Historic Structures

Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad Depot, Madison South Dakota

Date added: September 2, 2022 Categories: South Dakota Train Station

Lake County was organized in 1873, taking its name from the numerous glacial lakes within its borders. Founded that same year, Madison soon became the county seat. Located at the center of the county, the city has been a focal point for regional commerce and politics almost since its beginning. As in most settlements of the state, its early existence depended upon the presence of reliable railroad service. The Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad (later adding the "Pacific" extension) entered Madison from the east in 1881. Because of its fortunate central location, the city became one of several minor hubs in the company's sprawling network of short lines.

The Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad, also called the Milwaukee Road, was incorporated in 1872 by merging a number of smaller lines. Among its many subsidiaries were: the Milwaukee and Watertown, Racine, Jamesville, Milwaukee and Northern, Menominee, and Dakota Southern. Like its competitors, the Milwaukee Road bought land, platted towns, promoted settlement, and became embroiled in local politics all along its lines. Its network, especially in southern Dakota Territory, was mostly a patchwork of short inefficient lines that eventually caused financial problems for the company. Adding to this after World War One, a collapsing farm economy, an end to free land available for settlement, and the advent of the automobile as a reliable form of transportation all triggered a pronounced decline in demand for railroads. The company went in and out of receivership several times during the next five decades, until it was granted final abandonment of its South Dakota lines in 1980. At that time the state of South Dakota purchased 918 miles of the company's 1802 miles of trackage in the state and leased the lines to the Burlington Northern and other smaller companies. Shortly thereafter, the Milwaukee Road ceased to exist as a corporate entity.

Nevertheless, from 1881 to the late 1930s the company was a prominent force in the life of Madison. Up to 1904, the Milwaukee Road held a monopoly on rail service in Lake County. Then during that year, the Dakota Central Railroad, which was a future subsidiary of the Milwaukee,s chief competitor in South Dakota, the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, ran a line north from Sioux Falls to Colton and projected an extension into Lake County. The Dakota Central demanded a donation of right of way, land for a depot, and a cash bonus if it would build a line into Madison. Neighboring town Wentworth also wanted to secure this connection. Bitter editorials and secret negotiations ensued. The Milwaukee put pressure on the Dakota Central's larger affiliate the Rock Island Line, which cooled interest in either location for a time. Meanwhile, city officials and publicists in Madison petitioned the Milwaukee for a new depot. The Dakota Central continued to vacillate between sides for a number of months, while the Milwaukee remained relatively loyal to its established station at Madison. In addition, ultimatums from the Dakota Central to Madison seemed inordinately high to those in power. The new line did not seek to abolish the railroad monopoly in the county, but simply to transfer it. By late 1905, the decision was made by the Dakota Central to go to Wentworth, and as a coincidence the Milwaukee announced construction of a new brick depot for Madison. Rumors that the railroad built the depot as their part of a bribe to keep the Dakota Central out of the city are purportedly true. Such manipulation characterizes much of the railroad history throughout the western United States.

In any case, the new building was completed in early 1906 from stock company plans at a cost of 17,000 dollars. Throughout the west at this time, railroad companies erected depots at their various stops from a variety of such standardized plans. Size, scale, stylistic embellishment, and building materials of these depots often depended upon the size and importance of the community they served. The Milwaukee Road and the Chicago and Northwestern used their own set of plans; however, both companies preferred low buildings with gable roofs and wide overhanging eaves. Most stations did not generate enough business for separate depots for freight and passengers, thus the majority of the facilities, like the Madison depot, housed both operations. For the Milwaukee these combination depots were usually plain but functional wood frame buildings with only a few decorative treatments. Larger cities with busy stations, such as Sioux Falls, Aberdeen, or Mitchell (the latter two constructed after the Madison depot), merited masonry buildings, often two stories in height with accommodations for company regional offices. Their design frequently displayed up-to-date influences such as Neo-Classical Revival or Romanesque Revival. The Madison depot is an intermediate type, using sturdy fireproof brick construction but few decorative treatments. Its interior decor is fabricated from materials typical of the period, including a short wainscot, multiple-paneled doors with frosted glass lights, hardwood floors, and steam radiators. It is one of the best-preserved depot interiors in the state.

The construction of the brick building, no matter what political inspirations it may have had, signified some confidence in the city as a continued faithful patron. During the next several decades, the Madison station sent and received trains to and from points east, west, and north of the city. A sizable service complex, including a small round house, was also located in the vicinity of the new depot. Although generally neglected, the original wood frame pre-1906 depot survives in fair to poor condition just northwest of the brick depot. Plans for its future are uncertain. Part of the original roundhouse has been altered for use as a commercial fertilizer outlet.

Until the late 1960s, the building included a second freight room attached to the main depot by an open, arched gable roof canopy. However, a slipped coupling caused a rail car to smash into the room destroying it. Although this feature is illustrated on original plans, all above ground remains of it have been removed.

Even though the station never figured too prominently in the company's overall plans, it did witness considerable activity in the early part of the twentieth century. In fact, during the summer Chautauqua season the station was crowded with people going from Madison to the Chautauqua grounds on nearby Lake Madison. Excursion trains from as far as 500 miles away also brought passengers in for the annual event, which lasted into the late 1930s. Over two hundred local employees of the railroad were once headquartered at the station. Much of the community's economic relief during the Great Depression of the 1930s was based on the railroad payroll. In the 1940s, the company still employed 77 conductors, brakemen, and other crewmen at the Madison depot. By 1975, that number dwindled to only three.

The last passenger train pulled out of Madison in 1953, and the final steam locomotive to use the facility left two years later. The company struggled here for the next several years, until closing the station in 1979, just prior to filing for bankruptcy. In 1980, the Burlington Northern Railroad acquired title to the property in receivership proceedings and kept the depot open for freight and storage until 1981. It has been idle since. Due to its prolonged fiscal difficulties, the Milwaukee spent little on the building in the last several years of its occupancy. However, the property has suffered very little alteration. Currently, a local committee of concerned citizens has acquired ownership of the building and are raising funds for its restoration. Plans call for the depot to house the Chamber of Commerce and Madison Development offices as well as an area to display railroad memorabilia. This undertaking is the official "lasting legacy" project for the city of Madison during the South Dakota Centennial (1989).

Building Description

Situated at the south end of the main commercial street (Egan Avenue) of Madison, South Dakota, the old Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad Depot is a surviving, nearly unaltered example of the early combination passenger and freight depots common in the state. Rising from a concrete foundation, the one-story rectangular brick building lies parallel to the railroad tracks and perpendicular to the street in the typical midwestern T-plan fashion as described by geographer John C. Hudson. The building is capped by a low-pitched gable roof over the freight handling bays and a tall hipped roof over the passenger depot area, with wide overhanging eaves supported by long decorative brackets on the south (track side), east, and north facades. Roof surfaces are covered with asphalt shingles. The west gable end is sheathed with wood clapboard siding. Two massive brick chimneys rise from the roof peak, each near opposite gable ends. The boarding area alongside the track is paved with red clay bricks.

Some twenty-nine double-hung windows, many of which are grouped in twos or threes, punctuate all four facades. The upper sash of each window unit features multiple latticed muntins. A three-sided bay window projects on the south facade. A small fixed-sash window with latticed muntins is located on the northwest corner of the west gable end.

Originally, interior space was divided into separate men's and women's waiting rooms, ticket office, restaurant, weigh master's office, and station master's office. Later, the railroad converted the men's waiting room and the restaurant into additional office space. For the most part, however, the interior, including ticket windows, has remained unaltered. Walls are covered with plaster and a short wainscot. Woodwork is generally unadorned.

Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad Depot, Madison South Dakota South (track side) and east facades, camera facing northwest (1989)
South (track side) and east facades, camera facing northwest (1989)

Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad Depot, Madison South Dakota North and west facades, camera facing southeast (1989)
North and west facades, camera facing southeast (1989)

Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad Depot, Madison South Dakota Waiting room (1989)
Waiting room (1989)