Railroad Comes to Madison, 1854
One of the transformational acts in Madison’s history was the arrival of the first railroad in 1854. Overnight, Madison was connected to the outside world, and local farmers at long last had an economical way to ship their crops to distant markets. The railroad prompted a building boom in the area around the depot, led to an influx of immigration, and was an impetus for creating a board of health and a fire department.
On May 1 the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad was reported to be within five miles of Madison and edging half a mile closer daily. The depot grounds and a hotel were nearly complete. Later that week the piles of the bridge across Third Lake were finally driven and locomotive whistles were heard in town. On May 18 cars entered Madison for the first time, carrying “a large lot of passengers.”
The Wisconsin State Journal reported on May 20 that “The Good Times Come. 25 or 30 cars left the depot at noon, heavily loaded with wheat and other articles of produce destined for Milwaukee. To see the piles and sacks of wheat etc. which the first train carried away gives us some idea of the future usefulness of a railroad and will make the farmers of old Dane laugh, for the ‘good time’ so long looked for has come, and their lonesome and expensive trips to market with their produce has indeed ended.”
A massive celebration was held on May 24. Two thousand people were at the depot and along the lakeshore awaiting the arrival of the train from Milwaukee. Bright colored parasols lent color to the scene. Two locomotives pulling 32 cars crowded with 2,000 people appeared. At the rear of the train were Milwaukee fire companies in gay red uniforms, along with their glistening engines and a band. The firemen discharged an artillery piece several times as the train moved slowly over the bridge. At Capitol Park the food provided by townspeople ran out, causing a great deal of grumbling. The Milwaukee fire companies went through their exercises in the afternoon, and in the evening there was a supper at the Capital House for railroad officers and a ball for everyone at Fairchild’s Hall.
Less than three weeks later the town’s first train accident occurred. On June 6 a freight train backing out of the way of a passenger train smashed a wagon that had stopped on the tracks. On June 20 a Norwegian was knocked down near the bridge as a freight train came past and lost a leg and arm.
The track had been laid over a marsh, a problem that plagued the railroad. On June 16 the track at the edge of Third Lake sank five feet, causing the bottom of the lake a rod distant from the shore to slowly heave up. On August 12 the track sank four feet not far from town. And on September 18 the railroad track again caved in. Passengers had to get off the train and walk into Madison.