NORTH FREEDOM — Mid-Continent Railway Museum opened a bridge to its past and future Saturday.
As a train broke a ceremonial ribbon across a rebuilt bridge over the Baraboo River, local rail enthusiasts salivated over the prospect of connecting to the Wisconsin and Southern Railroad line to the north. This could allow for excursions aboard the museum’s vintage cars to Baraboo, Reedsburg and beyond.
“It will allow us to go on the main line,” said Jeffrey Bloohm, Mid-Continent’s longtime president. “It’s a very welcome sight to see the bridge back in service.”
About 40 rail fans and project supporters gathered Saturday morning to celebrate the bridge’s reopening and take a trip across it.
Built in 1929, the bridge fell into disrepair around the turn of the century and was put out of service after 2008 flooding. In 2016, Mid-Continent began working to rebuild the bridge. A $600,000 grant from the Wagner Foundation and $77,000 in tourism funds from Sauk County funded the project.
Work began in January and finished last month.
“It came together pretty quick there,” Mid-Continent office manager Jeff Lentz said.
Pete Schierloh of SW Bridge Engineers said the bridge is just as important a piece of Mid-Continent’s collection as its engines and cars. “This bridge is an artifact as well,” he said.
Decades-old sidewalls and rails remain. Now that substandard wood supports have been replaced by concrete and steel, the bridge is expected to last another century. Being able to traverse the Baraboo River helps Mid-Continent move trains around for staging purposes, and also opens a new route to the north.
“This bridge is a connection,” Schierloh said. “It allows us to operate outside the confines of this museum.”
Mid-Continent historically has offered rides to the south along an old iron mine route to the La Rue quarry and back. Down the line, the nonprofit organization hopes to repair the Seeley Creek bridge to keep that route intact.
About seven decades old, the timber bridge has been patched together over the years, but needs replacement. SW Bridge Engineers has developed a design and submitted it to state and federal agencies.
Completion of the Baraboo River bridge is the first of three key projects Mid-Continent hopes to see completed by year’s end. A building designed for car display is up and should be finished by the end of September. Meanwhile, a long-awaited boiler for the No. 1385 steam locomotive, now being custom-fabricated in St. Louis, should be finished in October. Then it’ll be sent to Middleton, where No. 1385 is being restored with support from the Wagner Foundation.
The locomotive could return to Mid-Continent next spring, 20 years after it was taken out of service for repair. Museum boosters say it’ll be full steam ahead if the locomotive returns to the main line, evoking memories of the glory days of railroads more than a century ago.
“No steam engine is going to run until it’s darn good and ready,” Pete Deets told the crowd Saturday.