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Early Railroad History

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Photo from 1870s looking south from grain elevator showing the Western Union's roundhouse to the west with the freight house to the east.

In the 1840s the business owners only could transport their goods by steamboat or hauling by team across the state to Chicago.

In their desire to get a better market for their grain, stock or other products, they eagerly welcomed the proposition for the building of a railroad. To secure the first railroad, many settlers mortgaged their homes or land to raise money to aid in the project of building the rail line.

Their dreams became a reality when the Racine and Mississippi Railroad announced that Savanna would be the final western terminal.

The rails were shipped in from Scotland by boat to Racine and then by railroad. The rails were 14 to 15 feet long and were rejoined together by a chair joint or boot leg. The engines were wood burners and the roundhouse was a long frame building with two stalls that could hold three engines each. There was one machinist and two boiler makers employed.

The first depot and freight house were built near the grain elevator. The fuel wood which was used in the engines was cut from the islands west of Savanna and hauled in by teams and piled up in huge piles along the tracks. The first agent was Dennis Flanagan, who was soon promoted to superintendent and a man named Tracey succeeded hm as agent.

The principal industries in Savanna at the time were two breweries, one distillery,  two saw mills, one grist mill and the elevator.

Grain was brought down from the north and from the south in barges and transferred through the elevator into the cars for Milwaukee from where it would again be moved by boat to the east or export to Europe. Threshing machines were brought to Savanna on the train and transferred to the barges to move by boat up the river to the farmers in the northwest.

In 1868 the name of the rail line was changed to the Western Union. A line was built from Sabula to Marion, Iowa, and plans were made to extend to Omaha. This meant spending a lot of money and the Mississippi River was a bad handicap for thru traffic. Soon a car ferry was in operation by means of which three cars at a time could be ferries from Savana to Sabula.

In order not to interrupt business and traffic in the winter time when the river froze over, a line of pilings was driven  and track was laid to allow trains to cross the river. But in the spring, when navigation opened, the railroad had to pull up their pilings and tracks to allow boats to pass, and the railroad had to go back to the ferry.

In 1873 the railroad was connected with Chicago and the name was changed to the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad. The line was also extended west to Omaha and traffic had increased to such an extent that the moving the cars by ferry across the river was too slow.

In 1879 construction began of a permanent bridge across the Mississippi. Over 300 men were put to work and the bridge was completed in 1880.

In 1880 the drawbridge across the river was built and from that time on the C.M. and St. Paul railroad became a trunk line. The terminal facilities in Savanna also became very obsolete and inadequate and the old depot was moved. A new freight house was built and a 10-stall roundhouse was also constructed. In the new yard were 18 tracks holding an average of 20 cars each.

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The Chicago, Milwaukee &. St. Paul built a new 10-stall round house in the late 1880s.

Savanna soon became one of the principal terminals of the C.M. and St. Paul railroad as from here the railroad built and operated trains in all directions.

The line to Omaha brought about the development of the packing industry and traffic in fresh meat and other products that required refrigerations. The ice business in Savanna was a large part of community life and one of the operators was the Robinson Ice Company.

Hundreds of men were employed all winter long to cut and store ice for later use as perishable freight traveled through the yards. After reaching a thickness of 9 to 10 inches, the ice was marked and cut into 22 inch squares, guided down an open trough by men with pike poles or harnessed to a horse and track to reach the moving belt that was located on the riverbank just south of Division street. 

Ice house wagons handling local retail sales were driven right out on the ice for loading. One of those was the Bilhorn and Schmidel Ice House on the southwest corner of Main and Washington. Ice from the river was pushed from the wagon into the chutes that led to the elevator. Then it was raised and stacked layer by layer and insulted with saw dust until the these double walled warehouses were filled. The company handled local sales of ice and in 1915 had over 4,000 tons stored for the season They delivered ice to hotels and other businesses with a cart and a team of two horses.

In 1885, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad came to town, purchasing 60 acres below the Milwaukee terminal for a roundhouse and repair shop. Track laying began later in the year and by October of 1886 the lines were open to traffic. 

The new rail line was constructed from Oregon through Savanna to St. Paul (319 miles) and from Fulton to Savanna (16.72 miles). J.M. Barr was the first superintendent as the CBQ was headquarter here for the new lines. A depot, roundhouse, and repair yard were constructed along with nine tracks but that quickly expanded to 20 tracks.

From 1880 to 1890, Savanna’s pollution grew by over 200 percent as the town went from 1,000 residents to over 3,000 in just 10 years. 

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View of the rail yards looking north in the early 1900s. 
With the increased traffic it was necessary to shorten the operation division a few years later and Savanna became the eastern terminal of the newly established La Crosse Division for the CBQ. The La Crosse division was double tracked through Savanna in 1909 and the entire line from Savanna to Minneapolis was eventually doubled line.

In 1911, the Burlington built a viaduct across the tracks which eventually became part of the Great River Road south to Thomson.

With the increase in passenger traffic, it was necessary to build new depot for each line. In 1911, the passenger station was relocated and a new depot was constructed on the south end of Sixth Street. It officially opened to the public on July 1, 1912. for the Milwaukee, Chicago and St. Paul.

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The Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul depot.
In 1913, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy constructed a modern passenger station and office just east of Marquette Park and by 1917 had finished the viaduct on  Wacker Road.

Construction of Burlington depot
Work on the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Passenger Depot. 

By 1910, the city’s population had reached 3,691 but the next decade would see a 42 precent increase as Savanna grew to 5,237 by 1920. The railroads and the arrival of the U.S. Army had put Savanna on the map as the town’s population now topped Galena by 500 residents. 

CBQ Depot and car
The C.B & Q depot was built in the late 1880s just west of Main Street alley and north of Division. This 1905 picture shows Frank Zinnel in one of the first cars ever seen in Savanna.

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Engine 1650 at the water tanks on the Chicago, Milwaukee St. Paul line.
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An engine pulls a passenger train on the Chicago, Burlington and St. Paul line near Marquette Park.

Rail Mill
The Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Rail Mill.

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Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad crew in March of 1913.

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Engine 1124 on the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul line.

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Engine 3663 at the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy yards.