Between the years 1838 and 1841, the territorial Legislature of Wisconsin chartered several railroad companies, but with the exception of the "Milwaukee & Waukesha Railroad Company," incorporated in 1847, none of the corporations thus created took any particular shape. The commissioners named in its charter met Nov. 23, 1847, and elected a president, Dr. L W Weeks, and a secretary, A W Randall (afterward governor of Wisconsin). On the first Monday of February, 1848, they opened books for subscription. The charter of the company provided that $100,000 should be subscribed and five per cent. thereof paid in before the company should fully organize as a corporation. The country was new. There were plenty of active, energetic men, but money to build railroads was scarce, and not until April 5, 1849, was the necessary subscription raised and percentage paid. A board of directors was elected on the 10th day of May, and Byron Kilbourne chosen president. The charter had been previously amended, in 1848, authorizing the company to build a road to the Mississippi river, in Grant county, and in 1850, its name was changed to the "Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad Company." After the company was fully organized, active measures were taken to push the enterprise forward to completion. The city of Milwaukee loaned its credit, and in 1851 the pioneer Wisconsin railroad reached Waukesha twenty miles out from Milwaukee. In the spring of 1852, Edward H Broadhead, a prominent engineer from the state of New York, was put in charge of the work as chief engineer and superintendent. Under his able and energetic administration the road was pushed forward in 1852 to Milton, in 1853 to Stoughton, in 1854 to Madison, and in 1857 to the Mississippi river, at Prairie du Chien.
The first regular train reached Prairie du Chien, in April, 1857; and the terminus of the road was located at "Lower Town." It is appropriate here to observe, that this enterprise, a great one for its day, and for the era in which it was achieved, was undertaken and successfully carried through, (to their honor be is said) by citizens of Wisconsin, residents of the city of Milwaukee.
In this connection it is proper to state that Mr. E H Broadhead, of Milwaukee, was the then president of the road. William Jervis, of the same city, was superintendent, and E P Bacon, general freight agent. Among other gentlemen who took a leading part in carrying through this great work, may be here mentioned, the Hon. Ed. D Holton, still living, and the Hon. Ashael Finch, lately deceased, (both of the city of Milwaukee).
In 1859 and 1860, the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad Company defaulted in the payment of the interest on its bonds. A foreclosure was made and a new company, call the "Milwaukee & Prairie du Chien," took its place, succeeding to all its rights and property. In 1867, the Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Company obtained control of the Milwaukee & Prairie du Chien railroad. The Legislature of 1857 had passed an act, authorizing all stockholders in all incorporated companies to vote on shares of stock owned by them. The directors of the Milwaukee & St. Paul company had secured a majority of the common stock, and, at the election of 1867, elected themselves a board of directors for the Prairie du Chien company. All the rights, property and interests of the latter company came under the ownership and control of the former. In 1865, Alexander Mitchell, of Milwaukee, was elected president, and S S Merrill, general manager, of the Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Company. They were retained in their respective positions by the new organization, and still continue to hold these offices, a fact largely owing to the able and efficient manner that has characterized their management of the company's affairs.
When, in the spring of 1857, the Milwaukee & Mississippi railroad reached Prairie du Chien, it was the only one at the time terminating on the upper Mississippi within the State of Wisconsin. The business of the road was forwarded from Prairie du Chien, by a line of packets, known as the Old Galena Packet Co., whose president was Orrin Smith, now deceased, and whose secretary was J Russell Jones, subsequently United States minister to Belgium, still living, a prominent and prosperous citizen of Chicago. By means of this line of packets, passengers and freight were transferred between the terminus of the road and St. Paul, Minn.
The period at which this road reached the Mississippi river, marks a distinctive era in the history of the great northwest. At the time of which we speak, strange as it may now seem, Minnesota and all the country north of St. Paul, including the marginal border of our own State on the Mississippi, were importers of the necessaries of life, including meat and flour.
The first shipment of grain from Minnesota to the great lakes, was made by way of Prairie du Chien to the city of Milwaukee, in the autumn of 1859, and consisted of ten car loads of wheat. The event was so remarkable, as indicating the wondrous transition, which the country was undergoing, that however insignificent such a shipment might now appear, this one was made the subject of a congratulatory telegram to the chamber of commerce of the city of Milwaukee. As indicating the marvelous development of the country the fact may be cited, that more than 100 car loads were shipped daily from the same point, to the same destination within two years from the date of the first shipment.
In the spring of 1864 it became apparent from the failure of the water in the so called "slough" at Lowertown, from which cause it was no longer possible for the larger class of boats to reach the landing at the terminus of the railway, through the so called "Pigseye;" that a change of base must be made, the company was forced to abandon their terminus, at Lowertown, for a more favorable landing at so called "Uppertown." At the latter place the company, at great expense, established new tracks, comprising one of the finest railway yards in the United States; erected an elevator of 200,000 bushels capacity, at a cost of $75,000, and built a substantial and commodious hotel called the "Dousman House," at a cost of $45,000.
At the completion of this road it was a doubtful question in the minds of many, including some of the most sagacious men in the country, whether this progenitor of the great system of iron lines that now radiate from the city of Milwaukee, could ever successfully compete for the commerce of the upper Mississippi valley with its great natural rival, the Mississippi river.
Hitherto St. Louis was the one mart known to the shipper from Dubuque to St. Paul. By means of this road Milwaukee first appeared as the great rival of St. Louis for this commerce, but more especially for the grain trade of the upper Mississippi valley. By means of the facilities which we have just mentioned, and of the indomitable pluck of the men who controlled the pioneer railway of Wisconsin, the currents of trade which hitherto had flowed landward without interruption, were turned over this line to the city of Milwaukee. This was the inception of the great grain traffic, which continued to grow until Milwaukee became the largest grain market in the world. This remained the sole railway terminus on the Mississippi north of Dubuque, until the autumn of 1859, when the La Crosse road was extended to the city of La Crosse. At this time the two lines were rival interests, and so remained until 1866, when they became consolidated, and known as the Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway, with Alexander Mitchell as president and S S Merrill, general manager, of whom it is hardly necessary to state that they are citizens of Milwaukee. Receding a step in our narrative, we may now mention that there was no railway connection in Iowa opposite Prairie du Chien till the year 1863. This year the late Judge Green, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, undertook and built the first twenty-five miles of the McGregor Western Railway, one of the five principal land grant railways of Iowa.
Subsequently this railway became the property of the Milwaukee & St. Paul Company, under whose auspices the road commenced by Judge Green and built by him to Calmar, Iowa, a distance of forty-five miles, has been constructed across the entire State of Iowa; across the territory of Dakota; and to-day has its western terminus upon the banks of the Missouri, where it only halts in the presence of vast Indian reservations, the opening of which to white settlement it only awaits, to proceed on its way to the Pacific ocean.
The Milwaukee & St. Paul Company also resumed the long neglected railway construction in Minnesota, and in the year 1866, began and completed the work of building what is now known as the Iowa & Minnesota division of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway, completing another connection with the city of St. Paul. So much for the railway interests that center about Prairie du Chien.
This brings us to a point where we may appropriately speak of some of the local features of Prairie du Chien.
In connection with the railway system centering here, is an important element, known as the transfer system.
In 1857 Alexander McGregor, the original proprietor and founder of the town of McGregor, Iowa, and after whom the town was named, operated a steam ferry between McGregor and Prairie du Chien, which was subsequently purchased and operated by the railway company. As the transfer business increased, other facilities were devised.
The steamer, Allamakee, a magnificent ferry boat was built by Col. H L Dousman, for the railway company, and put on the river at this point in 1859. At first it was customary to break bulk of all kinds of freight on each side of the river. Necessity being the mother of invention, improved methods were devised. Mr. John Lawler, for many years the agent of the railway company at this point, caused large barges, called "transfer barges," to be constructed, which were fitted with railway tracks, corresponding to similar tracks upon the banks of the river.
Cars were loaded upon each barge, and the barges taken in tow by the steamer, one on either side. The cars, light or laden, were thus safely transferred across the river.
This system of transportation was employed with more or less modification until the year 1873, when Mr. Lawler devised the pontoon railway bridge now in use, under contract with the railway company, constructed across both channels of the Mississippi, permanently uniting the divisions of the railway company terminating in McGregor and Prairie du Chien. In this hazardous experiment, involving an immense expenditure, Mr. Lawler was encouraged by the railway company. The work was pushed vigorously to a speedy completion. The bridge, a novelty in its kind, is believed to be the first railway bridge ever operated under similar conditions. For the ten years last past, the business of the company has been transferred as safely and promptly over it, as business is transferred over any other style of bridge yet devised.
John Lawler, president and proprietor of the Prairie du Chien & McGregor Railway Company, and one of the most prominent and influential citizens of the State, came to this city from Milwaukee in 1857, the year in which the Milwaukee & Prairie du Chien Railroad was completed to the Mississippi. He was appointed station agent at this place, and held the position for several years, when he resigned it in order to be able to devote his entire time and attention to his own business affairs. He also attended to the duties of other important trusts, and filled several responsible corporate offices, having been for about ten years vice-president of the McGregor Western Railway Company, and for a long time president of the Northwestern Packet Company. Soon after the completion of the railroad to this place, he became interested, on behalf of the railway company, in the question of securing the cheap and speedy transfer of passengers and freight across the Mississippi river from Prairie du Chien to McGregor. For some time this transferring was done by having cars placed in barges constructed for the purpose, and thus towed by a steamboat. This method, however, being available only during the season of navigation, and not being in other respects entirely satisfactory, in 1843, with a view to having a cheaper and more permanent transfer, he invented and obtained a patent for the railway pontoon bridge that has since been in use at this point, and which has been also adopted and used at Wabasha, Minn., and other places. This was a matter of private enterprise; it involved a large outlay of capital, and being original, was necessarily, to some extent, experimental. The result, however, justified Mr. Lawler's confidence in ultimate success; and to-day such bridges are justly regarded as the safest and most economical for transfer purposes on the principal rivers. The invention and successful operation of this bridge, the cost being comparatively small to that of the usual iron structures, has made Mr. Lawler extensively known throughout this country, and also in some others. As illustrating this, it may be proper to mention, incidentally, that some time ago, Russian engineers visited Prairie du Chien, and examined the construction of the bridge, with a view to having similar ones introduced in Russia. Mr. Lawler's superior business ability and exceptional executive capacity, have been fully recognized and appreciated by the managers of the railway company with which, in business relations, he has been so closely united; and delicate and responsible duties in connection with the increase and progress of that great corporation have frequently devolved upon him. In all such cases, the officers of the company have justly placed the most implicit confidence in him, in every respect, and it is not too much to say that results have always justified their action. While never seeking wealth, as the great object of life, and while ever ready to contribute to objects of benevolence, education or charity, the business enterprises in which Mr. Lawler has been engaged, have brought to him a share of the world's goods much beyond that of ordinarily successful business men, and he ranks among the wealthiest of the citizens of the State. Although the main pursuits of his life have been essentially of a business character, still Mr. Lawler has been a close student of books, has devoted much attention to literature and science, and has delivered addresses on literary and scientific subjects at several places in the northwest. He is a life member of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, and a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He was one of the principal organizers of the Irish Catholic Colonization Society of the United States, and is now one of its directors. He has also been for some time past one of the trustees of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, of Milwaukee. Mr. Lawler has steadily refused to enter political life, although frequently solicited to do so. In 1876, and again in 1880, he was nominated by the democratic State convention as presidential elector; and it is believed that this representative capacity is the only one in which he has ever been before the people for their suffrages. He has ever been a strong friend of education, and served for some time as a member of the board of regents of the State University. He was for two or three years president of the board of education of the city of Prairie du Chien, and it was while he was acting in this capacity that the present high school building was erected, he having procured an advantageous loan from the State to assist in having this done. He has, by his earnest and successful efforts in behalf of the educational interests of the locality where he has lived, deserved the warmest gratitude of his fellow citizens. The College of the Sacred Heart and St. Mary's Institute, two of the leading institutions of learning in the State, and ones in which he has taken a special interest, largely owe their existence and present prosperous condition to his liberality.