The Laona Line
Taken from portions of “The Laona Line,” published in the Northwestern Line Magazine
in the summer of 1991. Written by Joe Follmar, Connie Francart, and Al Vanderpoel.
A Very Important C&NW Branch Line in northeastern Wisconsin centered on a very big sawmill in a little town called Laona. The town was given its name in honor of Leona Johnson, the first white child born there. The settlement grew up around a sawmill that would become for a while the largest hardwood sawmill in the United States. Eventually there was so much business on the line that by 1920, at least 20 trains a day were operating in and out of Laona. Today, in 1991, Laona is the only connection to the national rail network for the Nicolet Badger Northern, Chicago & Northwestern’s successor to the Laona Line.
The names of stations on the Laona Line carry on the heritage of the people who made it important. Before the arrival of the white men, Lake Superior and Lake Michigan were connected by a trail made by the Chippewa tribe of Native Americans. The C&NW track crossed that old trail 300 yards south of the depot site in Soperton, which was just south of Wabeno. In 1880, a tornado blasted a path over a half mile wide from Antigo, Wisconsin, to Lake Superior; the Indians called the tornado “Waban,” which means “the coming of the light” or “the rising of the sun.” White men were attracted to the area by the hardwood forests, and railroads were necessary because the hardwood was too heavy to float down the rivers.
In 1896, a company named the “Wisconsin Northern Railway” was organized “in the intent of the C&NW” to build 115 miles of track north from a junction near Gillett on the C&NW line from Oconto to Clintonville (the Oconto-Clintonville crossline was described in NWL, January 1981). Forty-six miles of track were completed as far as Wabeno in 1897, and the line was purchased immediately by C&NW and merged into the system, that initial construction included erection of depots at Suring, Mountain, Lakewood, and Wabeno, where a turntable was installed temporarily. At Wabeno, the railroad purchased log cabin which was used for a land agent’s office. In 1899, the line was extended to Siding 62, about five miles north of Laona. This was as far as it could go without crossing the Soo Line north of Laona. Depots were built at Wabeno and Laona in 1900 according to the same C&NW standard design of the time as the depots built in 1897.
From 1897 to 1905, all the traffic on the Laona Line through the Northern Junction at Gillett and east to Oconto or west to Clintonville over the Oconto-Clintonville crossline which was part of the Ashland Division at that tome.
The appearance of Laona and the experience of traveling over the C&NW to get there was described by a reporter in 1904: “It is unjust to form an opinion of a country by observation through a car window, for if one did, his criticism would be anything but complimentary of the forsaken country one passes through after leaving Clintonville Junction. It is 88 miles from that place to Laona. For 30 miles or more there is a semblance of farming, then the lands become more broken and the evergreen forests begin showing in the distance. On nearer approach you find it to be the fringe of a might wood. From this (point) on and until you reach Laona evidences of the lumbering interests become more pronounced. The lumber jack in his mackinaw, with the balance of his belongings tied up in a wheat sack, becomes more frequent as the train halts at each little station. They all ride in the smoker. They are not the type of the wild and woollies that frequented the pineries of Wisconsin years ago, some of them parting their hair in the middle, but attempt to bunco the public into belief that they are the real thing.”
“Laona is in two sections, one-half mile apart. A beautiful stream of water, the Rat River, named thus on account of the myriad of muskrats that make their home in its banks, flows through the village. Laona proper, with only a name and a few houses, was there before Mr. Connor staked out its twin a half mile further out in the woods. The two places today have a combined population of between 500 and 600 and a floating population equally as large.
The big sawmill which he caused to be erected is built on a natural site. The logs are brought by rail, the company now having 20 miles of its own road which reaches eleven camps, seven of which are now running. Sixteen miles from Laona another one-band mill was erected last summer. In Forest County and contiguous to these mills the R. Connor Company, incorporated as the Connor Lumber and Land Company, owns nearly 100,00 0 acres of valuable pine, hemlock, spruce, cedar, and hardwood timber, enough to keep the mills running at full capacity for 30 years or more.” (from the Marshfield News Herald, 1904, reprinted December 18, 1954).
After a Lengthy Legal Struggle, the C&NW was finally allowed to cross the Soo tracks at grade in 1905. Meanwhile C&NW had developed a major reorganization of its lines in northeastern Wisconsin because of increasingly heavier traffic and larger locomotives. A new railroad company was formed again “in the interest of C&NW” to build 114 miles of railroad from Manitowoc to Gillett and from Pulaski (south of Gillett) to Eland Junction. The new line was called the “Manitowoc, Green Bay & North Western” until it was completed, when it too was bought and merged into the C&NW system. At the same time, the company decided to complete the Laona Line north to Saunders, Michigan. The Laona Line figured importantly in C&NW’s plans for the region. The company’s annual report of 1905 stated that “the completion of this railway, and of the extension under construction from Laona, Wisconsin, to Saunders, Michigan, will further unite the company’s Ashland and Peninsula Divisions in Northern Wisconsin and Michigan and points south of Manitowoc, as compared with the distances which are obtained via existing lines through Green Bay and Fond du Lac, over which s large volume traffic now passes. The maximum grades and curvatures of the new railway will also be much less than on the old lines.”
The new lines were built according to the company’s new roadbed and track standards which had been developed to accommodate the R-1 class Ten-Wheeler locomotives which had recently been ordered. The rest of the C&NW system was slowly being rebuilt to meet the new standards.
The new trackage was completed in 1906, and additional buildings were erected. A two-story wooden interlocking tower was built at Soo Line Junction, and depots were built at the new stations on the line. At Pulaski and Long Lake, the depots were built according to the company’s new Number Two standard design, and the new Number Three design was used for the depots at Krakow, Green Valley and Newald. Water tanks and pump houses were installed at Pulaski, Laona, and Long Lake, and a new pump house at Wabeno. The next year, box car body was set out at Padus for a depot, the depot at Gillett was extended, a coaling station was built at Gillett, and a coaling station and scales were installed at Laona.
Laona Line trains always used the track which came first off the junction switch, and in 1915 this track was shifted to accommodate a separate platform for the Laona Line passenger trains. In 1916, a lengthy branch line was built west from Bonita to Lindquist, called the Lindquist branch, also known as the Kingston extension or the Bonita Line. A wye, a water tank, and a box car body were installed at Bonita.
At least twenty trains a day were running on the Laona Line by 1920. Nine of them were log runs which picked up flat cars of logs at the passing tracks only, but logs were the reason for other trains as well. There were six freights on the line – two between Green Bay and Gillett, two between Gillett and Laona, and two between Laona and Saunders, plus three switch runs and two passenger trains.
The loggers could haul logs out of the woods only when the ground was frozen, so most of that traffic had to be moved in the winter. The log runs usually started to run about Thanksgiving time. Most of the log runs operated until the end of Spring, although cutting the and hauling the logs out of the woods ended about the middle of March. During the winter, enough cars were never available to all of the logs to the mills, so logs were stacked alongside the spurs and sidings, and logs were loaded until late Spring. Two log runs continued to operate through the summer – one to Flanders Spur and another to Bonita. The tonnage limit for the log runs was 23 loads south over Gillett Hill Northbound, 40 empty log cars was the limit. Typically 18 to 20 empty log cars were pushed in front of the engine and a like number behind it so that empties could be set out quickly with a minimum of switching. It was dangerous to push so many cars ahead of the engine because there were no roads in the area in 1920 and people used the railroad track for a road. A log train had to go slowly because the crew could expect to meet a man with a team of horses on the track at any time. Once in the winter a train met a man with a team and a sleigh and the train had to back up because there was no place for the team and sleigh to go! Most of the logs were hauled to mills on the line. Besides the big Connor mill at Laona, there was a mill at Blackwell, two saw mills and a shingle mill at Wabeno, and a saw mill at Padus. The logs hauled off line were shipped mostly to Oconto.
The Biggest Challenge for the Crew of a loaded log train heading south was to get over the three hills between Laona and Gillett - Blackwell, Padus and Schoolhouse, which was the worst. At Blackwell Junction there was a siding which was used when the train had to double that hill. The rail was light, and if there was any dew or rain, sand was not much help.
Many of the lumber companies used geared engines to handle the loads of logs out to the mainline spurs. The lumber companies were never allowed to operate on the C&NW main line until the 1940's when much of track had been torn up, and only a small number of C&NW trains were running on the line.
The way freights had much less work to do when the loggers left in the spring, because most of the pick ups and set outs served logging operators. The logging companies used many horses in the woods, one camp alone had 58 teams, and each company needed four or five cars of hay and a couple of cars loaded with feed each week. The way freights hauled some logs too, although the log runs never hauled any cars of merchandise. The work of the way freights was heaviest when there were many men working in the woods. The way freight between Gillett and Laona was often doubleheaded. There were no house tracks at most of the stations on the line, and often the way freight had two cars of LCL to unload at a given station. At times the fireman helped unload of freight while the conductor fired the engine. The crews worked many hours of overtime including 24-hour days. However, once a certain conductor made a mistake and turned in a card for 25 hours of work in one day!
The switch runs generally served particular saw mills. Two of the switch runs worked at Laona; until 1940, one of these switch runs was assigned to operate Laona to Scott Lake and return primarily to handle Connor Company logs plus incidental logs from other shippers, and this run also operated to the Flanders mill on the Blackwell line. The other Laona switch run handled the work at the Wabeno mills.
For many years after the Laona Line was completed to Saunders, passenger Train 517, also called the “Iron River Passenger,” ran through to Iron River, Michigan. The engine, however, backed down the hill to Stambaugh and ran into the roundhouse there to tie up. No other Laona Line train went beyond Saunders. Train 505, the southbound passenger, was called the “Green Bay Passenger.” The two passenger trains were scheduled to meet at Long Lake. The passenger trains also met the Oconto-Clintonville Line trains at Gillett, where for many years a mail car was switched from the Clintonville train to the Laona train. The train was usually the only way one could travel in those days, especially in the spring when the frost coming out to the ground caused mud holes and deep ruts in the gravel roads before the days of blacktop highways. Although passenger trains were superior trains, in practice the passenger trains usually took the siding when they met a log run, because it was so difficult to get the log runs over the grades.
There Were No Engine Houses on the line after at least 1912, although the heaviest work on the line was in the winter. Engines for the way freight, log runs, and switch runs tied up at Gillett of Laona and stood out in the open. At least four engines were tied up each night at Laona, and a watchman had to keep them hot during the night. In the winter it was necessary to put heaters on the injectors to keep them from freezing up. There were wyes at Laona, Quinlan’s Spur, Lakewood Junction, Bonita, Gillett, and Flanders Spur. The rails on the wye at Laona were often oiled to facilitate turning the engines, and those wye tracks were very slick when it rained. One rainy night when the switch run crew was making up a train, they set out several flat cars on the north leg of the wye. Then a gon loaded with coal was kicked down to the flats, pushing the flat cars off the end of the wye into the river. In the winter, the sectionmen were supposed to keep the wye tracks cleared of snow so the engines could be turned. When they didn’t do it, the enginemen had to clean out the snow and of course put in an extra time claim for the work. There were coaling stations at Gillett, Mountain, Laona, and Saunders.
Connie Francart remembers that many times the cold was so severe that engines could not move in the morning because when the throttle was opened the steam just condensed in the cold cylinders and water ran out of the cylinder cocks. And the waste in the journal boxes was frozen. An engine that was switching had to be used to bunt the frozen engine loose, and when the engine was jarred loose, the wheels on the tank just slid along the rails. After some winter storms, trains were not able to move for several days, and doubleheaded R-1’s with a wedge plow and a flanger had to be used to clear the line
Many spur tracks were added along the line during the 1920’s both for the lumber companies and for oil companies, especially in Laona. In 1926, the yard tracks at Laona were rearranged for engine service, and in 1927 three additional yard tracks, a repair track and an additional track for interchange with the Laona & Northern were constructed. C&NW’s engineering records supply the reason for justifying that expense and indicate the extent of business traffic: six freight trains were coming into Laona each day, two way freights, two switch runs, and two log runs, with the result that 120 cars were handled into Laona every day during the winter months. Until 1927 the capacity of the yard tracks at Laona was 55 cars. It was necessary to increase the capacity of the yard to 130 cars to avoid interfering with the operation of the Connor Lumber & Land Company and to properly handle C&NW’s business.
Unfortunately, after that time, business began to fall off. In quick succession, the supply of logs began to dwindle, the Wabeno area suffered a major fire in 1929, and the depression hit. Agency service was discontinued at Breed in 1932, and in 1933 the Bonita Line was removed. Spur tracks to the mill in Suring were removed in 1936 and in 1937 from the mill at Long Lake. The coaling station at Mountain was removed in 1939. In 1940, the interlocking plant at Soo Line Junction was removed and replaced with gates, which are normally aligned to allow Soo Line trains to use the crossing. One bright spot at the time was the installation of electric lighting in some of the depots, beginning with Laona in 1933. Prior to that, only the Pulaski depot had been electrified, and that was in 1919.
In 1926, the village of Sunders, Michigan, consisting of only a handful of buildings, was renamed Scott Lake although for many years railroad employees continued to call it Saunders. Sometime in the early 1930’s a motor car replaced the steam-powered passenger train for the run between Green bay and Laona; from Laona to Scott Lake, passengers were accommodated by a tri weekly mixed train. By 1936, daily service was restored to the entire line as the motor car run was extended to Scott Lake where it turned and headed back immediately to Green Bay. By 1939, the motor car run was cut back to Long Lake with no passenger service beyond there. There were no turning facilities at Long Lake so the motor car was turned on the wye at Quinlan’s Spur a mile and a half south of Long Lake and backed into Long Lake. Once the motor car operation began, car 9911 was assigned to this run almost exclusively until the end of passenger operations.
After 1929, most of the remaining logs were hauled on the way freights, and by 1939 there was just one way freight three times a week that went only as far as Laona.
In The Early 1940’s, coal and oil houses were removed from the depots, and passing tracks were taken up at Mountain, Long Lake, and Townsend, and the Laona platform at Gillett was removed. Soon after World War II ended, more passing tracks were removed and most of the stockyards were dismantled; the last time stock was shipped over the line was about 1946. The depot at Soperton was removed in 1947 and the Carter depot retired in 1950.
New business came to the Laona Line in 1951 in the form of pulpwood, which continues to be the primary traffic in 1991. The cut-over woods and burned-over areas had re-seeded to popple and the use of popple pulpwood had recently gained favor in the paper mills of Wisconsin. Popple is a fast growing type of tree which matures on 20-25 years. For at least the next ten years, the C&NW market analysts expect a steady flow of pulpwood traffic, so two-car pulpwood loading platforms were constructed at Laona, Wabeno, Lakewood, and Long Lake.
During the steam power era, class R-1 Ten-Wheelers were the most typical locomotives on the Laona Line, although in earlier years many class R Ten Wheelers were common an in later years an occasional class Z 2-8-0 could be found. The winter of 1953-54 saw diesel power replace steam on the Laona Line, GP7 1660 was assigned to the line.
Pulpwood was practically the only business left on the Laona Line by the end of 1961. Most of the Laona Line depots, with the exception of Pulaski, were removed in the 1960’s; Lakewood, Krakow, and Townsend in 1961, Mountain in 1962, Suring in 1964, Green Valley in 1966, and Breed in 1967. The Gillett depot was sold in 1961 to a distributing company which had warehouses on both ends of it. And in 1968, the metal depot at Long Lake was moved to Laona to replace the old wooden depot which was removed at that time.
Traffic volume continued to drop off until operation was reduced to a single train a week. In 1979, the ICC gave C&NW permission to abandon the line. As reported in the Summer 1983 Northwestern Line Magazine, a 37.79-mile segment of the line between Wabeno and Tipler was sold for continued operation as a short line.
The last time a Chicago & Northwestern crew operated a train on the Laona Line was June 29, 1979.
~ End of Story ~