in 1880 was consolidated with  the Chicago, St. Paul and Minneapolis to form the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha Company, or the Omaha Road.  

"The new railroad was capitalized at $125,000 and was authorized to construct and operate a railroad right-of-way from a junction with the railroad bridge across Lake St. Croix in Hudson to the village of River Falls."

"About 500 men worked on the 11.7 miles between Hudson and River Falls, taking about 2 months to finish the grading.  The men were paid $1.50/day or $3/day if the worker also provided a team of horses, meals were not included.  It wasn't smooth sailing though because some residents strongly objected to the railroad.  Included in this group were workers who thought that their jobs of transporting goods to and from River Falls would be ended by the railroad.  Other people thought that the railroad would attract "all the riffraff in the world.""

"By September 20, track laying was finished across the trestle on the Willow River.  Track laying then progressed rapidly down the line.  Wheat was already being stored at Junction Mills for shipment when the railroad was completed.  

"The River Falls Press proudly exclaimed, "The people of Hudson and River Falls have reason to be proud of the manner in which their connecting line of railways has been built.  One third of the stock was owned by their own citizens; the balance owned in St. Paul and Stillwater.  There was not a dollar of indebtedness when the road is completed."

"October 26 arrived "bright but nippy."  The village was overflowing with townspeople and visitors.  The Journal reported, "As the hour of noon drew near an immense crowd gathered between the bridges awaiting the arrival of the train.  As the minutes passed and the time of expected arrival came, the telegraph office was besieged for latest news.  Has the train left Hudson?  When will it arrive"  Boys were dispatched to the mounds and roofs of the buildings to give notice when the first glimpse of the locomotive circling the mound should be obtained.  At last the telegraph tapped, Train left Hudson; 500 aboard!  Then the band announced the fact in the River Falls streets and people hastened to the depot grounds to become welcoming guests.  In a short time the shrill shrieks of the engine were heard in the valley and the first train came with eight coaches of passengers.  Loud cheers from the multitude drowned out the band as the train came slowly to a stop."

Freight shipments began immediately.  During that first November carried out of River Falls the following freight in pounds.....

Flour                1,655,100

Wheat                 168,000

Bran & Shorts      20,800

Hides                      3,089 

Peltries                      225 

Tallow                      400

Beans                     1,020

Butter                    4,214

Pork                         385

Wool                        144

Machinery          41,580 

Misc Merch        16,501


During that same month of November, freight going out of River Falls including lumber and other heavy merchandise totaled 778,005 pounds.

"In the first year of operation, the Hudson and and River Falls Railroad showed earnings of $23,360 and expenses of $9,729.  The original investment to build the line was $150,000".

A USGS Topo map from 1953....


Downtown Hudson 1967 USGS Topo map .....note the combined C&NW and CMStP&P (Milwaukee Road) tracks on the Minnesota side, once across the river into Wisconsin the C&NW heads east to Chicago, the Omaha line to River Falls curls to the south.

 Note the extensive rail shops and yards on the north side.  The original Hwy 12 bridge to the south, the railroad bridge further upriver splitting at the "Y" in Hudson.  The rail line to River Falls follows south along the river, crossed a bridge over Hwy 12 and hugs the bluff as it slowly climbs to the top at the very bottom edge of this 1939 aerial photo.

What remains of the shops and yards on the north side of Hudson


Looking downriver from the "Y"


  • Stockholders and directors of the Hudson & River Falls Railroad voted to extend the line to Ellsworth if an acceptable route could be found and if people interested could help pay for it.
  • Another project was investigated, the St Paul & Chicago Short Line was organized to investigate the possibility of a line from Hudson, through River Falls to the Illinois border in La Fayette County with a connection to Red Wing 
  • The railway extension to Ellsworth became a certainty thanks to the major efforts of Senator H.B. Warner.  A depot in or near the village of Ellsworth was mandated.
  • A 12 mile survey was completed by April 1, in May 3 camps of men totaling 150 men split with camps located near River Falls, Forestville and Ellsworth.  By June, 300 men and 115 teams of men and horses were employed as timber arrived by the trainload.
  • Oak ties were brought in at 27 cents each, all contracted to be delivered by July 15
  • Bridges over the Kinnickinnic and South Fork River were finished
  • In September the 1200 foot trestle over the Millpond was completed, the lumber for the Ellsworth Depot and Engine House arrived by teams and construction began immediately.  The Big Cut in River Falls was almost complete, track laying would soon follow
  • In October, rail was being laid at a rate of 1-2 miles/day.  Telegraph poles were being set and fences along the right of way were being built.
  • By November, ballast was being added, telegraph lines were complete and the 1700 gallon water tank in Ellsworth was finished.
  • In December, the fare from Ellsworth to St. Paul was $1.85, the equivalent of almost $60 today.


  • In June, a round trip ticket between River Falls and Ellsworth was lowered to 85 cents.  Shortly after, the Omaha lowered passenger fares on all trains to 3 cents/mile.


  • Beldenville was growing rapidly with the development of the railroad line, the small depot would open in January.
  • In late June, an American Express Messenger was added for the two trips between River Falls and St. Paul
  • Due to lack of ridership, an afternoon passenger train was dropped with the afternoon freight train becoming a mixed freight/passenger train.





  • The Currier Brothers of River Falls bought and sold 90 carloads of grain, 40 cars of hay and 50 cars of potatoes and other vegetables.


  • River Falls residents were asking the Omaha railroad to add a dedicated passenger train to Ellsworth because the mixed train was spending too much time switching cars in Beldenville.
  • The railroad surveyed a potential line to the Rush River, 7 miles east.  500 acres of oak forest had been harvested, hopes were high that a rail spur could be built to facilitate shipping the logs but the line was never built.



  • The railroad purchased a gasoline motor car for the section crew, replacing the old hand-operated car.
  • Railroad business had increased, two extra cars and a brakeman were added.  On a December day 27 carloads of stock were shipped from River Falls which included 21 carloads of sheep, 1 car of hogs and 1 car of potatoes.
  • The train was carrying an average of 653 pounds of mail daily, the 12 trains a week averaged 25 mph.


  • The Mohawk Stage Line Auto Company bus started service between Ellsworth and St. Paul in May, rides cost $1.25 and were cutting heavily into the Omaha's passenger traffic.


  • A St. Paul bus company began operation and paid close attention to bus ridership because if numbers went up, rail passenger service would be taken off and a mixed train would be introduced with only one train per day.


  • Races were being held between the Mohawk bus line and the Omaha train from Ellsworth to Hudson.  The train beat the bus by 2.5 hours on a March day with bad roads.


  • The decision to introduce Doodlebugs, gas/electric motorcars was becoming a reality to replace the steam trains.  In May, Pullman delivered two 275-horsepower Doodlebugs.  Still not used, in December rail service was sharply curtailed.  By this time, few passengers were still riding so that passenger service was little impacted.  However, mail delivery was affected.  River Falls began pursuing mail service by truck.


  • The Chicago & North Western Railroad sponsored a traveling band as did other railroads and presented a June concert in Ellsworth with a huge crowd.  Band members arrived on the evening train and were taken uptown to restaurants.  After a two hour concert, band members were driven to Hudson and St. Paul to spend the night with local business men.


  • The railroad first proposed closing the Beldenville depot.


  • 37 farmers in Pierce County delivered 13,815 pounds of wool at a railcar in Ellsworth on June 15.  All farmers from St. Croix County pooled 6,376 pounds in the same car, making a total of more than 30,000 pounds of wool pooled with the state from these two counties.


  • During the Great Depression the Omaha continued to try and cut costs.  In January it laid off 223 men at the large Omaha shops in Hudson though the railroad continued to run, these men were hired back part-time in May.

Excerpts from an article written by W.G.Fortune in the September 28, 1939 issue of the River Falls Journal 

"Railroad Station Was Busiest Place In City Years Ago"


I happened to be down at our depot, the other day and the train rolled in.  As I looked it over memories took hold of me and the following might be of interest.

A long, shrill blast floats down from the crossing above the trestle.  There are cries of "Here she comes," and crowds surge out onto the River Falls depot platform to greet a well-filled passenger train.  After it pulls out the crowd winds its way uptown, some going this way and some that, but most of the assemblage gather at the post office to wait for the mail to be distributed.

That isn't a description of any special event ---- it depicts a scene which occurred daily, summer and winter, throughou8t the long period when this railroad branch was the busiest section of the entire Omaha system.  Buses met every train and hotel greeters reached hopefully for the hand-baggage of new arrivals.  Reporters were on hand taking notes for the "personals" columns of local newspapers, and the high platformed wagons groaned under great loads of express, mail and baggage.  At the opening of the trout season youngsters with cans of angleworms besieged Twin Cities Waltonians who flocked here to try their luck on the Kinnickinnic.
And speaking of kids at the station.  A railroad trip, if only to St. Paul, was a big event, even for the grow-ups in those early days.  But to the kids, who flocked goggle-eyed about the platform, anticipation of the first ride in the shiny yellow cars was a thrill that comes once on a lifetime.  I know--- I was one of them.
Watching our present lone "accommodation" train in to an almost deserted station brings a flood of recollections of those by--gone days.....
  • Not only WWII but other things were changing for the railroad as well.  Business spiked briefly on the freight side and diesels became predominant as the steamers were being retired.
  • After the war, traffic dropped off again.  The lower-cost diesel-electrics were hoped to be the answer but there just wasn't enough freight revenue to offset costs.
  • A hearing was held regarding the branch line and residents fought to keep rail service since winter conditions on the roadways for both snow and unsurfaced roads made them too difficult.

  • Trains were changed from Regularly Serviced to Extra, called by the crew when needed.
  • The Chicago North Western, the parent company of the Omaha took over all assets
  • The Public Service Commission allowed the C&NW to cut numerous small depots and agents in Wisconsin, included was the depot agent in Ellsworth.  In the year previous, freight traffic in Ellsworth was primarily used by the creamery, mill operators and lumberyards.  There was less than $100,000 of business on 256 incoming freight cars and 125 outgoing freight cars.
  • The freight both in and out of Ellsworth no longer justified the line's operation.  536 cars of freight weight 18,640 tons were carried with a gross revenue of $72,557.  The numbers only continued to get worse.
  • The part-time depot service in Ellsworth stopped and was closed along with 87 other locations in Wisconsin on December 23
  • For the year, only 363 freight carloads coming into River Falls and Ellsworth while 131 carloads left those towns.  For River Falls alone, 150 carloads were brought in and 50 shipped out.  Of the 50, 30 were carloads of logs 
  • C&NW petitioned the ICC to abandon its Hudson to Ellsworth line, the trains were making the trip only on Tuesdays and Fridays, as needed.
  • Biggest users of the River Falls line were the three lumberyards and the Wisconsin State University, formerly called the Normal School.  The lumberyards had coal, cememt, lumber and wallboard sent in while the university had all of its coal brought in by rail, 37 carloads.
  • The ICC hearing was held in July and despite public opposition of River Falls businessmen, permission to abandon the railroad was granted.
  • Official abandonment date was January 18, 1966
  • The last train left on February 19, ending 88 years of service.
  • Track removal began in summer, hauled in trucks to flatcars in River Falls heading to steel mills


Last train leaving River Falls 2/19/66

Pierce County Historical Society

In 1959 Dutton Foster rode the Ellsworth Line train and wrote about his experience:

In our college summer of 1959 my friend Don and I drove from St. Paul over to Hudson, Wisconsin, where the Chicago & North Western still ran a rapidly vanishing type of train known as a "mixed", carrying both freight and passengers in small quantities.  Based in Hudson, this train trundled up to Stillwater several mornings a week, then returned to Hudson and on toward Ellsworth later in the day.

Set off by itself in a grove of trees, the faded green and yellow depot with its dusty leaded glass afforded a fine view of the St. Croix.  Inside amid the aroma of cigars past, the agent seemed surprised to se customers for the branch line.  He warned us that the mixed went only to River Falls and back today.  We paid a couple of dollars for tickets and headed out to the platform.  The north side of the depot fronted the double-track mainline to Chicago but on the south, under the trees, the Ellsworth brand curved south.  Standing in the care of a diminutive black diesel with green and yellow stripes on its front were a few boxcars and a weather-beaten combination coach and baggage car.  Hung on the tail end of the coach were the required but anachronistic kerosene marker lamps with their red and green lenses, alerting following trains that the track was occupied.  But there were no following trains on this branch line. 

We climbed into its deserted interior, delighted by the ancient gas lamps, plush walkover seats and coal stove.  After a bit, three crew members joined us and with a few rattles and jerks, #55 tugged the short train into slow motion, heading south over a creek and along a coal dealer, a freight house and a few back yards between Main Street and the river.  Rocking along the light rails, we shortly crossed Main  Street with blasts from the air horn, beginning our climb up along the river bluff.  A bridge took us over Highway 12 (now I-94) and on upgrade toward the gently rolling farmland above the bluff.

Eventually an elderly white-bearded gentleman in work clothes, presumably the conductor, punched our tickets.  As we chatted with him, we learned he had worked for the railroad for about 40 years.  His name was Milt Cam if I remember correctly, like many old railway men, he had stories to tell and seemed glad of an occasional audience.  Milt described a train wreck in 1919: nothing major, but enough, he claimed, to almost kill him.  He was riding the ladder on the leading end of a long cut of cars being shoved into a siding.  The siding contained more cars than the crew realized.  The result was a collision with Milt in the middle of it.  "See these scars?" he asked, rolling up a sleeve.  "That's just a sample.  I hung caught between them two derailed cars until two guys could climb up and lift me down.  I just hung there screaming until I passed out.  My arm was damn near torn off."  When Milt came to, he found himself on an operating table looking at a surgeon who wanted to amputate at the shoulder.  "I told him, you cut off this arm, I'll track you down and kill you, and that's a promise."  Evidently murder was not necessary, although Milt was missing several fingers, presumably lost in lesser mishaps.  We knew railroading was dangerous and had no reason to doubt his tales.

The brakeman and baggage man were equally friendly, glad to talk to real live passengers, even college kids, before retiring to the baggage compartment for checkers.  We rolled gently along past meadows and cornfields, crossing a country road now and then with more loud music from the air horn.  At 15 miles per hour tops, Milt had no problem allowing us to sit on the bottom step of the open door.  We grabbed occasional wildflowers as we rocked along the undulating track, so overgrown that it seemed a natural extension of the farm fields.  Presumably falling off at this speed would not entail the risk of amputation.

Eventually we crossed a small stream into River Falls, 11.7 miles from Hudson according to the timetable.  Trees, sheds and a few small factories lined the tracks.  We relaxed in the shade while the little diesel puttered back and forth on its switching chores, dropping a boxcar here and picking up an empty tank car there.  We learned that on Mondays and ?Thursdays the train continued to Beldenville and then to the end of the line at Ellsworth, 14 more miles in all.  On other days it might go to Ellsworth, it might go only to River Falls, or it might not go at all.  But it always tied up back at Hudson.

On the return trip, lulled by the gently rocking coach, I dozed.  Later, Don suggested to Milt that we might return on another day with girlfriends and a lunch basket.  Would Milt be willing to let us off at some inviting meadow for our picnic and reboard us on the return trip?  He allowed as how he'd be glad to.  We basked in vision s of wining and dining our dates on a nice checked tablecloth.

Soon, we retraced the back yards of Hudson and pulled into the grove behind the depot.  The brakeman removed and extinguished the marker lamps from their brackets, then locked up the car.  We stood watching with a disquieting feeling that we'd participated in something of the past, something rooted in an older, more rural America, something important soon to be lost and forgotten.  Even then, we could comprehend the economic absurdity of five union crew members operating a train which one person could easily have handled alone.

We never returned with the girls and picnic.  In a year or two the coach was retired and the train no longer carried passengers.  In a few more years the whole operation succumbed to trucks and the line was abandoned.  From I-94, I see no trace of the old roadbed.  For us however, the memories of the trip to River Falls remain quietly glowing, like the gentle flame in the marker lamps.

In the next installment I'll focus more on the details in and around River Falls proper....hopefully soon!