Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad
The first railroad to arrive on the Coon Prairie came from Sparta, where it connected with the mainline of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad (later the Chicago, Milwaukee St. Paul and Pacific Railroad) from Milwaukee to LaCrosse in August 1879. This new railroad was a dream come true for the local pioneers - it cut passenger travel time from days to hours, and provided cheaper, more reliable and faster freight service for everything moving into and out of Viroqua, Westby, Cashton, Melvina and Leon. Literally everything soon moved into and out of the area on the railroad.
In the early years of service to Westby and Viroqua, the Milwaukee Road, as it was widely known in the Twentieth Century, held a monopoly and charged accordingly. Local residents were unhappy with the lack of direct service to LaCrosse (it was necessary to change trains in Sparta, and a round trip could not be made in the same day) and rates that they considered too high. Therefore, the arrival of the LaCrosse and Southeastern in 1905 was a happy occasion for passengers and shippers alike.
Service always started in Sparta and ran to Viroqua and back. Initially there was one train daily except Sunday; by 1894 this had increased to two trains. In 1916, a Sunday only train was added. By 1930, service was back to two trains daily except Sunday. During WW II, there was one train daily except Sunday to Viroqua and one train on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to Chaseburg (the Milwaukee Road acquired the line from Westby to Chaseburg from the LaCrosse and Southeastern in 1933), and both of these trains were mixed - they were freight trains that also had a passenger car for passengers and express. This service continued into the 1950s, but by the 1970s there was only one train on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
|200 block of what would become North Main Street in 1921|
La Crosse and Southeastern tracks on west side of street
Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific tracks on east side of street
The Milwaukee Road was a large railroad extending from Louisville, Kentucky to Seattle, Washington, serving 12 states with over 10,000 miles of track at its high point. It was one of several railroads serving the Midwest and Western farm regions, with many relatively short branch lines like the one to Westby and Viroqua. This resulted in many short freight hauls which minimized profits instead of profitable long hauls, and the railroad was in and out of bankruptcy several times. The branch line to VIroqua never received a lot of physical improvements, and 100 years after it was completed it still used very light rail that was not designed to carry the heavy locomotives and freight cars that became common in the 1960s and 70s. By the 1950s, the Milwaukee Road was competing with government financed highways and interstates and was in financial trouble. Maintenance was deferred, and by the time the railroad went into it’s final bankruptcy in 1980 the line to Viroqua was in terrible shape. The main customer was Howard Johnson’s fertilizer plant in Viroqua, although Westby had a number of customers with utility poles, lumber and agricultural supplies arriving on a regular basis. But most of these commodities were very heavy and carried in cars that often broke or spread the light rails still in use on the line. The Milwaukee Road reorganized as a result of its 1980 bankruptcy and dropped service on many branch lines, keeping only the main line. After 100 years of service, the Milwaukee Road no longer came to Westby and Viroqua.
But that didn’t end rail service. The State of Wisconsin tried to intervene and save service on as many of the Milwaukee’s branch lines as possible. The State bought the right of way (real estate), and a Transit Commission formed by Westby and VIroqua bought the track, paying 20 percent of the cost and the State paying the other 80 percent. A private operator came in to run the trains, and did everything it could to keep the trains running. But the track was in such bad shape that derailments occurred with nearly every train that ran. Finally, a referendum was held to ask local voters to help fund a portion of reconstruction using the same cost sharing with the State: 20:80. Vernon County was willing, but unfortunately Monroe County, through which most of the line ran but had very few customers, was unwilling to participate. This was the last straw, and in March 1981, the last train ran and the line was abandoned. Ironically, had the line held on for another two or three years, new State legislation changed the funding arrangements and money would have been made available for upgrades that were 50 years overdue. Industries in Viroqua and Westby could still have rail service and benefit from rail rates that are historically significantly lower than truck rates.
First and Milwaukee streets
Very little remains in Westby to tell us that a train once ran through town. The Milwaukee Road depot agent left on October 13, 1970 and the depot was torn down soon after. A number of buildings still stand that were served by the railroad (which ran on what is now Bekkedal Avenue) and can be identified by the loading doors that used to open to allow loading directly into rail cars. The Viroqua depot still stands proudly and is the headquarters of Howard Johnson’s Enterprises. It’s worth a visit to recall the days, long gone, when railroads provided all the essential transportation services to rural America.