The first railroad in southeast Minnesota went up the Root River Valley, bypassing two county seats – Caledonia and Preston. That omission would soon be solved by entrepreneurs in Caledonia. Railroads began to cross Houston County in the 1860s, shortly after the Civil War. The railroad era in southeast Minnesota lasted more than a century before ending in 1976.
In 1880, the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Louis Railroad purchased the two existing operations, both running west from the Mississippi River into Fillmore County. They would eventually connect north of Preston at Isinours.
The earliest operation was a northern route, that depicted by a map in 1905, connected La Crescent and Lanesboro via Hokah, Mound Prairie, Houston, Rushford, Peterson and Whalan. Caledonia furthered its own cause with a railroad that ran a southern route for 58 miles from Reno to Preston with stops in Freeburg, Egbert, Caledonia, Willington Grove, Spring Grove, Newhouse, Mabel, Prosper, Canton and Harmony.
La Crescent to Lanesboro and beyond
The Minnesota Territorial Legislature, in the spring of 1855, established the Root River and Southern Minnesota Railroad to run from the Mississippi River at La Crescent up the Root River Valley. By the autumn of 1866, the rails ran from just east of Hokah to within a mile of Houston. By 1867, the line reached Rushford and a year later, Lanesboro. After skipping the rugged terrain west of Lanesboro to Ramsey Junction, track construction continued toward South Dakota through Fountain, Wykoff and Spring Valley. The missing link west of Lanesboro was completed in 1870.
In 1880, the Southern Minnesota solved financial woes by selling out to the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Louis, which in the same month also purchased the Caledonia, Mississippi and Western Railway that ran from Reno to Preston.
Reno to Preston
On November 28, 1873, the Caledonia and Mississippi Railroad Company was incorporated and authorized to build a rail line from the Mississippi River to Caledonia. Progress was delayed by opponents who feared the project would direct business away from Caledonia (to La Crosse) instead of vice versa. The reorganized Caledonia, Mississippi and Western began construction in June of 1876 with Preston designated as the western terminus. The first train reached Caledonia by September 25 and by Christmas, the train was near Preston.
An 1879 newspaper ad sought 100 men and 50 teams (horse-drawn wagons) to work on the railroad. The company offered $1.50 a day for shovelers and $3 a day for teams.
That first 1876 work train was followed by a passenger train by January 19, 1880. But by April of that year, financial woes led to the railroad being sold to the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Louis Railroad. The narrow-gauge operation continued until 1901, when the first standard gauge reached Preston on Nov.ember 11.
End of the rural rail era
Discontinuance of the Milwaukee Road passenger and mail service between La Crosse and Austin became final on March 31, 1960. However, freight service would continue from La Crosse.
The dwindling number of passengers using the train made it economically unfeasible. The wages paid exceeded the revenue from the 108-mile trip from Austin to La Crosse.
Many persons had begun using private automobiles on the expanded and improved roadways to access passenger trains or airplanes at La Crosse, Rochester, Mason City and the Twin Cities. The railroad claimed a loss of $116.98 per trip from Austin to La Crosse in 1958, and losses increased in 1959.
Trucks, already in use for mail service, were available for delivery to all communities served by the trains. Mail brought to La Crosse by train would then continue by truck to Decorah, Iowa, with stops in La Crescent, Hokah, Houston, Caledonia, Spring Grove and Mabel.
Financial woes and lack of federal subsidies in the 1970s prompted the abandonment of rural freight service despite opposition from agricultural communities.
Freight service to rural Houston County continued until abandoned in 1976. The tracks were torn out and sold for salvage in 1977. After contributing to the end of the three-decade stagecoach era, railroads thrived in rural southeast Minnesota for 110 years. Trucking would be the benefactor with the government improving highways for trucks and automobiles.