—By Gregg Condon
On Monday, April 30, 2012, I had the tremendously enjoyable opportunity to present a program to the Brodhead Historical Society titled, “The Railroads and Brodhead.”
“Railroads,” plural? Yes, just before the Milwaukee and Mississippi (M&M, early corporate name of the Milwaukee Road) planned to build “our” line from Milton Junction through Janesville to Monroe, Green County citizens were already seeking a rail route here. The first railroad in Illinois ran from Chicago to Galena via Rockford, and so Rockford seemed a logical connection to the “outside world” for a Green County railroad. Where would the north end of this railroad be? They weren’t sure, but probably somewhere along the Wisconsin River where it would connect with Wisconsin’s first railroad – the M&M route from Milwaukee through Madison to Prairie du Chien. It seems strange today, but many railroads were well along with their construction before it was determined where the ending point would be.
And so the Sugar River Valley Railroad (SRV) was incorporated. Investors were almost entirely farmers and store keepers from Green County, especially around Albany. Nathaniel Condon mortgaged his farm to buy stock in the company. Railroads didn’t always start construction at one end; sometimes they would start at some seemingly random point or even at several places at once. The SRV began at the state line. The portion from Rockford to the state line could be done later. The roadbed was graded and ties laid on portions of it from the state line through Avon to Albany. The route passed through the area that would one day be Brodhead.
No sooner was the Sugar River Valley route graded than the Milwaukee and Mississippi began construction of its east-west line through the same area. The SRV had depleted its treasury on the route to Albany and local investors were afraid to buy more stock in a line that might be redundant in the presence of the M&M. The SRV had never sold enough stock to buy a single rail, much less locomotives and cars. The SRV investors had paid for a nice railroad grade; but without the railroad being brought to completion, their investment was worthless. Nate Condon lost his farm.
The Milwaukee and Mississippi was completed and created the town of Brodhead in the process in 1856. What became of the Sugar River Valley Railroad? As late as 1870 a Mr. Campbell of Albany was trying to resurrect the business, but nobody wanted to invest. In 1880 the Milwaukee Road acquired the SRV grade from Brodhead to Albany and built a branchline on it. A few years later, the line was extended to New Glarus and became the New Glarus branch – our affectionately named “Limburger Special” – which operated until 1974. This route is now the Sugar River State Trail.
From Brodhead to the state line the Sugar River Valley route has sat silently brooding these past 156 years. Much less of it is visible now than when I was a boy 50 years ago. But remnants are still there. Take a leisurely evening drive and hunt for it. The SRV grade parallels the County Line and is roughly half a mile to the east; every east-west road off the County Line Road crosses it. For example, if you turn east at the Sand Burr Cafe on Townline Road and travel only 1/4 mile or so, you will cross the SRV grade visible in the trees to the south. The driveway on the north side of the road there is on the SRV grade and has railroad ties for fence posts.
If you pursue this quest, you will be engaging in what is technically called Industrial Archeology. Happy ghost-railroad hunting!