Railroads In The Northwoods

©copyright 2016 Glyn (Bud) Roberts

The passenger trains that brought tourists to and from this area as well as the freight trains that brought goods and supplies northward and timber products southward have pretty much ceased to operate.

Today, only memories are left of the network of tracks that extended throughout the region like some giant spider web and contributed greatly to the development of the north country as we know it today.

We can only imagine that the wilderness lands and waters of the north were viewed by lumber company and railroad executives who traveled the various routes.  They were probably among the early few to experience the joys of camping, hiking, hunting and fishing activities.

The mainline railroads extended only to points central to the major saw mills with wide gauge track spacing of four feet eight and one half inches.  That was to accommodate larger railroad cars.  Narrow gauge lines radiated from the sawmills or central points to the locations where trees were harvested and stockpiled in the wooded sidings.  Those rails were spaced as narrow as three feet apart.

After major logging operations diminished in the northwoods the narrow gauge lines were gradually removed.  Heavy loads of logs previously conveyed by rail were moved from the woods landings to the mills by truck.  This was possible because of the emphasis on new and improved county, state and federal roads that took place in the 1920’s and beyond.

Today, many of the former mainlines have been discontinued throughout the state and have been converted to recreational trails for hiking, snowmobiling, horseback riding and more after rails and ties were removed.

There is existing evidence especially on state and county lands of narrow gauge rail routes threading through hills and across low lands that still remain.  Those routes through the woods usually followed paths of least resistance due to the difficulty the terrain presented.  They were cut and filled with horse or oxen towe slushers, a steel scoop bucket device guided by two handles.  Moving earth and rock was slow and at times required blasting as well.

Low and wet areas often were spanned with logs laid crossways in the roadbed.  Tamarack logs were often chosen because of their tannin content that resisted rot and failure.

Visible examples of former narrow gauge rail lines can be seen along portions of the Winter Branch line that is located east of Blue Island Road where it kind of parallels it.  It has been developed into a snowmobile trail on the state lands.

Before it was upgraded for current use I hiked it in 1945.  I picked my way through the brush and tree growth and could quite easily follow the old right of way.  The cuts through the high ground stood out with their vertical banks and built up low areas beyond, all in a line.

During one hike while exploring the Winter Branch further, I came to a drop off point where it was necessary for me to climb down a bank.  At the bottom and for about fifty feet ahead I walked across moss covered rotting ties partially hidden by dense fern growth.  The steep slope at the end was aligned with the trail ahead.

I soon realized that a wooden trestle had spanned the space because it would have been too much to fill with slushers.

The following day while collecting our mail at the Arbor Vitae Post Office I asked Mr. Al Myklbey our postmaster about my discovery.  He, being a long time resident was able to tell me about the Winter Branch narrow gauge line that extended north from Sweeny Lake to well beyond Wis. Hwy 70 East.

Many years later our sons Garyn and Tom together with our grandson David drove the truck to the location of the trestle.  When the Dept. of Natural Resources adapted the rail route to a snowmobile trail they bypassed the former trestle site.

Our mission was to test a new metal detector that David had received as a gift.  Our hope was to recover small size railroad spikes used to secure rails to wooden ties.  After switching the device on we made serval passes until the tone changed radically indicating the presence of metal.

I set the shovel’s blade at a point where the sound had changed and pressed downward while tipping the handle back.  The prying action lifted a length of angle iron with a rolled edge and bolt holes spaced evenly.  It was not a rail spike but a connecting member used to join two rails.

At other places I have found narrow gauge rail spikes since that event.

With improved highway systems and more reliable automobiles transportation tourism businesses began to develop and flourish.

An often overlooked factor that promoted the tourism business was the paid vacation available to more of the working class.

In 1943 the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad, commonly called the Milwaukee Road abandoned its line that ran from Woodruff northward to Star Lake, Wisconsin.  It had been built in 1895.

That very line crossed the Chicago-Northwestern line that entered Woodruff from the southeast as well as Wis. Hwy 47.  The snowmobile trail follows that abandoned line past Anthony’s Italian Restaurant which was the Milwaukee Road depot that included a waiting room, office and baggage room.  Early maps indicate a railroad stop or siding called Velasco Junction between Woodruff and Arbor Vitae.

A local auto Mechanic, Clarence Jorden, received the contract to cut loose the rails from the railroad bed between Woodruff and Star Lake.  He mounted his cutting torch and tanks on a rail repair car and worked his way from Star Lake southward.  Being wartime, the rails were melted elsewhere and remanufactured into military needs.

After that, the Milwaukee Road trains came to the Woodruff station and followed a rail loop extending eastward through the Huber Estate area and returned to Minocqua.

Some years later, 1n 1973, the entire line closed and became the Bearskin State Trail into Minocqua.