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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Railroad Roadtrip: Trains in Wisconsin's Northwoods

At the Minocqua Museum
Northern Wisconsin -- Ah, the Northwoods: a vacation paradise of forests, lakes and trains.

For families who head Up North on their summer vacation, a day away from the cabin can include a whistle stop at local museums with charming model train layouts and retired railroad cars. More avid railroad fans can even enjoy the rare opportunity to ride an operational steam train. This being a tourist paradise, the non-train lover will be rewarded for coming along for the ride with fun sites to see and things to do at the very same spots.

Main-level layout at Minocqua Museum
Large layout at the Minocqua Museum


My family  recently returned from our first Northwoods vacation in several years. We knew our week in the woods would include a few train stops, but the first was a chance discovery. During a morning visit to Minocqua we were in need of rest rooms and turned to the Minocqua Museum in our time of need. Lo and behold, what should we discover upon entering but a delightful model train layout on the main level and an even larger layout in the museum's basement. Both illustrate the area's history as towns grew up around railroad lines thanks to logging and tourism industries in the late 19th century. My boys were captivated by both layouts and appreciated being able to operate some of the trains with the push of a button. As is so often the case at small museums, the  engineer on hand, who had built both layouts, was eager to share his love of history and trains with our family. (For my daughter, who was less entranced with the trains, other exhibits fascinated her, including sitting in the Cameron automobile and playing teacher in the schoolhouse exhibit.)


The Lumberjack Steam Train
Laona, Wisconsin

The very next day, our family headed in the opposite direction to little Laona, Wisconsin for a ride on the Lumberjack Steam Train. Despite our many visits to train museums and countless train rides, this day marked our first family experience with a real, running steam engine. In truth, it was the dad of the family who was most excited to finally experience the puff-puff, chug-chug! According to the museum, the "Laona & Northern Railway was incorporated in 1902. ... It is the only logging railroad engine left in Wisconsin operating on its original line." The engine itself, a 2-6-2 for those of you who count wheels, was built in 1916.

Playground at Camp 5 
View from the caboose cupola
On our ride from the Laona station to Camp 5 (a site listed on the National Register of Historic Places) we sat in the Open Car. Thanks to the Plexiglass shielding we were able to enjoy a view of the engine pushing us backwards to the camp without experiencing the grit that would have been a feature of steam travel in days gone by. Two coach passenger cars were an option for riders as well, as two -- yes, two -- bright yellow cabooses. The ride lasted not much more than 10 minutes, but it wound through beautiful woods, across level crossings and a lake-side bridge, finally ending in the picturesque Camp 5. During our two-hour visit, our middle-child was rewarded for her train tolerance with a visit to the Animal Petting Corral where she and her brothers were able to pet kittens, hold bunnies, and get close to goats, pigs, chickens and a calf. Everyone enjoyed also wandering through the forestry museum -- nothing like seeing the real tools of actual loggers to put that Paul Bunyan Cook Shanty breakfast into perspective. Of course, no matter where we go, the kids always like the park the best, so the playground next to the "Choo-Choo Hut" cafe could have entertained them for hours. When it was time say goodbye to Camp 5, the kids skipped over the passenger cars in favor of a caboose seat, willing to wait 20 minutes in the cupola to hold their places up high and mastering the art of small talk with other kids doing the very same thing. After we returned to the station and spent some time gazing at the train from the safety of a conveniently placed swing set, we pulled out of the parking lot with a send-off blow of the train whistle and a wave from the locomotive's engineer.


After disembarking from the return trip,
 children took turns tooting the steam whistle

"Steam Hauler" for pulling sleighs loaded with logs
Our final train trek took us to Pioneer Park in Rhinelander. According to the museum docents who welcomed us, most kids head straight to the same place mine dashed upon entering the grounds: the Rhinelander Railroad Museum and Model Railroad. Its focal point is the circa 1890 Soo Line depot, which features four rooms of railroad memorabilia, including telegraph equipment that my 2-year old found most compelling. The Rhinelander Rail Association operates the model railroad layout on the lower level, providing a glimpse of the community's history as the rail lines and town centers would have appeared in the early twentieth century.   

Model train display by the Rhinelander Rail Association
Part of a mural outside the Firebarn. 
Outside the depot, visitors may inspect the 1925 narrow gauge steam engine and a passenger car from the Thunder Lake Lumber Company, a caboose from the Soo Line Railroad, a signal tower, and many other equipment pieces. Kids can walk through the caboose, but at this time the passenger car is being restored and is not open for inside visits. Due to the age of the equipment, climbing on the locomotive is also forbidden, however, a museum brochure points to the cow catcher on the front of the engine as a fine place for posed photos. (While there, take note of the narrowness of the narrow-gauge tracks: just 36 inches apart, compared to the 56 inches between the rails of standard trains.) 

"Number 5," a narrow-gauge locomotive
This museum also features several additional exhibits depicting the varied history of the region and diverse interests of guests. Other sites include a sawmill, one-room school house, Civilian Conservation Corps camp building, restored fire engines, blacksmith shop, boating museum, logging displays, and a gift shop. Aside from the trains, my kids were most engaged by the school house with its sand table and collection of rubber stamps -- apparently children across the generations enjoy spending their free time at school in similar ways. 

After visiting the Hodag in the gift shop -- Babe the Blue Ox isn't the only mysterious creature of the northwoods -- we were begged yet again to head for the playground next to the museum for some running, climbing, and sliding. It was the end of the line our train adventures. We needed a day of playing in the woods and the lake before saying "All aboard" to the family van and heading home.  

Soo Line Caboose from the 1880s

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