Observations made from the author's bicycle rides on railroad grade trails in Wisconsin.
As I ride along on the many “rails to trails” prevalent in my home state of Wisconsin, I cannot help but think about the mighty iron horses that once prowled these same peaceful lanes where I enjoy pedaling along at my ease during the lazy summer months, enjoying the Badger scenery. Here were the routes of the Milwaukee Road’s mighty “Hiawathas” or the Chicago & Northwestern’s “400’s”, as well as the sleepy local passenger and “milk” trains that once served almost every major and minor hamlet of substance across this great Badger State, hauling people and goods, connecting all the local “Hootervilles” with the rest of the world.
As I ride along, the rail buff in me comes out, knowing where to look for the tell-tale signs that give away not only the fact that a railroad existed there, but also whose line it was. I look down at the roadbed and instantly recognize the “Ruby Red” rock ballast that was a C&NW trademark, as well as the bridge abuttments and culverts that were all made of either concrete or high-grade limestone rock. The Northwestern spared nothing on expense when it built it’s lines-they were built to last.
Here or there in a town or village, I might see a leftover switch stand with the arrow-shaped, red and white striped “Chevron” style target attached to it that indicates former Milwaukee Road ownership. A dollar-sign emblem on a former railroad building such as a station or shanty of some kind indicates that Soo Line had been the proprietor of that line.
And of course there are the common indicators of former railroad occupancy common to all lines-the occasional old telegraph pole along the right-of-way, sometimes with a numbered “mile marker” sign still attached. A sign with a “W” on it as one approaches a crossing, this was a “whistle post” that reminded the engineer to blow for the crossing. An abandoned signal box or “bungalow”-the little structures that look like silver outhouses that contained all the equipment for the various signal apparatus. Bits of rotted ties in the ditch. Small, subtle reminders of a time gone by when these quiet country lanes were once busy arteries of activity, carrying the commerce of a state and a nation.
When I was in 4th grade, we studied our state’s history, and every week there was a show that we watched on Public Television with a man and his dog traveling Wisconsin from one end to another, looking for things from the past. This man/dog team came to our school once and I had the privilege of meeting him in person and shaking hands with him. He was also a gifted guitar player and sang his own theme song for the show. It went as follows, I can still remember each and every word.
"Long ago is all around,
all you have to do is look around you.
That’s what me and my good dog have found.
All you have to do is go.
It doesn’t matter where you go."
This man will never know the huge impact that he and his show had on a 4th grade kid who would initially forget about it, but years later it would come back to me as I myself started to venture on my own journeys into long ago.
Yes, I think as I continue along at my leisurely pace, drinking up the beautiful Wisconsin scenery, enjoying the smell of the flowers or of fresh-cut clover, waving at somebody out in their garden or out mowing their lawn. Long ago is certainly right here, all around me, and there is history as I ride.