Velkommen til Westby

Velkommen til Westby

Monday, April 21, 2014

La Crosse and Southeastern Railway

La Crosse and Southeastern Passenger Station
The second railroad to arrive in Westby was the LaCrosse and Southeastern. Built by W. S. Cargill, whose father started the vast Cargill grain empire, was designed to provide more convenient service from Viroqua and Westby to La Crosse than the Milwaukee Road line that went via Sparta and capture the majority of grain, livestock and tobacco shipments from the many farms in the area to markets in LaCrosse. Conceived and built in 1904, the line from Stoddard through Chaseburg, Coon Valley and Westby was completed to Viroqua on January 4, 1905. Later that year, rails were laid to a terminal in LaCrosse, located just southeast of the current Gunderson  Medical Center.

The Southeastern, as it was commonly called, was the favored means of travel to and from LaCrosse, if only because a round trip could be made in the same day, unlike on the competing Milwaukee Road. Shopping trips were common, and local doctors sent their patients to Gunderson on one of the Southeastern passenger trains - they were often unloaded directly at the hospital entrance and went directly into surgery. The initial fare from Viroqua to La Crosse was $1.25, with one daily round trip scheduled. By 1907, service had increased to four round trips daily. The Southeastern also enjoyed (and profited from) having a contract to carry the mail between La Crosse and the outlying towns from 1905 until the early 1930s.

Unfortunately, the Southeastern was built late in the period of railroad expansion - just as Americans were beginning their love affair with the automobile. Although the short, 32 mile line attempted several innovative means of controlling costs, the line never came close to being profitable, showing small profits in only three of its 29 years. By 1919, the line was in such serious financial trouble that the Wisconsin Public Utilities Commission granted the Southeastern permission to raise its tariff from 3 cents per mile to 4 cents. The same year, the line cut back to two daily trains pulled by steam locomotives and added a railbus (reducing crew costs by more than half when compared to conventional trains) capable of carrying 32 passengers.  Like its automotive competitors, the innovative railbus needed to be hand cranked to start the gas engine. It was able to make the trip from Viroqua to La Crosse in only two hours - one less than conventional trains. It was so successful that the railroad soon used it to make two round trips per day, eliminating another steam powered train. That year was the last one when the Southeastern turned a profit.

La Crosse & Southeastern Railway
Competing bus service began in 1922 between Coon Valley and La Crosse. The Southeastern decided if it couldn’t beat the competition, it would join it - in 1926, a subsidiary company was formed that provided bus service from La Crosse through Viroqua all the way to Madison. The subsidiary soon added truck service. The Depression hit in 1929, and led to increased losses for the railroad. Even the subsidiary bus and truck service was unprofitable.  By 1933, the Southeastern was ready to call it quits and got permission to abandon all service. Cargill, still owner of the railroad, worked a deal with the Milwaukee Road that benefited both. In exchange for a grain elevator and loading dock in Milwaukee, the Southeastern was given to the Milwaukee Road. Service between La Crosse, Stoddard and Chaseburg was terminated on August 7, 1933 and the rails soon were removed. The Milwaukee Road expanded their Sparta to Viroqua line by taking over the Southeastern’s line from Westby to Coon Valley and Chaseburg. Service to Chaseburg was continued until 1964, and to Coon Valley until 1971. The Chaseburg depot was removed in 1945, and the Coon Valley depot was moved a short distance and became a house - it still stands. The Westby depot was torn down in 1970. The Viroqua depot stood where Nelson Agri-Center store’s parking lot now is located. 

Ellen Pederson supplied the following information on the La Crosse & Southeastern Railway.   

Originally planned as an electric interurban, the La Crosse & Southeastern Railway opened between Viroqua and Stoddard in 1905 as a steam railroad. A morning mixed train ran from Viroqua to Stoddard, exchanged passengers with CB&Q locals to and from La Crosse, and returned to Viroqua in the afternoon.  Trackage was soon extended from Stoddard to CB&Q connection, appropriately named LC&SE Junction on La Crosse’s south side. For the final two miles into La Crosse, LC&SE trains used CB&Q tracks and its downtown passenger depot. During most of its brief history, the 41 mile Coon Valley route offered a daily morning and afternoon passenger run each way - one of which was a round trip mixed train.

CB&Q’s La Crosse passenger line skirted the grounds of Lutheran Hospital and Gundersen Clinic. Staff physician Adolf Gundersen was a pioneer in abdominal surgery, successfully removing the inflamed appendix. Old-timers recall that many of his patients rode Southeastern trains - dubbed “The Appendicitis Limited” to La Crosse, lying on cots in the express room of the baggage-coach car and unloaded at the hospital’s back door.
La Crosse and Southeastern Railway Company 1921 rail motor car

With improved roads, Southeastern passenger business - its main revenue source plunged. To trim expenses yet preserve double-daily service, the turned to rail motor cars for one of its round trips. In 1920, it bought a new gas powered rail passenger motor, built from a White bus chassis and body, and small trailing car for express and mail: then purchased a larger 40 foot, 31 seat secondhand rail motor car. About 1922, the Southeastern added a new baggage-coach unit, powered by a Stanley vertical high-pressure steam boiler. Its builder was Boston’s Unit Railway Car Company, which then also produced the Stanley Steamer auto. One Sunday, while transporting LC&SE employees and their families to a company picnic, the unit’s boiler malfunctioned, showering its well dressed riders, including women in white dresses, with a layer of soot, cinders, and oily residue.

Passenger service was reduced in 1927 to a single weekday round trip mixed, operating out of Viroqua. Bus runs replaced the daily rail motor round trip.  Imitating the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” response of other railroads to growing highway competition, the Coon Valley route in 1926 formed the La Crosse & Southeastern Transportation Company bus subsidiary. Routes radiated out of La Crosse: to Madison (via Viroqua and Richland Center), with a Viroqua-La Farge branch, and in Minnesota, to Preston and Lanesboro. Runs to and from Gays Mills soon replaced La Farge service; a La Crosse-Prairie du Chien-Dubuque route, the Madison run. The endeavor was short-lived. Its routes and seven motor coaches went to other bus operators in 1931.

La Crosse & Southeastern trains in 1932 carried only 605 passengers and 46,000 tons of freight. After years of deficits, the Cargill-controlled line received ICC authority to go out of business. The LC&SE bowed out on August 5, 1933, with the departure from La Crosse of ex-CB&Q/CB&N 4-6-0 locomotive #7 towing four freight cars and open platform baggage-coach #51. The Milwaukee Road then purchased and operated the Chaseburg-Westby segment in conjunction with its own Sparta-Viroqua branchline. Chaseburg-Coon Valley service survived to 1964; Coon Valley-Westby, to 1971.

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