With 150th anniversary event near, Evansville rail buffs recall life on the lines
EVANSVILLE — Tales of farmers driving sheep through downtown Evansville to the railroad depot and of close calls working in the rail yards came to life Thursday when a group of railroad enthusiasts gathered.
More than a dozen former railroad employees or those with ties to the industry recalled fond memories during a roundtable discussion to mark the 150th anniversary of rail in Evansville.
The discussion at Creekside Place was the latest in a series of audio-recording events organized by John Ehle and local historian Ruth Ann Montgomery.
In the early days of rail construction, lines were built by raising money from farmers who bought stock. Train service from Chicago started in Evansville in 1863 and reached Madison by 1864. By 1886, a cutoff, or shortcut, was completed after business leaders in Janesville and Evansville pushed for a direct rail connection between the cities via Fellows Station.
For many years, more than 30 trains passed through Evansville every day, according to research from John Decker, who worked the rails in Milwaukee and Alaska in summers during college.
The railroad helped make Evansville an industrious city, Montgomery said. When Highway 14 to Janesville was built in the 1920s, the railroad was so powerful that it would not allow highways to cross tracks, she said. That's still evident today where the highway turns north just before the tracks downtown.
David Fellows, who wrote a book about the “cutoff” route and Fellows Station east of Evansville, described the commerce along the route. Farmers ordered western lambs, which were unloaded and driven to the farms, cutting off the number of lambs at each homestead “purely by guess work.”
If the farmers were a few head off, the “eight-party telephones would be humming” to get the numbers straight, he said.
John Rasmussen recalled how his grandmother hopped on the train from Brooklyn to attend school in Evansville, where she graduated in 1904. She rode in the caboose because she wasn't allowed in the engine, he said.
“She told me that story many times,” Dick Luers said. “She'd ride back and forth—that was her school bus. The train would stop, they'd let her jump on the caboose.”
Gib Wiedenhoeft pointed to a turn-of-the-century state map and said people probably don't realize how many railroads there were. As railroads increased after the Civil War, the price of merchandise fell precipitously, he said. Bricks from Milwaukee or Portage were brought in to build houses, and cast iron stoves and pianos could be delivered to furnish them, he said.
Wiedenhoeft, who worked as an agent, operator and telegrapher for the Soo Line Railroad, recalled a train that went through during hunting season. Hunters had left a gate open, and the train plowed through 27 cattle standing on the tracks. The smell was horrific, and cow parts filled the area. He said he'll never forget seeing the brakeman hanging out the back window, “upchucking.”
The participants expressed optimism about the city's goal of trying to reopen the out-of-service line that runs north through Brooklyn and Oregon to Madison.
“I think we're headed—needing to head—in more of an emphasis on railroading in the years to come,” Fellows said. “I think the highways have all the freight they can handle and then some.”