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Back Roads from Wisconsin's Past
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Back Roads from Wisconsin’s PastBack Roads from Wisconsin’s PastBack Roads from Wisconsin’s Past

Back Roads from Wisconsin's Past

WOODMAN, Wis. – It isn’t quite a ghost town yet, but the main character that made Woodman famous and prosperous is a ghost of the past. The small burg was the home of the longest-running narrow-gauge railroad, affectionately called “the Dinky.”

Standard-gauge railroad tracks are 4 feet 8.5 inches between parallel rails. The Dinky was narrow-gauge, with tracks 2 feet 6 inches apart, which allowed for making tighter turns. It ran from the Wisconsin River valley to the ridge at Fennimore in Grant County, Wisconsin. The narrower width was a necessity to navigate two horseshoe curves, one of which had a 250-foot radius.

Railroad men would joke about the slowness of the narrow gauge with stories.

“Bill Gleason took a carload of eggs from Lancaster on one trip down; when the car was opened at Galena it was found full of chickens half-grown and ready for the frying pan.”

There was also a true story about a steer tipping one of the cars, causing the other cars – full of hogs – to tip. For weeks afterward the train would stop to capture any hogs spotted roaming near the tracks.

The Dinky was in existence from 1878 to 1926; it stretched for 16 miles and was the main source of transportation for the people along its length. At its peak trains would travel from Galena to Woodman, where people and freight were moved onto the narrow gauge. They would then continue to Fennimore, where they were again loaded onto a standard-gauge train. Thus hogs, cattle, lumber and other supplies were transported.

In its later years the Dinky’s use was limited to people. Children would ride it to school, along with shoppers on their way to a day in the big town of Fennimore, from Woodman or nearby Werley. It left Woodman twice in the morning and made two evening returns.

The village of Woodman was founded in 1864 by Ralph Smith and Cyrus Woodman. Smith’s son was one of the first settlers and built the first house. That year the post office was opened and S.S. Hills was appointed postmaster. The post office moved many times in the early years, residing in the business of whomever was postmaster at the time. It was a position that was appointed on the federal level and often along party lines. Three stores were built and the upstairs of a warehouse was put into use as a school.

Building of the narrow-gauge railroad was possible when the town of Lancaster put in $42,000 and the town of Fennimore contributed $50,000. The deadline was Nov. 1, 1878, but it wasn’t finished until two months later – and then only because ties were laid on frozen ground. Those ties needed to be re-laid after the ground thawed. The new rail line included a turntable for moving the engine from one direction to the other for a return trip. Although the rest of the route was converted to standard gauge, the Woodman stretch remained the Dinky.

In 1878 a fire devastated the railroad depot, a grain warehouse, the post office, a store, a saloon, a wagon shop and a shoe store, causing $5,500 worth of damage. It was determined the fire was probably started by an arsonist who was not caught. It was the same year a grist mill was built south of town for milling flour.

A cloudburst in 1906 almost destroyed the Dinky and the railroad line. Water filled the Green River so fast, it created a 4-foot wall of water that swept the train off the tracks – along with 14 passengers and five railroad workers. The passenger car floated downstream, turned around and floated back upstream. No one was injured, but it took until the next morning to rescue everyone. It took two months to clean the tracks and the train cars.

One of the amazing families of Woodman was railroad worker John Keating and his wife, Mary, who were the parents of eight sons and three daughters. Five of their eight boys – John, Tom, Dick, Frank and Mark – served overseas in the U.S. Army during World War I. A sixth son was drafted but the war ended before he was inducted. In all the village of Woodman sent a total of 13 men to the war front during that time, which was one-12th of the population.

The one thing that’s not changed from its beginning to the present is the village’s popularity as a fishing mecca. Old newspapers have many news tidbits about people traveling the Dinky to Woodman to enjoy some fishing, provided by the Green River and the Wisconsin River that join near Woodman.

Even though the Dinky no longer travels along the route, the Dinky General Store in Woodman and the Fennimore Train Museum have more information for anyone traveling through the area. Plans are being made to buy the old rail line for a bike trail.

LeeAnne Bulman writes about agriculture from her farm overlooking the beautiful Danuser Valley on Wisconsin’s west coast. When not writing she helps her husband on their small grain and beef farm.

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