Local author fascinated by life on the rails
Local author Arlyn Colby has released his seventh and last planned book in his series about abandoned western Wisconsin branchline railroads. The book is called “The Ellsworth Line.”
The Omaha Railway railroad in west central Wisconsin served the communities of Prescott Road, Glover’s Station, River Falls, Cherma, Beldenville, and Ellsworth south of Hudson, and Bayport and Stillwater in Minnesota north of Hudson. The railroad was built originally to serve the River Falls flour mills, Colby said.
The Ellsworth line was abandoned in 1966. “Today very little of this rail line is visible because many homes and businesses are built where the track existed,” Colby said. “The old railroad grade is mostly easily seen south of River Falls, but even then I had several Pierce County historians go with me via automobile and they were able to point out where it existed. Once it is pointed out, it is much more obvious.”
North of River Falls the highway has been built on part of the railroad grade and part of it is on private property. Colby said it helps to have an area person to point out the old rail grade.
“I think the only remaining building on the line is the Hudson City depot, which is now a private business called Lakefront Framing,” Colby said. “The bridges are all gone, but in several places where it crossed a stream, the pilings are still visible. I have pictures of some in the book.”
The book includes chapters about each town on the Ellsworth line, providing facts about each community’s history, a railroad track plan and photos. The book features 221 photos, 65 charts and diagrams and 26 maps.
Colby, who grew up on a farm in Trempealeau County, always made a point to look for the train when they made it into town.
“Being on a branch line, and since we seldom got to town, I seldom saw the train,” Colby lamented. “And I always wondered where it was going, and what it would be like to ride the rails.”
Colby graduated from Eleva-Strum Central High School and UW-Eau Claire before pursuing his teaching and coaching career. He taught mathematics and coached for many years at Barron High School. When he retired, he pursued his passion for railroads by researching and publishing his first book in 2008, “The Mondovi Line.”
The book told the story of the railroad that ran between Fairchild and Mondovi near where he grew up. It was so well-received, that he decided to write “The Chippewa Valley Line” about the Milwaukee Road track between Wabasha, Minn. and Durand, Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls and Menomonie.
“I owned a speeder, commonly called a putt putt car, that ran on railroad tracks where I am a member of the Chippewa Valley Motorcar Association south of Durand,” Colby said. “And north of Durand are two great bicycle trails that I rode, so I decided to write ‘The Chippewa Valley Line,’ about this rail line.”
Gathering information for that book took about 10 years. He was on a roll and decided to write “The Blueberry Line,” which chronicles the history of the line that ran through Barron County, where Colby resides.
“Again, those books were so well-received that one thing led to another and I couldn’t stop,” Colby said. “Each of the succeeding books were about a branchline railroad that I knew about but never saw in operation and I wanted to learn about it. After all the research, I wanted to share it with other people who wanted to learn about these railroads.”
In July 2020, Colby released “The Spring Valley Line,” which documents the Omaha Railway’s abandoned line that ran south from Woodville to Spring Valley, Elmwood, Comfort and Weston and north from Woodville to Emerald. That line was abandoned in 1965.
Colby said he gets most of his facts from area newspapers. He has spent hundreds of hours looking at microfilm. Most of the photos in his books come from area historical societies, libraries or individuals who have accumulated collections of photos.
Colby is often asked how he became interested in trains and he honestly isn’t sure. He believes he was born with the railroad gene.
“Most people have an interest in something specific, like old tractors or airplanes, or salt and pepper shakers,” he said. “Trains were communities’ life blood in the old days with all the communication and goods coming via railroad. The railroad was their key to the outside world and I wanted to learn about it.”
His other books include The Cornell Line” and “The Park Falls Line.”
To learn more or purchase the book, visit www.wisconsinrailroadbooks.com Colby also likes to hear from readers. You can reach him at [email protected]