By Axel Lorenzsonn
From the railroad lines that traverse open prairie to the wrought iron rails embedded in their wooden ties, railroads have been written into the landscape—and shared history—of Wisconsin. Yet few of us have thought about how they developed in the towns and cities we call home. In Steam & Cinders, author Axel Lorenzsonn brings the history of Wisconsin’s earliest railroads to life, painting a vivid picture of the competition and risk that accompanied the building of Wisconsin’s earliest statewide infrastructure during the years leading up to the Civil War.
From Janesville to Watertown, Milwaukee to Prairie du Chien, and all the towns in between, the promise of the railroad filled the imaginations of Wisconsin’s early settlers, who lobbied Congress for memorials and mortgaged their own farms to fund risky ventures. This is the story of linemen who laid track through harsh winters; the story of railroad barons like Byron Kilbourn whose vision for economic expansion was matched by his strongarming tactics; the story of the glory days of the early rails, when the coming of the railroad would receive not only public notice but great fanfare and celebration in the small towns that lay along the line.
Based on the author’s extensive research into the early history of Wisconsin’s rails, Steam & Cinders chronicles the boom and bust of the first railroads in the state, from the charters of the 1830s to the farm mortgages of the 1850s and consolidation of the railroads on the eve of the Civil War. Featuring more than 75 period photographs, historic maps, and drawings, Steam & Cinders preserves the legacy of early Wisconsin railroading for railroad buffs and armchair historians alike.