Some people are really into trains. (Other people, well, really aren’t.) Here at the museum we have a lot of information about Vernon County’s railroads, including photos and maps, because of this great interest in the subject. We also have train-related objects, including a window from the Coon Valley depot of the La Crosse and Southeastern Railway, and a conductor’s hat, pictured here, from the Milwaukee Road line.
“Milwaukee Road” is a nickname for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. It began as the Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway in 1863, and arrived in Vernon County in 1880 via a spur line from Sparta. The spur line ran south through Newry and Westby and ended in Viroqua. Plans were made to extend it 12 miles to West Prairie, but the plans fell through.
Orange and black were the colors of the Milwaukee Road, and the trains and signs and other advertising were in those colors, including the insignia on the trainman’s hat pictured here. This hat was worn by Robert Roth, who was born in La Crosse in 1932. He worked as a brakeman and a conductor for the Milwaukee Road from 1951 to 1952, and again from 1954 to 1956. (He served in the Army from 1952 to 1954.) In 1956, he had a career change, and began working for the state highway patrol, and a few years later moved to Vernon County.
In addition to the Milwaukee Road, other railroads ran through Vernon County, including the Hillsboro and North Eastern, the previously-mentioned La Crosse and Southeastern, the Kickapoo Valley and Northern (a.k.a. the Stump Dodger), and the Burlington. Of these, the Burlington, which runs along the Mississippi River, is the only one still in operation.
The La Crosse and Southeastern ran the Coon Valley Route, which operated from La Crosse through Stoddard, Chaseburg, Coon Valley, and Westby to Viroqua from 1904 to 1933. Then the Milwaukee Road took over the line in 1933, and over the decades gradually shortened the line and removed tracks, until they abandoned the remaining section of the line, Westby to Viroqua, plus the rest of the spur from Sparta, in 1980.
The museum has a small exhibit about trains, and many documents, images, etc., in the archives. This trainman’s hat is actually not in the train exhibit but rather in the hat exhibit on the third floor. You are welcome to visit the museum to see all the train stuff during our regular summer hours of Monday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., or by appointment.