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DOUG'S DIGGINGS: Train ride brought back rail memories

The "Namekagon" waits at the Hudson depot on Aug. 21, 1949, before starting its daily trip up through Spooner to Ashland. The odd looking train was built in the North Hudson Car Shops.

Last weekend included a variety of activities -- both locally and near Spooner.

On Saturday, I received a birthday present -- a ride on a train based in Spooner. There are dinner trains in various areas, but I did not know about this train in Spooner. The business is known as the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad and it operates several trains, including the one we rode -- Tony's Riverside Family Pizza Train. The train left the station at noon and returned at about 2:15 p.m. Guests were served pizza as the train went along Hwy. 53 up to Trego and across the Namekagon River.

The business also operates a fancier dinner train in the evenings and a bed and breakfast train for those interested in a night on the rails.

I was interested in the tracks on which we traveled because I knew they were the same tracks once owned by the Omaha, and later Chicago Northwestern Railroad. Shortly after the depression, CNW started a passenger train that ran between Minneapolis and Ashland with a stop in Hudson in 1938. Called the "Namekagon," the train was a unique beast, built in the North Hudson car shops. The train power unit was built by reconstructing a motor car and two steel coaches.

The Namekagon would travel to and from Ashland each day. At 390 miles roundtrip, the Ashland turn was the longest daily in the United States. According to an old issue of "North Western Lines," the Hudson agent sold nearly $1,000 in tickets on Sundays in the middle 1940s. Business was so brisk, the train merited printed tickets. After a time, the train was stored in Hudson each night for cleaning and servicing. The Namekagon ceased operation in 1950.

CCNW still operated rails from Hudson to Spooner until the 1970s, but the rails were pulled from operation in 1981. The track ran just south of Willow River State Park on its way to New Richmond and points north. If you look closely, you can see remnants of the rail's path on County A between the Hudson Town Hall and the state park.

In the old days, like Hudson, Spooner was a rail hub of the Omaha Railroad Line. Its economy was once centered on the railroad and the two main lines that joined there. Eventually, the lines were absorbed by the Chicago & North Western Railroad. The conductor on the pizza train said that in its heyday, there were over 600 employed at Spooner railroad facilities and that 55 trains passed through the community each day. At its peak, the North Hudson shops employed about 500 people in 1926. The old CNW tracks on which the dinner train operates is monitored by the state of Wisconsin. Like most scenic trains, the engine and cars move quite slowly. We traveled at about 10 mph. The state has approved the tracks for speeds up to 15 mph.

The F7 diesel engine that was pulling our two cars Saturday has the ability to travel at up to 120 mph. Of course, there is nowhere in the area that has the track to support those kinds of speed. The engine gets about a half-mile per gallon of fuel. The conductor said the train is usually pulled by a switcher engine that gets 1.5 miles per gallon. The switcher, however, was in the yard awaiting repairs.

As a side note, the Chicago Northwestern Railroad ceased to exist in 1995 when Union Pacific bought out the company. The Hudson depot was razed in 1996.

On Sunday, my wife and I walked from our house on the north end of North Hudson to Lakefront Park. Part of the trip was spent on the path from St. Croix Street to Lakefront Park, along the St. Croix River.

That again reminded me of the old CNW spur lines. Part of that path is on the rail bed that went from Hudson to River Falls and Ellsworth. Those tracks were pulled in 1965.

Of course, the other famous train that went through Hudson was the CNW 400. That service began in 1935 and ended in 1963. The 400 was famous because it could make the trip from Minneapolis to Chicago in 400 minutes. At its peak, Hudson had about 40 trains a day.

The pizza train in Spooner keeps alive some of the rail history in that community. In Hudson, of course, Union Pacific still operates trains through the community, but there are no depots or service facilities left. If it were not for the occasional train whistle, Hudsonites would have little knowledge of the trains passing through our community today.

Along with the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad in Spooner, the town's old railroad depot now serves as the station for these excursion trains, as well as the town's Railroad Memories Museum.