Remnants of a rail era

Published in Wisconsin Week, University of Wisconsin-Madison, April 4, 2001, written by Jeff Iseminger

Find the Institute for Enzyme Research, just past Navy ROTC on old University Avenue, then go down to the basement and listen for the classical music billowing out of Room 170, and you’ll find a man who is quietly waging war against the incessant American tendency to tear down the old and beautiful and throw up — the term is used advisedly — the new and ugly.

Kim Tschudy, you see, is in love with railroad depots. Mind you, he doesn’t wear a conductor cap, and he doesn’t have miles of model railroad tracks in his basement. But he does have a passion for preserving the depot, which to him is an icon of a vanished way of life.

You can hear that passion in his introduction for his new book, “Milwaukee Road Depots, 1856-1954,” to be published by Iconografix of Hudson, Wis.

“Depots and the happenings there bring out deep emotions seldom felt for other civic buildings. Perhaps because the depot was where we learned the news of who won the 1919 World Series, awaited happy arrivals, and held tearful farewells. … The circus arrived in town, loaded on flat cars, boxcars and sleepers, bringing with it awesome death-defying acts seldom seen before. The depot was the place where the town’s first Model T Fords arrived in boxcars. Or it could have been a new house from the Sears and Roebuck catalog arriving in three train carloads.”

The book features 190 archival photos that Tschudy found of Milwaukee Road depots, most of them torn down long ago to make way for all sorts of newness and sometimes, in the form of parking lots, nothingness. They include the only depot that Frank Lloyd Wright designed and the oldest remaining Milwaukee Road depot, in Mineral Point.

But before we fully succumb to depot-fever, let’s talk more about the man. Tschudy (pronounced chew-dee) joined the classified staff in 1985 and now serves as a housekeeping supervisor, with 16 buildings in his care. He works the swing shift, 5 p.m.-1:30 a.m., and before he comes to campus from his home in New Glarus, he drives a school bus in Madison.

He grew up in New Glarus and for five years lived only a block from the Milwaukee Road depot in town, built in 1887. And yes, once — just once — Tschudy rode the rails without a ticket.

“When I was 12 or so, a friend and I were bumming around the railyard one Saturday,” he says, “and as the train was leaving town, we hopped on and then hopped off about a mile down the tracks. It was one of those dare-you-to-do-it things kids are prone to, but looking back, I realize how dangerous it was.”

Beyond simple proximity, Tschudy’s grandfather loved trains. “He never drove a car,” he says. “His attitude was, “Why drive when you can take a train?’”

Tschudy rode a raft of romantic-sounding trains with his grandfather: the Rock Island Rocket, the Burlington Zephyr, the Milwauke Road Hiawatha. “I was born at the right time to get in on the tail end of the train era,” he says.

After his grandfather died, Tschudy’s interest in trains and depots diminished, but it flared up again with force in 1996 when officials decided to raze the New Glarus depot.

Not so fast, said Tschudy and others. The prospect of losing the depot and its history — “It was the first building that Swiss immigrants saw when they stepped off the train,” he says — was jolting enough. But a planned replacement, Tschudy says, resembled “a grossly mutated barn.”

That sent him out on the road to photograph depots in communities such as Monticello that had not only had been preserved, but restored. He and other preservationists carried the day: The depot was saved, placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and restored using state and federal funds. The depot houses the office for the Sugar River Recreational Trail, which follows the original rail line.

Tschudy’s photos of those depots turned out to be the first in a very long line of dominoes. He’s photographed 700 Midwest depots so far. One very long day, he covered 630 miles and shot 24 depots.

“It got to be an obsession,” says Tschudy as he shakes his head, “because I knew these depots were rapidly disappearing.”

His depot pilgrimage has taken him to a half-dozen states in the upper Midwest, accompanied by his 17-year-old trusty Pentax K1000 camera. “My Pentax even went over a waterfall with me in Michigan,” says Tschudy. “But I just let it dry out, and it was fine.”

His wanderlust — “not being nailed to the floor,” as he calls it — led him in 1996 to Britt, Iowa, for the hobo convention held there every year. “Having read about hobos, this seemed like the perfect place to go,” he says. “I learned that I’m more comfortable around them than the rich and famous. They’re real people.”

Hobos are sometimes defined as tramps or vagrants, but a broader definition is migratory workers. During the Depression, they often migrated by hopping boxcars, thus the hobo-depot connection for Tschudy.

Every hobo has a nickname, and Tschudy’s is Dakota Pete. Ol’ Dakota Pete was surprised to discover in 1998 that he wasn’t the only hobo in his family. Turns out his late Uncle Jake was a respectable hobo for years. “In fact,” says Tschudy, “my aunt always had to have half their clothes packed, in case Jake would want to hit the road on a particular day.”

Some day, when his depot-thirst is slaked, Tschudy plans to donate scans of his photos to the State Historical Society. It’s important to have them in the historical record, he says, because “depots represent the values we used to have in America — a sense of community and a more leisurely way of life.”