This week Fox 25/48 is taking a closer look at La Crosse County in our County-By-County series. Tonight, Fox 25/48’s Zach Prelutsky brings us the history of what used to be one of the largest employers in the area… the railroads.
Less than two decades after La Crosse became a city, railroads were built up to connect the Coulee Region to the rest of the country.
“The railroads originally built to La Crosse was a goal because it was a transportation hub right on the Mississippi River. They wanted to reach the river trade with a pack of boats and so forth going up and down the river. The first railroad to arrive in La Crosse was actually called that La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad and it arrived here in 1858.”
For La Crosse, the identity was a river town, but soon trains started to take over because of the reliability and speed. By the end of the 19th century, there would be many different railroads going through the county.
The purpose, to carry lumber and other goods from the area around the country as well as passenger trains.
“And at one time the railroad industry was La Crosse largest employer between the five or six different roads that served La Crosse. Of course, there were several consolidations, the Southern Minnesota and the Chicago Dubuque and Minnesota and the St. Paul and Chicago merged with, became the Chicago Milwaukee and St. Paul.”
The railroads would remain highly used in the Coulee Region until newer technology in the 1930s and 40s — such as diesel locomotives — led to railroad consolidations.
Mark Hamre is the president of the 4000 Foundation, a group which seeks to keep the history and artifacts of the railroads alive.
“Concerned citizens, rail enthusiasts, and some railroad employees, and other interested parties. We wanted to see that the train was kind of being neglected and we wanted to do something about it.”
The group works to preserve the short line train in Copeland Park as well as the Grand Crossings tower and other equipment.
“The importance and significance of what we have here in Copeland Park is a representative of the different railroads and the railroad heritage in the earlier technology. What we’re looking at right here is an example of very early railroad technology which is obsolete.”
Today, railroads are still running along tracks throughout the county.
Passenger trains still come through and companies such as Amtrak are looking to add more stops. Companies such as City Brewery still use the railroad to receive and export goods.
Along with being president of the 4000 Foundations, Hamre works on the railroad. He says he admires those who had the career before him.
“All the personalities and people that were employed in the railroad, not so much here anymore but at one time it was a very big deal for La Crosse. The passenger service, I mean I think there was something like 46 arrivals and departures between the five railroads that serviced La Crosse up until the 1920s and 30s.”
Hamre is excited about the future and wants people to understand the past because the railroads helped La Crosse connect with the rest of the country and become the county it is today.
In La Crosse, Zach Prelutsky, Fox 25/48 First News at Nine.