History

When the Railroad Arrived in Markesan

On September 16, 2012, I had an extraordinary time at the Markesan Historical Society’s annual Heritage Days. I was invited there to showcase and promote the book I recently published, Images of America Markesan. I was also distributing a historic tour map of our town. Another historical society member and I constructed a walking tour of Markesan that highlighted historical landmarks in town. If you would like some more information on that, you can do so by clicking here to take you to a post that I have already published about that project.

I was fortunate enough to meet the descendants of one of THE most prominent citizens in Markesan of the 19th century. Frank Densmoor, the great-great grandson of James Densmoor Sr., and other family members were some of the attendees of this years Heritage Days. From what I understand they make a regular appearance at the event annually.

There were a lot of people who made an impact on Markesan, but in my opinion, gathered from the research I have done, the Densmoor family had a significant impact on the community. James Densmoor Sr. played an important part in getting a railroad to town which brought prosperity. It was truly an honor for me to meet the descendants of that important figure in our community.

James Densmoor Sr.

If you are fortunate enough to have a copy of my book, Images of America:Markesan, I laid out an entire chapter on the railroad and industry of Markesan (Chapter 5). Markesan used to have an abundance of industry. A hemp mill, grain elevators, canning factories, creameries, and a granite quarry just east of town called Utley. These industries relied on a railroad to bring raw goods in and ship finished goods out. The latter of those listed, no doubt, was an important factor that actually got a railroad to Markesan, allowing it to flourish.

Shown below is a map of Marquette County in 1853, (Green Lake County was not established until 1858). If you look at the lower right corner of this map you will see the name “Grandville” , just under the “E” of Marquette. Granville ( this map incorrectly calls is Grandville) was the original village name of what is today Markesan. Granville was established in 1849, but in 1854 the citizens of that community received a notice from the U.S. Postal Service that they needed to change the name of the town. Ironically, another village of Granville existed down near Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, and the mail was getting mixed up. Some sort of contest was held to pick a new name for the village. A prominent village businessman submitted the name “Markesan” in for the running and that is how the name was chosen. From 1854 onward, Markesan was the name of our town.

Marquette County 1853 (Green Lake County not established yet)
(David Rumsey Map Collection)

Railroads began to emerge as a dominant form of transportation by mid-19 century. The Fox River was a source of transport, but constant work was done to keep the river clear from moving sandbars and debris.  Marquette County (soon Green Lake) had it’s first railroad line established to Berlin (upper right corner) by 1857. The Milwaukee & Horicon Railroad was established only 5 years prior and began to stretch their lines northward. That line was bought in 1863 by the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad ( CM&STP ).

By 1871, the Sheboygan & Fond du Lac Railroad (Formally the Sheboygan & Mississippi Railroad) stretched a line of track again into Green Lake County, this time connecting the village of Dartford (Green Lake) and Princeton. Those two villages were now on the railroad network and connected to larger markets. That line was later taken over by the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad (C&NW).

Green Lake County-1879
(David Rumsey Map Collection)

In 1856, citizens of Markesan clamored for a railroad in their town . They feared they were being shut out from the economic opportunities of their neighboring towns and tried hard to get a railroad line to build there. They understood the benefits that came with it and they wanted part in it. Berlin had benefited from the railroad coming to that town. It had transformed it into a central point of activity in the county.An attempt was made in the 1870s to get a railroad to Markesan, but things didn’t go as planned. Some money was raised and the work was started on laying a grade stretching from Ripon to Markesan, but funds ran out and the dream of a railroad with it. *

1882 was the big year of a securing a railroad line that would eventually reach Markesan. Approximately 6 miles east of the village, a deposit of black granite was discovered. Local businessmen, James Densmoor Sr. in particular, saw the granite deposit as an incentive for a railroad to branch off and head towards the location of the granite and then, hopefully, Markesan.

Picture from the top of Pine Bluff
(U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library)

The discovery sparked interest in getting a railroad out to the quarry to haul the rock out. The Green Lake County Democrat newspaper of Markesan published this on December 22, 1881.

Markesan is never behind the times on granite or anything else. There is an extensive ledge of rock a short distance east of this village, which has been examined by experts, and pronounced fully equal to any granite quarry in the country. There is a strong probability that a company will soon be formed to open up the hidden treasure. If enough can be sold to make it an object the St. Paul folks will lay a railroad track right over here, and the chances for the enterprise are favorable if the right course is pursued. Bring along the giant powder and blow old Pine Bluff open once, just for luck.

Densmoor took some samples of the granite to Milwaukee and Chicago to see if any business interests there would be interested in it. In spring 1882, Pine Bluff was a humdrum of activity. The early export method was by wagon to the nearest railroad in Brandon, Wisconsin, 6 to 7 miles east of the quarry.

Densmoor quickly got to work trying to negotiate with a railroad company to lay line to the quarry and Markesan. There were attempts to negotiate with C&NW to build a line from Juneau all the way up to Stevens Point, with several stops along the way including Markesan.  Negotiations fell through in mid 1882 when C&NW dropped the idea to build  line there. Densmoor turned his focus to building a line from the CM&STP line in Brandon.

Citizens of Markesan were discouraged that their neighbors, who had railroads, seemed to be trying to shut them out of their chances of getting their own line. The Brandon Times reported in June of 1882:

The Northwestern folks have frankly told the Markesan people that they can do nothing for them in the railroad line and that village is now pinning all its hopes on the Brandon line, and we fail to see any brilliant prospects in that direction, but probably they can

There was no doubt that if a railroad was laid to the quarry that it would prove used and profitable. That line was constructed and was profitable. A little town even sprang up next to the quarry. It was named Utley, after the railroad superintendent of the line. The issue was getting the railroad past there and into Markesan. Outsiders didn’t see the profit in doing so, and would be more expense that had no worth. Even so, the community would have to raise the money to bring the line to Markesan and if some saw that it was not going to be worth it, why would they invest?! Densmoor was determined, even though some thought it a folly.

In August 1882, a deal was brewing up. The CM&STP  made an offer earlier to those seeking a line to Markesan. The town had to secure the right-of-way from landowners, farmers were weary of this, and have a roadbed graded.  Densmoor had secured a contractor to build the grade in August of that year. The Markesan & Brandon Railroad Company was established and James Densmoor Sr. appointed president. Of course the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad Company was going to be the owner of the line. The M&B Railroad Company was simply formed to be able to issue bonds to raise money for the construction of the bed. After the line was built, CM&STP would buyout the local company and take control.

It seemed like the dream of the railroad had finally come true for Markesan! By September 1882, Densmoor had the right-of-way purchased and the construction of the railroad grade began. Trouble was brewing and then came to a head in November of that year. Legal issues had halted production for almost two weeks. Fortunately, for the citizens of Markesan, they were resolved and construction was completed and the first train came into town on December 28, 1882.

On January 5, 1883, Markesan held a big celebration to commemorate the hero who brought the railroad to town. The Green Lake County Democrat reported that:

The town was crowded all day, with our own people and from neighboring towns. Everything passed off pleasantly, and not a row or disturbance of any kind during the entire day and night. The evening exercises at the hall consisted of speeches and music, and a grand love feast was held.

To show their appreciation for Densmoor’s hard work and determination, the townspeople presented him with a gold pocket watch, rocking chair and walking cane with a gold head and on the head was inscribed:

Presented by the citizens of Markesan and vicinity to James Densmoor. President of the Markesan and Brandon Railroad Co. Jan 5th 1883

The cane that was presented to James Densmoor Sr. with the inscription at the head.
Cane and gold watch in a display case

Markesan enjoyed the prosperity of a railroad for many years. After its arrival, business and industry moved in to help expand the community. Those were times of economic prosperity in Markesan. Before the mid 20th century, as the automobiles and paved roads were made popular, passenger trains to and from Markesan were less frequent and then eventually stopped all together. The line was still used for bulk goods being hauled out, but even industry went out to relocate next to the superhighways emerging in America. The prosperity that the rail brought seemed a distant memory.It must have been something to see the old iron horses steam into town.

Green Lake County 1889-addition of Markesan line shown
(David Rumsey Map Collection)
Markesan Depot Activity circa 1920s
(Flicker-milepost185)

Today, the old depot has been moved and relocated next to the Markesan Historical Society’s Grand River Valley Museum. Visitors are able to walk through the old depot and see history first hand where passengers and cargo were checked and loaded on the trains. The rail line still exists in town as well. It serves our one and only canning factory and our agronomy center for transporting chemicals and grains. Markesan is a sleepy little farm community slowly withering away in history. The town is desperately in need of another James Densmoor figure to pave the way for new opportunities and prosperity.

For more information on the history of the railroad visit these pages:

http://www.wlhn.org/green_lake/utley_railroad/brandonmarkesanrr.htm

http://www.wlhn.org/green_lake/utley_railroad/brandonmarkesanrr_democrat.htm

http://www.wlhn.org/green_lake/utley_railroad/brandonmarkesanrr_times.htm

*A history of Markesan and VicinitySamuel Smith

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