|Caledonia Springs Railroad Bridge, painting by Dorothy Kramer c.1950|
As is well-known, the railroad never came to the historic Village of Cooksville. The “town that time forgot” was forgotten because a railway builder’s plans went bust.
This all happened—or, actually, didn’t happen— back in about 1857.
But there is a remnant near Cooksville dating from the 1850s when a railroad company did plan to come through the village: a small stone railroad bridge. But plans went astray.
|Caledonia Springs Railroad Bridge 1948, with Marvin Raney|
The remnant (an archeological ruin, really) is the “Caledonia Springs Railroad Bridge” hidden in the wild, over-grown woods near dozens of equally hidden, bubbling “Caledonia Springs.” The old stone bridge, or culvert, arching over a small creek was constructed about 160 years ago as part of the plans to lay tracks through Cooksville on the way to Madison from Janesville.
On a recent spring day, a successful excursion led by the Makoutz family—Josh and Jill and their three young children, Ruby, Dylan and one-and-a-half-year-old Sawyer, carried by Dad—with pathfinder Josh in the lead hiked next to cornfields and through woods, brambles, and years of overgrowth to view the old stone bridge and the quiet burbling springs.
|The bridge with Jill, Dylan, Josh and Sawyer, today|
The Makoutz family lives near Cooksville on Caledonia Road in the handsome historic McCarthy stone house. When not guiding someone to the ruined stone bridge, Jill and Josh operate Bradbury’s, a highly-praised coffee house in Madison that specializes in delicious crepes, located at 127 N. Hamilton St., just off the Capitol Square.
Jill and Josh kindly offered to lead the way to this hidden historic site and natural springs south of Caledonia Road in the Town of Porter, not far from Cooksville. They’d hiked into the ravines several times before.
|Town of Porter 1858 map with the proposed railroad|
Not many details are known about the history of the small Caledonia Springs railroad bridge. Who hauled those huge stones there? And who laid them up like an ancient Roman archway, and why didn’t the planned railway ever cross it?
Many railroad companies had quickly formed in southern Wisconsin in the mid-19th century (and some had quickly failed), and this new transportation technology was heavily invested in by local landowners and others. Successful railroad lines brought progress and profits, of course, and multiple train routes were planned to connect Milwaukee and Chicago with points north and west.
The company that planned to diagonally cross the Town of Porter was the Chicago, St. Paul and Fond du Lac Railroad, coming northwestward from Janesville, which it had reached in 1855.
Preliminary plans and surveys were conducted to continue the route from Janesville through the Town of Porter crossing the Caledonia Springs area, then traveling through Joseph K. P. Porter’s farm just east of Cooksville (or “Waucoma” as it was then known) and crossing the Badfish Creek at that point.
Had that route been laid with railroad tracks, Cooksville (and Waucoma) would no doubt have grown and expanded eastward toward the tracks and the small village would have grown. And it might not be what it is today: a historic “wee bit of New England in Wisconsin.”
But the train did not arrive. Instead, the financial Panic of 1857 happened. A general national economic downturn bankrupted many of the ambitious and under-funded railroad companies and many plans were abandoned. In 1859, when the economy recovered, the newly-formed railroad company changed its plans to reach Madison. Instead it built tracks from Janesville northward to Minnesota Junction near Fond du Lac, joining lines from Milwaukee that headed toward Minnesota. And eventually, of course, other railroads were built through nearby Stoughton and Evansville.
|The bridge over Caledonia Springs today|
The little arched Caledonia Springs Railroad Bridge built to serve as a culvert over the creek never supported any railroad tracks. But much of it still stands hidden away arching over a ravine, some of it collapsed into the creek formed by the many local springs whose waters flow northward to the Badfish Creek and then three rivers later into the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s a bit of a hike from Caledonia Road to the bridge site but worth the effort, especially if iced tea and wild black raspberry scones await the hikers at Jill and Josh’s handsome stone house after a traipse through the nearby woods and fields on a sunny spring day.