(text and photos from "Whistle on the Wind" ©1997 MCRHS)

The Chicago & North Western Railway (C&NW) was the city of Chicago's first railroad when its predecessor Galena & Chicago Union built a few miles of track west from the Chicago River in the summer of 1848. The line was a success and quickly grew into a vast network of rail lines in Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

Seeking a transportation link to the outside world, Baraboo area settlers obtained a charter from the Wisconsin state legislature for the Baraboo Air Line on March 8, 1870. The name referred to the straightness of the route, not the mode of transportation. The new line would build from Columbus, Watertown, or Madison, through Lodi, Baraboo, and Reedsburg, to Tomah or LaCrosse. Less than a year later, this fledgling railroad was purchased by the C&NW. With the financial backing of the big road, the route was completed from Madison through the scenic Devil's Lake and Wisconsin River Valley, Baraboo, North Freedom, and Reedsburg to Elroy by August of 1872. Less than a year later, the line was completed west and became the C&NW's first route connecting Chicago with the Twin Cities.

The line boomed and Baraboo prospered as a new division headquarters. By 1892, almost 500 railroad employees lived at Baraboo. Dozens of freight and passenger trains passed through daily. To boost capacity, the railroad added a second mainline track (called double-track), built new stations (Baraboo received its new brick station in 1902, Reedsburg in 1906), and buying new locomotives and cars.

Back when C&NW's mainline between Madison and Elroy, Wisconsin was still double tracked, 4-4-2 #1027 guides a westbound passenger train of wooden varnish through the Ablemans narrows, some four miles west of North Freedom. C&NW 1027 was a Class D Atlantic built in December of 1901 by Schenectady and scrapped 39 years later, thereby making the number available for an incoming Alco S-2 diesel. Photo from the collection of Lou Schmitz.

But the heyday would not last. In 1911, a new more direct mainline north of the Wisconsin River valley was completed from Milwaukee to the Twin Cities by the C&NW. From then on, the Baraboo line declined. The railroad's shops at Baraboo closed in 1924 as work was moved to Madison. And by 1933, the Madison Division headquarters were moved out of town. In 1954, the mainline was reduced to a single track again. Passenger train service--down to a single train a day--ended unceremoniously in 1963. In the mid-1980s, track was abandoned west of Reedsburg, making the Baraboo line a dead-end railroad with only local service. No longer could trains run through to the Twin Cities and west. Today, even the railroad companies have changed. C&NW was absorbed into the vast Union Pacific system in 1995. Beginning in October of 1996, Wisconsin & Southern Railroad leased the track, operating only a few freights a week from Madison, and hauling rock ballast from a quarry at Rock Springs for use on the C&NW/UP system during the summer. The Baraboo line's rise and fall echoed that of rail transportation in general throughout the Midwest--its vital importance as a source of transportation and a way of life diminished with the advent of modern highways and airplanes.

An eastbound freight behind a C&NW Class R-1 4-6-0 locomotive (sister to #1385) blasts out of Baraboo toward Devils Lake in 1906. Photo from the collection of Lou Schmitz.

North Freedom is alive and well today. But with bigger businesses and industries, residents have shifted their working environment to cities like Baraboo, Reedsburg, and even Madison, while still living in North Freedom, in many of the houses built by the early settlers.