Racine’s Hometown Railroad 1855 – 2005

Written by Keith Kohlman

© 2005 Racine Heritage Museum

By May of 1855 the Racine, Janesville & Mississippi Railroad had laid a track from the harbor in Racine to a point as far west as today’s location of the intersection of 21st Street and Green Bay Road. That same month the Green Bay, Milwaukee & Chicago Railroad completed their north-south line through the area, constructing a level crossing of the two single track railroads northwest of the intersection of today’s 17th and Holborn Streets. The GBM&C (later known as the Chicago & North Western Ry.) constructed a depot and an interchange track at the junction, officially connecting Racine with the nation’s growing network of railroads.  Enjoy this sampling of stories taken from area newspapers regarding the excitement of this revolutionary new form of transportation.

The First Locomotives

The roadbed and ties for the line to the west had been prepared over the winter months. The spring lake-shipping season of 1855 began and the iron rail from England was laid down as soon as it arrived. The builders of the RJ&M laid track as fast as they could.

In May of 1855 a sailboat from Buffalo arrived with a small second-hand locomotive called Tiger which was unloaded at the railroad dock and placed in a temporary engine shed.  Previous to the arrival of the Tiger, track material had been transported over the rails on flat cars pushed by men.  But the little locomotive took over the job, and the men were released for other work.

The day after the Tiger arrived, the second locomotive of the RJ&M arrived in Racine over the tracks of the Green Bay, Milwaukee & Chicago RR.  It was switched to the tracks of the RJ&M at the Junction, and run down to the engine house in the yards near the harbor.

Soon the RJ&M took delivery of four new 4-4-0 locomotives from Rogers Locomotive Works. Like all wood burning locomotives of the day, these had broad funnel-shaped smokestacks and long wooden pilots, and were painted brightly with polished boiler jackets and brass fittings. The locomotives carried ornate pinstripe detail and were named for cities along the line or important railroad directors. The small 4-4-0 locomotives weighed approximately 26 tons, and as one onlooker of the times remarked upon seeing one of the locomotives standing ready to leave, “It hissed like a tea kettle.” The wood burners had a soft chuff, compared to the sharp bark of the later coal burners. They were capable of speeds of 20-25 mph when pulling 2-3 passenger cars. Freight trains reached top speeds of 10-12 mph, pulling 10-15 cars.

At first the locomotives were named after the towns along the line of the road.  Some of the names were: Racine, Beloit, Elkhorn and Delavan.  Some of the locomotives purchased later were named after officials of the company, which was a great honor to men such as: H. S. Durand, C. S. Wright, M. K. Jessup and Wm. C. Allen.

Celebrating the Train’s Arrival

On June 19, 1855, the rails reached Union Grove, and a huge celebration marked the arrival of the first train to reach the first village outside of Racine. The arrival of the railroad was a great event to the early settlers of Union Grove. It was truly a historic event. It was remembered and retold in the Union Grove Sun, Centennial Edition, of June 22, 1938.

People came in from all around the countryside and a big crowd was on hand when the train arrived at 9 a.m. Amid cheers, waving, shouting and the toots of the whistle, the train pulled into the depot. The merry din continued for several minutes, dying down when a dignitary stepped forward to say a few words, followed by more cheers.

There were two passenger cars on the train. These carried the officials of the railroad and the Mayor of Racine, along with dignitaries and their families. Twenty-four flatcars followed the coaches, carrying a big crowd of citizens from Racine. Boards were placed across the cars for seats. The cars had long stakes placed at the corners and sides to which green boughs were fastened for shade from the sunny, hot June day.

Among the officials and dignitaries who came on that first trip: J. I. Case, Stephen Bull, A.P. Dutton, Mr. Van Pelt, Hugh Gorton, John Elkins, John Carswell, John T. Fish, James Tomlinson, Mayor George Wustum and the father of Judge John Winslow.

After the Racine visitors got off the train, the railroad officials invited all of the people from Union Grove and the surrounding countryside to enjoy a free ride to Racine and back on the train. The train was well filled for the return trip. Upon arriving at the Racine depot, the country delegation was met by hacks, buses and even drays with temporary seats. They were given a ride around the town. Among the chief points of interest were, Racine College, Congress Hall, the Woolen Mills, J.I. Case Threshing Machine works, Tomlinson Furniture Factory, the Huggins Monument works, and the cemetery along the southern lakeshore.

Returning to Union Grove, the people visited, prepared for dinner and enjoyed afternoon games and athletic contests held on the flat grounds north of the railroad.

Then the visitors and hosts sat down to enjoy a bountiful dinner together. Two rows of tables, each 100’ long, were set among beautiful oak trees. In the center of each table, stood upright, was a roast pig flanked by sides of beef. The celebration dinner included prairie chicken pies, great pans of donuts, large combs of wild honey, and wild strawberry shortcake for dessert. Vines and flowers decorated the tables, welcoming the visitors to a meal of true country hospitality.

Following the dinner there were speeches. Mr. Winslow gave the principal address. The Racine Band furnished music, and “Colonel Lincoln” of Union Grove, a famous singer of his day, sang a patriotic solo unaccompanied. The Racine delegation boarded the train for the return trip, and the celebration continued with a dance at the Union Grove hotel.

Similar celebrations were held at each town as the line grew. By the end of 1855, the Racine, Janesville & Mississippi RR. was 46.73 miles long, running from Racine to Delavan.

New Directions

The management changed the intended routing of the line, turning southwest at Delavan and building toward the Mississippi River through Beloit instead of Janesville, making the railroad’s connection on the Rock River at Beloit.  The change was prompted by Janesville’s unwillingness to invest public funds in the road, and the fact that the Milwaukee and Mississippi RR. had already reached their city.  There was no need for a parallel, competing line.

The RJ&M purchased a “swivel charter,” allowing the company to build in any direction or connect with any other railroad from Beloit.  The RJ&M then consolidated with the Rockton & Freeport Railroad Co., which had just consolidated with the Savanna Branch Railroad Co.  These “paper railroads” owned the unbuilt right of way from Rockton, Illinois through Freeport to Savanna on the Mississippi River.  The new company was named the Racine & Mississippi Railroad Company.

The people of Racine looked forward to the day when the line could tap into the network of river traffic reaching into the frontier from the Mississippi River.  But completion of the line was no guarantee of financial success, and there was some concern about the community being financially overextended in one direction.  This feeling can be found in the expression of Rev. M. P. Kinney, a Congregational minister who was Racine’s Superintendent of Schools from 1854-1859.  Mr. Kinney’s first report was made in March 1855, just as the road was building its way out of town.  He wrote,

“In view of the advantages that we now possess of a religious and business nature, and of others soon to be ours when the snarling of the Iron Horse, and the roar of the passing trains, shall meet our gladdened ears.  I feel a strong confidence in the future prosperity of our youthful city, if we shall be careful and determined to make our educational advantages keep equal pace with those above specified.”

Paying For the Rail

In August 1855, a $7,000 bond (which was purchased by the city one year earlier at the request of the RJ&M) came due.  The city council appointed a committee to collect the money.  The committee reported to the council that the railroad could not pay the bond or the interest.  The city council promptly adopted a resolution giving the bond to the school board.

This incident serves to illustrate the priorities of the city council and the majority of people in the community at the time.  It also reveals the financial problems of the railroad, which had a great deal of fixed assets, but little cash until the road began handling freight and passengers.

In the fall of 1855, the yards and station tracks in the harbor were completed. The harvest season began and the grain started flowing eastward on iron rails. The first station of the RJ&M was located in the yards on the east side of the river, north of State Street, in a line with the east line of Wisconsin Street with its north end near the river dock. The depot and yards had a wharf for transferring freight to lake steamers and schooners.  Trains made direct connections to boats headed for many points north and south in Wisconsin and Illinois, as well as across the lake to Michigan.

By January 1, 1857, the R&M was running trains into Rockton, Illinois.  The R&M owned 100 miles of completed railroad, with 10 miles of sidings.  Plans were still underway to build to the Mississippi River at Savanna. Railroad officials estimated the value of the railroad was now $25,000 per mile.  Longer hauling distances made the line a bit more profitable.  Earnings were $80,703, up $20,000 from the year before. The railroad owned 19 locomotives, 44 flat cars, 12 coaches, 7 baggage and 2 mail-express cars.

Bankrupt

The small line was soon bankrupt. Racine’s investors lost everything they had invested, stunting Racine’s economic growth for the next 20 years. In 1873 the route was acquired by the Milwaukee Road, and grain traffic was redirected to the Milwaukee harbor. However new factories were built along the route through Racine to take advantage of the line’s excellent outside rail connections.

The City of Racine made the last payment on their railroad debt in 1932. The line saw heavy use through the mid-1960s. Traffic was slowly switched to the highways, then factories began moving out of Racine. The track from the Junction to the harbor was abandoned in 1982, freeing up the downtown land for marina developments along Water Street, Sam’s River Road and 2nd Street.