Preserving rail history, one document at a time

Posted by David Lassen
on Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Lake States Railway Historical Association president Dick Goddard discusses drawings from the Fairbanks-Morse Sheffield Car Co. collection at the association's library and archive in Baraboo, Wis. (David Lassen photo)

Bob Ristow demonstrates the association's special large-format copier for Trains Associate Editor Steve Sweeney. (David Lassen photo)

If you’ve heard of Baraboo, Wis., a town of 12,048 north of Madision in the south central part of the state, it’s likely because of the Circus World Museum, established here because the community was the original winter home of the Ringling Brothers Circus.

Just blocks away, on the opposite side of the Baraboo River, is a lesser-known organization that is, or at least should be, a significant resource for those interested in railroad history.

The Lake States Railway Historical Association, founded in 2006, has its archives, research center and library in a 5,000-square-foot, climate-controlled structure completed in 2015 to house its burgeoning collection of artifacts. President Dick Goddard, secretary Mike Harrington, and member Bob Ristow hosted the Trains staff this week, giving us an opportunity to become familiar with an organization that deserves greater exposure.

As it describes itself, the association exists so its “collection of historic artifacts, images and other materials be preserved for the use of historians, restorers, modelers, authors and all who have a need for determining accurate historical scenarios from original documents, images and other data from the protected collections within.”

As of this writing, the association’s website ( has 29,252 items in its searchable online database, although it has recently become aware of flaws in that searchable archive. (An example: It has thousands of Chicago & North Western drawings, but a search by railroad name turns up just one; apparently, this relates to items being entered as CNW rather than C&NW.) But that figure represents just a fraction (perhaps 15 percent, at most) of the various collections that the all-volunteer organization is gradually cataloging and organizing. While the catalog is online, the artifacts themselves have not been digitized and are unlikely to be so any time soon. In part, this is because many of the objects are of a size defying such conversion. (For example, there’s a detailed track diagram that’s 388 inches long — that’s more than 32 feet! — and more than 24 inches wide.) Fortunately, the association does have a specialized copying machine capable of reproducing large documents.

So what are the collections? The largest comes from Fairbanks-Morse, the former locomotive manufacturer based in Beloit, Wis. One full wall of the association’s archive building has boxes and boxes of rolled up drawings related to the locomotive manufacturing process, as well as additional stacks of loose drawings — perhaps 100,000 of them, although at this point, no one really knows. There are also books which documented locomotive orders in great detail, and drawings relating to concepts that never made it to construction, such as a “Super Train Master” locomotive, or a Zephyr-like streamlined passenger train.

A portion of the FM collection deals with engineering and construction from the Sheffield Car Co., a maker of velocipedes, handcars, push carts, motor cars and related products in Three Rivers, Mich., which was acquired by Fairbanks-Morse in the early 1900s. So far, more than 13,000 pieces of the Sheffield collection have been repaired and catalogued; in all, that portion of the archive alone may include up to 40,000 artifacts.

There are also more than 23,000 documents from the Chicago & North Western’s Omaha Road subsidiary; almost 9,000 locomotive drawings saved from the Rock Island’s steam shops; more than 3,100 drawings from the Milwaukee Road; more than 43,000 negatives for locomotive photographs by William Kuba, an Iowa-based photographer who died in 2012; and a collection of Illinois Central documents which to date remains virtually untouched, awaiting its turn at archiving. And we haven’t even talked about the library, or the extensive collection of Official Guides of the Railways dating to 1851.

All of it — or at least the parts that have been cataloged — are available for researchers or anyone else who might have need for the detailed information the archive contains. (For example, the nearby Mid-Continent Railway Museum purchased copies of some 900 drawings and documents relating to Chicago & North Western Ten-Wheeler No. 1385, which the museum is currently restoring.) Those interested in learning more about the association should start with its website; for anyone interested in visiting for research purposes, advance appointments are strongly recommended.

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