For the first 12 years of my life, I lived above the Times Office on Market Street in DeForest. Out of our front living room window we had a commanding view of the railroad tracks in downtown DeForest.
The Dane County Farmers Co-op building and coal storage shed were just east of the tracks and the DeForest Implement Co. building and used farm implement yard were just west of the tracks. It wasn’t a very scenic view, but there was quite a bit of action to be seen from that window.
The local railroad and depot was a very busy place back in the 1940s and 50s. At least two passenger trains came through DeForest every day and there were many freight trains coming through at all times.
I remember one freight train came roaring through every night between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. I became so used to the noise that I didn’t really hear it. But if it failed to come through, I would wake up from a deep sleep and wonder why the train didn’t come that night.
The mail was delivered in and out of DeForest by trains. The post office was on Commerce Street about where Library Street now runs. Every day, Ernie Karow would take his big push cart from the post office over to the depot and he would have a couple mail sacks in the cart.
When the train stopped at the depot, the man in the mail car would drop off the incoming mail for DeForest and take Ernie’s mail bags into the mail car. There would usually be three or four kids going to the depot with Ernie and he would give them a free ride in the push cart.
Sometimes the train did not stop at DeForest and the guy in the mail car would use a long pole to snatch the bag from a flag pole that was outfitted with a bag holder next to the depot.
The best way to haul heavy freight in those days was by train and there were often crates and packing boxes on the freight dock on the north end of the depot waiting to be picked up and hauled to their final local destination.
There were a number of special trains coming through on this Milwaukee Road Line. The two I remember the most were the Ringling Brothers Circus train and several trains would pass through every fall just before and after the Wisconsin/Minnesota Battle of the Ax football game.
Sometimes my friends and I would stand by the tracks and wave to the engineer who always waved back. The big old steam locomotives were more dramatic to look at versus the more modern yellow painted diesel locomotives.
In late fall (about Thanksgiving time) the big snow plows would be put on the front of the locomotives. You could always tell when a heavy snow was coming our way — the plows and locomotives would come through covered with snow and ice. They made it through some pretty rough weather, although sometimes they would run a day late. My dad remembered one very rough winter when the train did not make it for better than three days. That must have been the snow storm of the century.
The train tracks are still used today, but there are no passenger trains and even the freight trains have cut way back. Most of the freight cars that you see go by are coal cars for the Columbia County power plant near Portage.
The DeForest Depot is no longer run by the railroad, but it has been repaired and repainted by the DeForest Area Historical Society.
I remember when trains would go through DeForest many times a day, and for years I had a ‘lucky nickel’ that was flattened by a Milwaukee Road locomotive after I had placed it on the railroad tracks. I showed it to one of my friends and he told me it was against the law to place coins on railroad tracks and the cops would soon be looking for me. I believed him and that night I told my dad what I had done. He told me it was not against the law but I should make better use for my money than having a train run over it.
Dick Emerson is the former publisher of the DeForest Times-Tribune.