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Preserving Lake Geneva's railroad history

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July 28, 2010 | 08:56 AM
In his garage workroom, Ed Yaeger has dozens of model trains set up on tracks lined with miniature landscaping and buildings. The Lake Geneva Historical Preservation Committee member spends his free time working on the trains, but his most recent project is closer to his heart than the others.

Using current interactive mapping, historical information and old drawings, Yaeger has created a scale diorama of what the old Chicago and North Western Railroad turntable and engine house in Lake Geneva used to look like.

Located just off Sage Street, near City Hall and behind the Geneva Lake Museum, it's been more than 139 years since the train made its first stop in Lake Geneva. Yaeger wants to ensure the property that formerly was home to the railroad turntable, engine house and water tower is protected for generations to come.

"I think it deserves to have a permanence here because, historically, I feel the railroads actually made this town," Yaeger said. "As soon as this thing came though, it went crazy here."

According to the book "Steam Trains to Geneva Lake: C&NW's Elgin to Williams Bay Branch" by P.L. Behrens, this past weekend was the 139th anniversary of the first regular service to Lake Geneva. From 1871 until years later, Lake Geneva was the end of the line. In 1888, Williams Bay became the end of the line installing a 70-foot turntable in 1892, making the turntable and engine house in Lake Geneva no longer needed.

"Basically, my main interest is to protect this piece of property," he said. "I think it is very significant to the history of the city. It was here since 1871 and it was only there for 40 years, but it is all completely documented."

But, the end of the need for the turntable didn't mean the end of the railroad through the city. Using the depot on Main Street near the current Dunn Lumber property, the train ran to and from Lake Geneva from the late 1800s until August 1975.

"I would like to see it in the park system," Yaeger said of the Lake Geneva turntable and engine building property. "If we can do that and give it historical significance, then it is safe. It's an important thing. I think it's more important than the depot because it is where there was a lot of activity every day they had steam engines. But, I think it is a tribute to the people. It was hard work, it was dirty work and it was dangerous work."

Yaeger said preserving city history is necessary. He's been working on this effort for a few years and hopes to create a park from the bridge to Sage Street, including the turntable area.

Fellow Historical Preservation Committee member Mary Tanner agreed the area should be preserved.

"We have been talking about it a lot," she said. "Most of us want to see something done. That train coming here was one of the important things that happened in town."

There already are signs on the edge of the bridge and on Sage Street. But Yaeger wants there to be some recognition of the turntable and engine house location. He also would like to see the entire piece in the city's Park Plan.

Tanner called the area "a gorgeous spot" and that people seem to enjoy learning the history of Lake Geneva, the lake and the area.

Geneva Lake Museum Director Kathy Klaisner said her facility has some information on the old Chicago and North Western Railroad and with the proximity to the museum facility, she would like to see it preserved. She believes there may even be remnants of the railroad in the area.

"I think there's an interesting aspect to this, there could be something to be discovered there," Klaisner said. "We had a woman helping us with some archeology and she believed there could be vestiges of the old turntable still there."

She said the turntables were extremely heavy and doesn't believe the one in Williams Bay was removed. She said the same thing could have occurred in Lake Geneva.

"It is possible that it wasn't pulled out," she said. "It may just be covered."

Not everyone agrees

But Public Works Director Dan Winkler said he doesn't see what positive change would come out of making the area a railroad park. He said the property already includes signage and it currently is open land owned by the city and the Utility Commission.

"The question we asked is if it's decidedly a railroad park, what is so different than it is now?" Winkler asked.

Winkler also said there are other areas of the city such as the cabooses on Townline Road that provide historical significance to the C & NW railroad days.

The Lake Geneva Utility Commission property abuts the old railroad bridge and includes some of the trail next to the turntable and engine house. The Utility Commission agreed to allow a sign in front of the bridge trail, but Winkler said a lot of money has been spent for the sailboat welcome sign and other aesthetic improvements in that area. He said that front yard on Main Street entering the city should remain the same. Winkler said initial requests included Yaeger's desire for the park to include some of the front yard area on Main Street.

Currently, the railroads right-of-way property is open green space. But Yaeger said the area is a mess and must be cleaned up.

Winkler said if the bridge and trail is deemed an official park and placed in the city's system, it would make improvements more difficult because it would have to go through the Park Commission, rather than being decided by the Utility Commission.

However, there are also some questions about who owns the property from the bridge to Sage Street. According to minutes from the City Council in 1983, two pieces of property were purchased that included the former railroad right-of-way. The city of Lake Geneva and the Water Department at the time purchased the property. The city paid $31,600 and the water department paid $14,500.

Winkler said he believes the property is owned by the Utility Department. According to Winkler, the Park Commission has asked City Attorney Dan Draper to look into the matter.

Yaeger said he believes the Utility Commission is the main obstacle. He said he's only looking at the property from the start of the bridge to Sage Street and the Historical Preservation Committee and some aldermen appear to be in favor of the idea of protecting the area.

"The railroads were such an important thing in Lake Geneva and we have this huge bridge that is a monument basically," Yaeger said. "Our ordinances say to protect historical sites and monuments."

In one of his letters regarding the preservation of the property, Yaeger wrote, "It has been said that you can better appreciate history and historic events if you can stand on the exact spot where it all happened. Hopefully, with formal recognition and detailed signage, we can give that opportunity to our citizens, guests and future generations."

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