The 20th century was a period of great change for the railroad industry, and these changes were reflected and sometimes hastened by events in Wisconsin. Common carriers moved from steam to diesel-electric motive power, crew sizes were reduced, companies were merged, lines were consolidated, other lines were abandoned, facilities were rebuilt and preservation efforts began. The state government plays a further role in Wisconsin's railroad history by acquiring a number of lines and finding operators for them.
Railroad history in Wisconsin begins in earnest in the 1830s, not long after the first railroads were chartered and built on the East Coast. The century saw rapid expansion throughout the state with a large number of railroads chartered and building new lines to a majority of the towns in the state. This period is also marked with a number of mergers and acquisitions as less profitable entities were absorbed into (usually) larger systems. By the end of the century, the railroad scene in Wisconsin would be very familiar to most viewers.
As railroading progresses into the 21st century, we see new technologies increasingly taking a more important role in moving freight and passengers. But throughout it all, good old fashioned railroading is still practiced.
In 1874, the Southern Pacific was building its line south from San Francisco through California's central valley. Construction reached Bakersfield and work began on the line that would include the Tehachapi Loop on November 8, 1874. The line is still one of the busiest mountain passes in California, and is now owned by Union Pacific Railroad. In this view from the mid 1980s, we see part of a container car, and under it in the background, the head end of the train of which this container car is part and an opposing Southern Pacific freight at the Tehachapi Loop.
Here it is, the first episode of The Rip Track Podcast. In this show I discuss NTSB recommendations R-09-1 through -5 that have to do with uniform railroad signaling, I list a number of significant events in railroad history that occurred in May throughout the years, offer an excerpt from the Conversations About Photography conference sponsored by the Center for Rail Photography and Art, and I close with a Modeler's Moment describing one way to save some money on your model railroad purchases.
Although most students of railroad history might not think of Wisconsin's railroad industry as a significant contributor to rail transport, many events that occurred in Wisconsin have affected railroading on a worldwide scale. Here is a timeline of significant events that have occurred in Wisconsin related to rail transport. This research is not a final document and will be added to (and periodically reposted to the front page) as more information becomes available. Because there is so much data to include in this timeline, it has been broken into sections by century. The first part covers 19th century railroad history in Wisconsin, events occurring between 1801 and 1900 (inclusive). The next part covers the 20th century, events occurring between 1901 and 2000, and the third part includes years that have elapsed so far since then and the present. Finally, the sources used for this research, both for data and for images, have all been listed in the bibliography.
The first official mail transport by rail in the world occurred in 1830 when the UK's General Post Office shipped mail on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Then, in 1838, the General Post Office again achieved another first when the first Travelling Post Office car was introduced on the Grand Junction Railway, enabling sorting of mail while en route. Here in the US, the first mail was carried in a baggage car in 1831 on the South Carolina Rail Road, and Congress designated all US railroads as official postal routes in 1838. In 1862, the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad began regularly carrying mail in purpose-built mail cars. But it was August 28, 1864, that interests us most today, because that was the date that George B. Armstrong, a postmaster who had been promoted through his service in Chicago, established the first permanent RPO route in the US. It wasn't much longer until RPO cars looked more like what we think of today, as the mail hook was patented in 1867. The last regular RPO service in the US ended on June 30, 1977, with the last run of the route between New York and Washington, DC.
Today is the birthday of the railroad executive who tried to merge Union Pacific (UP) and Southern Pacific (SP) almost a century before the merger was complete in 1996. E.H. Harriman was born on February 20, 1848, and joined the Board of Directors for UP in 1897, becoming President in 1903. He also became President of SP in 1901. He controlled both railroads (and several other companies) until his death on September 9, 1909. Many of the two railroads' operating practices were standardized, but Federal officials objected to a combined company at the time, so a complete merger would have to wait. In 1913, his widow set up the E.H. Harriman Award to recognize railroad companies with outstanding safety records.
The first section of the London Underground opened on January 10, 1863, connecting Paddington Station to Farringdon Street. Since then, the system has grown to cover 253 miles of track on twelve lines. I can only imagine what it would have been like riding the Underground when it was still powered by steam engines; it certainly would have been quite a bit dirtier and darker in color than scenes from today, like this view of Blackfriars station.
(photo courtesy of the National Library and Archives of Canada)