In December, 1881, the first train chugged along the tracks of the newly-constructed Sauk City rail road bridge, carrying people and goods along the wooden structure over the Wisconsin River to much anticipation.
“It was such a big deal; the noise, the novelty,” said Jack Berndt, manager of the Tripp Heritage Museum in Prairie du Sac. “People would run down to the riverbank to watch it. There was a saying, that the minute the last railroad spike was driven in, the train came shortly after.”
People have again headed to the riverfront in Sauk City 137 years later to watch as the old, worn-out bridge is torn down.
The last train to cross the structure made the trip in 1998. In 2002, at the direction of the Wisconsin Rail Transit Commission, explosives were used to destroy a span of the bridge that was deemed a hazard, leaving a gaping hole in the structure. In September 2016 as the Wisconsin River swelled from heavy rain, a critical pier supporting one of the remaining spans shifted, causing that portion of the structure to pitch dangerously.
A partnership of state, county and railroad officials investigated the bridge’s stability and recommended the bridge's removal at an estimated cost of $1 million. Funding for the project was split among Wisconsin and Southern Railroad, the Wisconsin River Rail Transit Commission and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
According to Dave Bierman of Wisconsin & Southern Railroad, who served as project manager for the bridge’s demolition, work went pretty much as expected except for the unexpected removal of the bridge’s east abutment, a structure built to support the lateral pressure of an arch or span, commonly found at the ends of a bridge.
“It was anticipated to stay originally but when we began removing span one, it started to fall apart,” Bierman said. “The Transit Commission made the decision to have it removed since the crews were already down there. It was a good time to do it.”
The abutment removal added $71,000 to the cost of the project.
“From everyone’s standpoint, it was a big mass of concrete you don’t want falling into the river,” Bierman said.
Great care was also taken to ensure debris from the bridge project didn’t end up in the river. Pieces of the bridge were carried back to shore where they were disassembled. Bierman said every piece of steel and timber was accounted for.
“A lot of effort was put into ensuring every piece was inventoried,” said Matt Honer of the Wisconsin River Rail Transit Commission.
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On April 2, workers were using a sonar map of the river bottom to ensure all debris was removed and the river bottom was as closely contoured to its original state as it could be.
“No timber or steel was lost,” Bierman said. “The old timber pilings were pulled out like a tooth so there were no remaining splinters.”
Bierman said he and his crew reflected often on the fact they were dismantling a structure in the very same spot crews had worked so hard to build more than 135 years before.
“Although we have modern equipment, basically it’s the same initiations all over again,” Bierman said. “Of course back then they were building it, not taking it down. But they used water craft like we did to gain access. And back then, there was a lot more river traffic, and in some ways I’m sure it was harder because there was more manual labor involved.”
The rail bridge, part of a spur line, was originally constructed of driven wood pilings for piers and had timber spans. The spur line was instrumental in helping carry materials to Prairie du Sac when the dam was built. In 1909, the timber was replaced with steel and concrete. When the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant was constructed, workers revisited the rail bridge in the 1940s, changing out one long span for two, shorter spans and adding a pier, because it was too light for service for the type of freight transported to the plant, Bierman said.
The installation of the rail line slowly put travel via stagecoach and steamboat to bed. According to Berndt, having access to the train meant people could conduct business in nearby Madison and essentially commute to work.
“It modernized the villages,” Berndt said. “It put the Sauk Prairie area on the map as part of the larger railroad system throughout the U.S.”
Berndt said although he can’t quantify it, he suspects the population in Sauk City and Prairie du Sac also likely grew as a result, and things like mail service and transporting goods was more consistent.
John Gruber, a Prairie du Sac native who founded the Center for Rail Road Photography and Art in Madison, said rail service was vital to a community’s success and growth, just as highway access is to communities today.
“It was vital for everyday life because everything from the mail to merchandise for the stores, coal for stoves and grain were transported,” Gruber said.
Passenger rail was popular up through Word War I, and then automobiles became the main method of transportation for people. Trains continue to carry freight, but in different quantities. Smaller shipments tend to be transported via tractor trailer, but mass quantities of goods are still carried via the tracks, such as a 100-car train carrying grain.
Although a chapter of Wisconsin’s railroad history has ended, there is talk among county officials to turn the former rail bridge into a pedestrian crossing in a future phase of the Great Sauk State Trail. The hope is to connect Dane and Sauk counties, eventually providing pedestrian and bike enthusiasts access from Madison and the surrounding area to Devil’s Lake State Park in Baraboo.
Phase one of the Great Sauk State Trail was completed in the fall of 2017. Preliminary site work has begun on phase two, which would connect the villages of Sauk City and Prairie du Sac with Devil’s Lake. It is estimated once the Great Sauk State Trail is completed, it will be the most used trail in the state.