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Ice, Trains, & Beer - How Ice and the Railroads Saved Madison (and Beer):

Meeting Details:

Wed Nov 2nd, IN PERSON, Wisconsin Energy Institute



Faster Headlines

Wheels on Steel:

Railway Age
Railway Track & Structure
The Texas Tribune
KBTX, CBS, Bryan, Texas
City of Houston
Fast Company

In the Tube:


Up in the Air:


How Ice and the Railroads Saved Madison (and Beer):

Last week on Madison's railroad history, we discussed how those lonely tracks next to Union South and the engineering campus are a piece of lost history. This week, we talk about how in the 1860s the city of Madison would have died had it not been for the railroads...and Ice.

Before the Civil War, Madison only had the Mississippi and Milwaukee Railroad (M&M). Milwaukee is used loosely because the railroad required a connection in Fort Atkinson to get to Milwaukee. As a result of being the lone railroad to serve the Wisconsin Capitol, the M&M charged monopoly rates and invested very little into the Madison line. Farmers were so fed up with the M&M that they would send their harvests by horse and cart out to the depot in Watertown, and later Sun Prairie, rather than bring their goods into the city of Madison to be shipped on the M&M. As a result, in the early 1960s Madison’s economy struggled and the population started a precipitous decline. In fact, by the late 1960s Madison ranked 4th in population behind La Crosse and Green Bay. Then by the late 1860s, there was serious talk about moving the State Capitol to one of those more prosperous cities in Wisconsin, which would have been disastrous for the new City of Madison.

To save the city, residents put together a plan to turn Madison into a railroad hub for Wisconsin. The first goal was to bring up another railroad, called the Madison & Beloit. While at first, you may ask yourself...why Beloit? Well, this railroad was being taken over by the Northwestern Railroad which would provide a direct routing (through Beloit) to Chicago. The second goal was to get the Madison and Waterton railroad into Madison from Sun Prairie, thereby creating a direct link between Milwaukee and Madison. The next was to build a railroad north to Baraboo/Wisconsin Dells and later on to Minneapolis. 4th goal was to build a direct link to Oshkosh and Green Bay.

The irony is this goal failed. In the 1860s the city tried to sell bonds to bring these railroads to Madison, but the bonds failed and had to be sold at a significant discount (80 cents on the dollar). Then even after selling the bonds, the railroads themselves underestimated the costs to build the line and ran out of money. Madison seemed to be lost with a bleak future. However, three things saved Madison…Ice, the railroads, and tourism. Yes, Ice saved Madison.

Without an established rail system, Madison’s economy was not developing in the the1850s. With the lakes and natural amenities, Madison could be a resort community such as Lake Geneva or Baraboo. However, efficient railroad links would be needed to bring the tourists in (as well as boat transportation around the lakes). Factories were also a possibility, but Madison was not as close to the forests for raw lumber as Green Bay and didn’t have a navigable waterway to ship out raw materials as Milwaukee and La Crosse. Madison had a shrinking economy before the arrival of the railroads. However, by the 1870s 3 rail lines finally did make it to Madison including the Madison and Watertown Railroad. This railroad specifically which was given a right of way along the northern shores of Lake Monona (today's John Nolen Drive) bringing it within a few feet of the water. With the arrival of these railroads the population of Madison stabilized but wasn't growing. That was until ice became Madison's popular export.

In the 1800s everyone across the nation from factories and households relied upon ice collected from clean freshwater lakes in the Midwest (it would be another 40 years until freezers were invented). But in 1878 & 1879 the Midwest experienced a very mild winter. All of the lakes in southern Wisconsin failed to freeze leaving the nation with a limited supply of valuable ice. Except that Madison was on the freezing line. Lake Monona and Wingra both froze those winters, and the Madison lakes then became the most reliable source of ice for Milwaukee, Chicago, and the nation.

Picture Source: Wikimedia Commons

Because of the railroad tracks were located right next to the lakes, it was very easy to harvest ice and ship it. In fact, it could be said that Madison's first highly successful industry was ice. For example, it is because of the fresh and clean ice and the ability to easily ship it that Oscar Myer built its meat packing plant in Madison and six breweries formed in Madison. Then even with those direct rail lines to Milwaukee those breweries in Milwaukee also thrived...cause beer needs a lot of ice to ferment (and Milwaukee's fresh-water ponds were rather polluted).

Records on true ice production in Madison lakes are not to be found. However, after the building of the railroads Madison's population expanded tremendously in the 1880 and into the 20th century. Although, it is also entirely possible that the reason Wisconsin is known for its beer is because of... Madison ice... and the railroads that started service to that city.


Wisconsin Historical Society Archives (public domain)

Madison: A History of the Formative Years, D. Mollenhoff, 2003, University of Wisconsin Press


Designing a Midwest Bullet Train System

For the next month the WiHST group will be taking on the question of "How would secondary/rural areas of Wisconsin benefit from a Minneapolis to Chicago Bullet Train?" While there are many studies out there about how Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and even Madison would benefit from such a train…there is very little research about the benefits of the train to someone living in Eau Claire, Green Bay, Sheboygan, Racine, or Wausau.

This week, the group will start a project of laying out cities and schedules for a MSP-CHI bullet train (and formalize the route). Then next week, we work on designing the intermodal connections to other cities that are not served by the bullet train trunk route. Then the 3rd week will be on designing transit-oriented development and other real estate opportunities around this route.

This research could become extremely valuable as it will be something totally different than the Midwest Rail Initiative or other reports. Also, it can be valuable considering the continued loss of airline service to cities such as Eau Claire and Wausau due to the pilot shortage.


Youtube Channels We Love: Simply Railway

By Noah Sobczak

Ever wish you could ride the rails without leaving home? Well Simply Railway makes the perfect video for you! Every week a new video is released showing off a different rail experience.

As a French based creator many of his videos are of transit systems in Europe, which offers us Americans a view into what rail travel is like across the pond. On the channel you will find videos about high-speed service between Milan and Paris, almost all the long-distance Amtrak routes, and all types of commuter trains worldwide. He offers some of his own opinions throughout the videos about the train service without being too argumentative. Overall, it’s a great channel to watch, kick back and enjoy the ride.

Here are some of our favs:

And here is his impression on Brightline,


The Faster Badger is produced by students at the University of Wiscosin-Madison to help break through the misconceptions of high speed rail and high speed transportation. This blog is for educational purposes only and all opinions presented are of the students.

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