If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to travel back in time, step into the Rhinelander Railroad Museum in Pioneer Park.
As you enter the old depot building, the thin-slatted wooden floors creak with memories. There is a conductor to help passengers board, a telegrapher sending out Morse code and passengers, waiting with their luggage, to purchase tickets. Old spittoons stand at the ready; there is an antique desk, its pigeon holes filled with papers; and sepia photographs dot the walls, depicting trains that belonged to the C&NW Railroad along with the Soo Line that carried lumber barons, hunters and tourists coming to the Northwoods.
There is one particular train engine here, though-the Thunder Lake Lumber Company Number 5-that holds a special spot for people like Rhinelander’s Mayor Dick Johns and Mike Koltz, who is a tour guide at the museum. “This type of engine was the workhorse of the lumber companies that came to the Northwoods to harvest trees,” Mike said. “It ran on a different size track. These tracks were called spurs and ran off the main tracks into the back country to haul out cut down trees and bring them back to town for processing.”
There is also a coach/business car, the only passenger car operated by the Thunder Lake Railroad. It was used to transport guests of the company on hunting and fishing trips. It includes a lounging area, a bedroom, a kitchen and even a bathroom. There is a caboose, built in 1913, which is one of the last wood-covered cabooses to be used by the Soo Line. Here’s another place where time stood still, and visitors can climb aboard and see original paneling, seats and even bunk beds where train engineers could catch a wink or two. There are signal towers, an equipment shed and even an old outhouse.
Another captivating part of this museum is in the basement of the depot, where members of the Model Railroad Association have spent countless hours creating a diorama of the city, back in the day when lumbering was king and trains played a vital role in making Rhinelander what it is today. There are several working model trains in this depiction and visitors can watch as they circle around lakes, businesses and homes.
But it’s a sad fact that time has taken its toll on all these artifacts. The paint on Engine Number 5 is peeling and flaking off, and wooden parts of the cars have rotted away, including the roof of the coach car. “The winter winds and weather really cause havoc on these cars,” said Mike. “We need to get them under a roof, but there is so much that needs to be done.”
Mayor Johns agrees. “I have too much love for this museum,” he said. “I hate seeing these cars go into disrepair. This is our heritage and I so much want to see it preserved.”
But that costs money, and lots of it. In fact, the mayor and volunteers who work at the museum have started a fund drive, trying to raise $175,000. “I know it seems like a big amount,” said Mayor Johns, “but we want to do it right and if we can get these cars restored, they will be good to go for many years.”
While the fund drive is still in its infancy, several local craftsmen have stepped forward to help with the restorations. John Nevins, a local carpenter, is completing repairs on the wooden roof on the coach car. His craftsmanship is precise and beautifully done. Other volunteers have used their skills to sew period clothing for the mannequins that serve as clerks, conductors and telegraphers. And Mike is hoping more local talent steps forward and helps with the restoration.
“We welcome anyone who can help us with this project,” he said. “If someone has ideas or has the skill to do some of this work, that would be great. We are also having some fund raisers this summer and we hope to maybe find some grant money, but we need help with that, too.”
It has been determined that Engine Number 5 needs to be sandblasted before repainting, but laws require that while sandblasting, the area be enclosed.
“What we need is to have a roof built over these cars so we can protect them in the winter,” said Mayor Johns. “But we want to get that done before sandblasting the cars. Then we can use that structure to comply with the sandblasting requirements.”
The inside of the business car needs massive restoration and after completion, it can be open for visitors to observe. And plenty of visitors make their way to this interesting complex that also features a CCC camp museum, an old schoolhouse, Red Marquardt’s sawmill and a logging and lumberjack camp. “We have over 8,000 people that visit us every year,” said Mike. “They come from all over the country to find out more about the history of Rhinelander.”
For Mayor Johns, that’s reason enough to work hard to raise the funds needed to restore these artifacts of years gone by. “This is our history here,” he said. “If we lose this, we lose a big part of what Rhinelander is all about.”
To find out more about the museum or to donate to the restoration, call Mayor Dick Johns at (715) 365-8600.