What is Mid-Continent?
Mid-Continent Railway Historical Society–also known as Mid-Continent Railway Museum–is an outdoor, living museum and operating railroad recreating the small town/short line way of life during the “Golden Age of Railroading,” with operating trains, educational exhibits, and displays of restored rolling stock. Mid-Continent has operated at North Freedom, Wisconsin since 1963.
The Mid-Continent Railway Historical Society sees itself as a place where visitors can learn of a time when the railroad station was the social and communication center of every small town. People came to the station to meet folks who came from faraway places, or to journey to those places. The mail, packages, newspapers, and goods came by rail, or were shipped by rail. The railroad and its telegraph were the nucleus that tied a small community to every place in the entire country. Everyone depended on the railroad for transportation, information, and the shipment of goods and mail.
Our mission is to educate the public by recreating as accurately as possible the Golden Years of Railroads, from the Civil War days until after World War II, by operating a living railroad with vintage equipment from those times.
We will collect, preserve, restore, and operate artifacts from those times so as to inform the public about the development of railroading from wooden equipment to steel, and from steam power to internal combustion. We will give our visitors a firsthand experience on this equipment. We will do our best to accurately portray this Golden Age.
Mid-Continent is a not-for-profit, membership society. Its members have been the driving force behind its establishment and growth since its inception. Founded in 1959 as the Railway Historical Society of Milwaukee, its sole purpose has been to perpetuate the heritage of steam railroads through the operation and display of authentic railroad equipment. The first attempt to fulfill this mission took place at Hillsboro, Wisconsin, in 1962. But the rules of the rail line owner required the fledgling group to pull its coaches with gas power and leave the steamers for display only.
In 1963 the society purchased 4.2 miles of track from the Chicago & North Western Railroad and moved its operations to North Freedom, Wisconsin. That year society members offered steam train rides under their new name, the Mid-Continent Railway Historical Society, Inc. Each year, nearly 20,000 visitors enjoy the sights and sounds of railroading as it was done in the early part of the century.
Longtime member Jim Neubauer compiled a historical timeline of Mid-Continent’s development, giving an in-depth presentation of the museum’s development from inception to present.
Over the years, the society has added to its collection of rolling stock, laid new track, and constructed shops and display sheds in an effort to create a reputable railroad museum. The members have maintained a very narrow scope in their purpose statement to focus on those railroads that operated in the upper Midwest during what is popularly called the “Golden Age of Railroading.” This has given the museum a unique look so that a visitor today feels like they have stepped back in time. It has also helped to keep the museum’s limited resources committed to a manageable task versus trying to save everything from everywhere.
The membership roster averages over 500 people each year. Volunteer hours have steadily grown as society members continue to impact every aspect of museum work. A board of twelve directors governs museum operations. They in turn supervise a combination of paid staff and volunteers who handle the day-to-day business of the museum.
Mid-Continent is operated for the benefit of the general public. This primarily means Wisconsin residents. But the guest register shows that it is visited each year by people from around the United States and Canada. This is aided by the museum’s proximity to both Baraboo, where the Circus World Museum and the International Crane Foundation are located, and the Wisconsin Dells, a popular tourist destination.
What does the future hold for Mid-Continent? Mid-Continent’s over 500 members live in 38 U.S. states and the United Kingdom. They come from all age groups, from both genders, and from a great variety of interests and occupations. Some are full-time or retired railroaders (representing roads such as the Central Vermont, the New York Central, the Wisconsin Central, the Alaska Railroad, and many more). Others are teachers, machinists, nurses, law enforcement officers, journalists, government workers, aircraft pilots, students, farmers and engineers. The ranks include budding enthusiasts, as well as some of the best known rail artists, photographers and writers in the land. Many volunteer their time to carry out the many tasks required to operate and improve a living, operating railway museum. Regardless of their “day jobs,” members work as brakemen and locomotive engineers, as steamfitters and carpenters, as researchers and writers, as cooks and waiters, as designers and gandy dancers. But volunteer work is never required of members, and many are content to simply visit and enjoy, knowing that their dues and contributions help as well.
Membership in the Mid-Continent Railway Historical Society brings the usual benefits, including publications, museum store discounts, and a pass to ride. More importantly, it brings the satisfaction that you are supporting what Trains Magazine publisher Kevin Keefe called “one of the most authentic, essential institutions of its kind.” Won’t you join us today?
Office phone: 608-522-4261
Mid-Continent Railway Historical Society
E8948 Diamond Hill Road
P.O. Box 358
North Freedom, WI 53951