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Eagle River
The Northwoods
St. Germain
Railroad History
Photo by Kyle Pozorski

Railroads played an important role in developing the Northwoods

Story By Kyle Pozorski
Local News Published 11/24/2021 10:19AM, Last Updated 11/24/2021 8:18PM
Rhinelander - The Northwoods have covered a lot of historical ground to grow from the logging communities of the 19th century into the modern tourist destinations they are today. One of the most significant parts of that history is the railroads, which played an important role in the development of the Northwoods.

In the mid to late 1800s, there was not much in Rhinelander or in the many neighboring communities we now call home. Pioneers settled east along the shore of Lake Michigan, and west along Lake Superior to the Mississippi River.

"So there was this spot right in the middle of northcentral Wisconsin that was like the last of the frontier," says Kerry Bloedorn, a historian at the Pioneer Park Historical Complex in Rhinelander. Bloedorn says the Northwoods back then was just that: woods.

"You know if they're going to build a city here, yes, they can use the Wisconsin River to transport goods in and out but [there] needed to be more than that. We needed roads, and more importantly we need railroads," said Bloedorn. 

Rhinelander started as a plot of woods good for lumber that was sent south down the Wisconsin River and sold across the country. But then the railroad changed everything, says railroad historian Tom Burg. 

"Well, Rhinelander was really Pelican Rapids, a sawmilling town, and in the 1880s the Milwaukee Lake Shore and Western Railway built north from Milwaukee all the way up to Antigo [then] branched at Monico and came over to Pelican Rapids and then beyond all the way up to Ironwood," said Burg. 

After the railway reached the town of Pelican Rapids in 1881, the town was renamed after Milwaukee Lake Shore and Western Railway owner Frederic Rhinelander.

Bloedorn says the early founders "basically petitioned them to build a spur from Monico Junction over to the you know what was going to become this fledgling community." That spur from Monico to Rhinelander was built in 1881, but then about a century later, in the 1970s, the Chicago and Northwestern line was removed from the city, leaving behind what we see today as Barnes Street.

"You know railroads travel in a straight path and they don't make 90-degree angles, so certainly you can see how the railroad came through and kind of curved it's way through the city and how the grid pattern of the streets, you know, lined up with all of that," said Bloedorn.  He believes that by comparing old maps of the late 1800s to ones of today, you can see how century-old railroad tracks have been replaced with roads and highways. 

"By the '50s, railroad passenger traffic was starting to have difficulties, and then along came the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, subsidized by the government, to build good interstate highways throughout the county," Burg said. 

Because of the growth and popularity of the Interstate Highway System, Americans started to use trains less and less as a mode of transportation. In the decades since, the country has all but erased the train systems of the past.

"You know, when people figured out that they could buy their own car and, you know, hop in their own car and drive anywhere they want to go without the problems of starting and stopping on the rail service, it just really started to take over," said Bloedorn. 

But not all of the railroad's history is lost, Burg says. 

"If you see a straight line in nature, it's probably an old railroad bed." 

For those interested in finding out more about railroad history, a few local resources can help, including the Pioneer Park Historical Complex, the Merrill Historical Society, and the Eagle River Depot Museum. You can find links to all of them below.
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