Riding the rails, literally, or through exhibits

I wonder if our lack of easy access to train travel has much to do with our desire to romanticize that particular era of transportation. Here are the few of the ways we pay homage to railroads, trains and our heritage.

In Minneapolis, an ice skating rink is a part of the newly restored Milwaukee Depot Railroad Station, which was built in 1899. The rink is under a former train shed that is 600 feet long and now has glass walls. Four hotels also are a part of the depot complex, as are a small indoor waterpark, restaurant and bar.

The redevelopment is at Third and Washington avenues downtown, and the historic building had been empty for more than 20 years. For details, go to www.thedepotminneapolis.com or call (612) 375-1700.

The Snow Train makes 50-minute treks near the scenic Baraboo Hills every year. The seven-mile rides will be Feb. 14-16, starting at the Mid-Continent Railway and Museum, North Freedom (Sauk County).

For just a ride, it’s $12 for adults, $7 for ages 3-12. First-class service (with snacks and beverages) is $21. Trains leave from noon to 4 p.m. Feb. 14, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. the other two days.

For a meal, a dinner train at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 14-15 provides gourmet fare for $69 per person. Make reservations by calling (800) 930-1385 or go to www.mid-continent.org.

Train buffs may be disappointed to know that diesel locomotives will operate this year’s trains. The railway’s steam locomotives are being upgraded.

A new and permanent exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, is “The Great Train Story,” which is all about rail operations in the United States.
Model trains – 34 in all – scurry and twist around 1,400 feet of track, 500 scaled structures and about 1,500 scaled figures. Other exhibits help visitors learn to operate the city’s Metra train system, open a drawbridge, harvest timber and make a tunnel through a mountain.
For more, go to www.msichicago.org or call (800) 468-6674.

In Oconomowoc (Waukesha County), a HO-scale model train layout, handcrafted by a local resident, takes up significant space at the Oconomowoc and Lake Country Museum. It’s big enough to have an observation platform for children.
Telegraph equipment used in the city’s former train depot also is a part of the exhibits, and the quality of presentation is particularly impressive for a smaller community.
For more, call (262) 569-0740 or go to http://members.aol.com/owochs/OwocHistSoc.htm. Visiting hours are seasonal.

Among the state’s upcoming model train shows are the Great Tri-State Rail Sale, Jan. 25 at the La Crosse Center, 300 Harborview Plaza, featuring a big spread of antiques and hobby supplies. Call (608) 582-4761 for details. A model train show is there March 15-16; call (608) 789-7400.
In Madison, the 35th annual Mad City Model Railroad Show and Sale is at the Alliant Energy Center Feb. 15-16. Model trains will range in size “from the smallest Z to the 1/3 full size.” There will be more than 300 tables of merchandise, and door prizes awarded hourly. For more, call (608) 835-3148 or go to www.scwd-nmra.org.

Railroad fans who want to “think spring” may be interested in the Rocky Mountaineer Rail Adventure being planned by staff at the National Railroad Museum, Green Bay.

The May 17-23 trip will head through the Canadian Rockies. Cost is $2,349 per person, based on double hotel room occupancy. For more, go to www.nationalrrmuseum.org or call Pat Fasanella at (920) 217-5181.

The museum opened in 1961 and contains a wealth of train artifacts, including Dwight Eisenhower’s World War II staff train and cars. Train rides are offered on a one-mile loop track, May through September. Admission and hours depend on time of year; call (920) 437-7623 for details.

The East Troy Electric Railroad Museum (Walworth County) presents exhibits, rides and dinner trains on the state’s last original electric railroad line, 10 miles roundtrip from East Troy to Mukwonago. The season resumes on Memorial Day weekend and ends in late October. A trolley or dinner train also can be reserved for parties.

For more, call (262) 642-3263 or go to www.easttroyrr.org.

Last, a big thanks to Jim and Joanne Brown, a retired chemist and businesswoman, for giving us the idea to write about trains. They do their part to preserve the past at the Little Falls Railroad and Doll Museum, near Cataract, which is 43 miles northeast of La Crosse.

“Joanne is the doll expert, and I do the trains,” Jim writes. They are in their seventh year of museum work. Come spring, they expect to have signage along Highway 27.

A Wisconsin Heritage site (No. 263), the museum consists of three buildings: one for the dolls, one for the railroad artifacts and one where they do repairs and building projects. There are train rides for children, when weather permits.

The couple’s winter project is organizing of the newly acquired Ginder doll collection, more than 500 dolls that were collected by a Pennsylvania woman.

“We were chosen over all the other museums in the U.S., so we are quite proud of that fact,” Jim says. For more information, go to www.raildoll.com or call (608) 272-3266.