The Brandon-Markesan Railroad



     The years following the American Civil War witnessed unprecedented industrial and technological growth. Fortunes, and communities, were made overnight and seemingly at will. Opportunities for people with energy, ideas, and daring seemed limitless. But in the boom years at the end of the Nineteenth Century not every venture succeeded. As many fortunes were lost as were made. As many communities vanished as thrived.
     Illustrating the risks was the venture to build a twelve-mile railroad spur line between Brandon in Fond du Lac County and Markesan in Green Lake County, Wisconsin.  Following their organization in 1882, its promoters endured resistance from existing railroad towns and fellow citizens, weathered legal injunctions, and struggled for nearly a year to convince an existing railroad to take an interest. Through the entire course of its development and early operation, the line gave all the appearances of being ill-fated and star-crossed.

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1880's section crew, Brandon-Markesan Railroad, from Elmer Jahn's History of Utley (Markesan Historical Society)

     Markesan, an otherwise prosperous agricultural community on the fertile prairie lands of eastern Green Lake County, had nursed a railroad dream since 1856, when the Milwaukee & Horicon railroad stretched north through western Fond du Lac County, reaching Waupun and Ripon. Overnight the railroad created the community of Brandon, initially only a water stop known as Bungtown between its two well-established neighbors. Witnessing Brandon's rapid growth, Markesan businessmen chafed at the disadvantages they suffered in transporting their commercial and agricultural goods by wagon over unpaved roads. Residents resented what they perceived to be their second class status.
     In 1881, however, Markesan found an opportunity to make up for twenty-five years of being on the outside in the sudden interest in granite as a building and paving material. Six miles east of the village, nearly equidistant between Brandon and Markesan, a knob of black granite known in Markesan as Pine Bluff and in Brandon as Pine Hill attracted the attention of local entrepreneurs. In this unusual formation of rock, Markesan businessman James Densmoor and land owner John Laper recognized a financial opportunity and the potential to attract a railroad. As S. D. Goodell, editor of Markesan's Green Lake County Democrat, expressed in his local column:

Markesan is never behind the times on granite or anything else. There is an extensive ledge of rock a short distance east of this village, which has been examined by experts, and pronounced fully equal to any granite quarry in the country. There is a strong probability that a company will soon be formed to open up the hidden treasure. If enough can be sold to make it an object the St. Paul folks will lay a railroad track right over here, and the chances for the enterprise are favorable if the right course is pursued. Bring along the giant powder and blow old Pine Bluff open once, just for luck. (December 22, 1881)

     When Densmoor brought a sample of the rock to the attention of Chicago interests in February, 1882,  two months after Goodell's editorial, the quarry operation opened on the bluff. As early as March, paving blocks carved from Pine Bluff granite were transported by wagon six miles to the railroad at Brandon, with the Brandon Times reporting, "they are hauling out granite pretty lively," even while observing that the roads were "as bad as they can be, unless the bottom drops out entirely." The operation had a contract for all the blocks it could deliver, and by June the Times was reporting that thirty-five men were working the quarry and producing a carload of stone daily.
     On the strength of this lucrative quarrying operation, Densmoor began pursuing the goal of laying track to the quarry and beyond. As early as March he was pursuing discussions with the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad, operators of the former Milwaukee-Horicon line through Brandon. As the pages of the Times indicate, however, negotions proved more difficult than anticipated. On March 16, it reported:

James Densmoor of Markesan started for Milwaukee and Chicago, Monday morning determined to bring that railroad back in his grip sack or break a trace.

On April 13, the Times announced that Densmoor was talking to another railroad:

Markesan is now looking for a railroad from Juneau by way of Beaver Dam and Fox Lake. But even that would leave that granite quarry neared the Brandon depot than Markesan.

On May 4, the paper's editor, Martin Short, reported with some amusement:

The Markesan Democrat is responsible for the statement that J. W. Grainger is to be station agent at Marquette when the railroad reaches that place [the railroad scheme envisioned a line extending beyond Markesan to Marquette and Kingston]. He will probably take the railroad into Marquette on his peddling wagon.

On May 11, Short announced the following:

The farmers west of the village are not enthusiastic on the railroad question. They don't like a railroad track through their farms, if they do get well paid for it.

On June 15, the Times reported:

The Northwestern folks have frankly told the Markesan people that they can do nothing for them in the railroad line and that village is now pinning all its hopes on the Brandon line, and we fail to see any brilliant prospects in that direction, but probably they can.

     Frustration at the delays and the uncertainty of the project remained high throughout the summer, the Times even reporting on July 20 that, "It is said that Densmoor has withdrawn from the granite business, turning it over to Laper and the quarrymen." That report proved false, however, and a week later it reported another visit by Densmoor to Milwaukee with S. W. Smith, observing that, "They were after that railroad with blood in their eyes."
    Throughout this period, Markesan interests harbored the belief that Brandon and the other railroad towns were against them. The resentment went deep, with Markesan's Democrat editorializing on December 14 that:

Neighboring papers and towns, who rather see almost anything else [sic] than see Markesan get a railroad, have made a big blow about it, claiming that it would never be built, and so on. The Brandon Times even had it built around us entirely, and had Markesan fixed forever.

Even as late as the following March, the Markesan Herald, a paper the Times referred to as "if possible, a worse paper than the Kingston Spy," would editorialize:

[Y]ou all know the trials and disappointments; the bright prospects one day, and the gloomy aspects another; of the opposition that met us in our own town, of the squibs in the Brandon Times and the cold water thrown on by the Ripon papers but the ring of the drills and the thundering roar of the blast in Pine Bluff Granite Quarry kept on....

     Times editor Short's "squibs" aside, a careful reading of the pages of the Brandon paper indicates that the real difficulty with the project was not the railroad line to the quarry, whose lucrative potential even the Times trumpeted, so much as it was the desire to extend the line beyond the quarry, the financial benefit of which was more doubtful. Even as surveys of the proposed route were completed, this factor in the negotiations apparently led the Densmoor group to ask for assistance in the form of public bonds from the communities who would benefit, a fairly common arrangement during the early railroad years in the state according to historian William Raney:

The constitution forbade the state to lend money or credit for internal improvements, whereby Wisconsin was spared some of the woes experienced by Michigan, Illinois, and Minnesota. Yet, if the state might not help, there were still local agencies on the one hand and the federal government on the other. There was no prohibition or effective limitation resting on counties, towns, villages and cities. When a railroad was projected, the localities along the route were expected to borrow for it, and for the most part they did so, readily and rather recklessly. (Raney, Wisconsin: A Story of Progress, 1963)

On July 20, the Times reported:

We understand that the Markesan railroad scheme is shelved for the present at least. The company asked $60,000 bonus, and Markesan wisely concluded that it wasn't worth it.

A week later, however, the Times apparently thought better of the offer and reported that:

There appears to be a fresh boom on the Markesan railroad business this week. The St. Paul managers have made another offer: if Markesan will secure the right of way and grade the road the company will iron and equip it. We don't pretend to be an expert in railroad building, but if Markesan don't find the first offer of $60,000 bonds the cheapest in the end our guesser is a fraud and a deceit. But Markesan is biting on the last offer, and we understand they are already negotiating for the right of way. It is said that Jas. Densmoor offers to give the right of way and grade a mile of road. His grit is admirable, but impression is unavoidable that when he gets it done, he will know more about what it costs to build a railroad than he does now.--But seriously, the section reached by the proposed road can afford to pay the bonus asked. It will increase the value of every farm between the county line and Kingston, on the average, five dollars an acre.

     By August, Densmoor's efforts began to pay off. The C. M. & St. Paul railroad expressed a serious interest in the project late in July, the Green Lake townships apparently expressed an interest in issuing bonds to provide assistance, and on August 3 the Times reported that a new company, the Markesan & Brandon Railway Company, with Densmoor as president, had incorporated. The reason, as explained by the Times on August 31, was the following:

It is a source of wonderment to some what was the use of organizing the Markesan & Brandon R. R. Co., as long as the St. Paul co. is to build and own the road. The point of the game is this: The statutes require that when a town grants aid to build a road, it shall receive an equal amount of the stock of the road. Now St. Paul stock is worth 122 in the market and a town would make money to trade their bonds for it dollar for dollar, and the St. Paul folks are not doing that kind of business. Therefore they have this new company organized, the aid is given to them and their stock returned to the towns. The town bonds are passed over to the St. Paul Co. The road is built, and goes to that Co. The Markesan & Brandon Co. dies an easy death, and the stock is worth half a cent a pound and the St. Paul Co. is thirty thousand dollars ahead--if the road is a paying property. Do you see the point?

As convoluted as the arrangements were, the bonds were apparently the cost of doing business. If the communities wanted the railroad, the bonds were the price, as Raney suggests.
     The arrangements appear to have been satisfactory for all of the parties concerned, because on August 17 the Brandon paper reported that a grading contractor was in town to look over the proposed route, and two weeks later it reported that the town of Green Lake had approved an issuance of bonds. In the same issue it reported that, "You can tell a Markesan man, now days, by the broad smile on his face."  
     Arrangements for grading were reported in the Times on September 7, the contract having been given to "Mr. Cash of New Lisbon whose bill aggregates about $21,000 for the whole line."  Densmoor immediately began buying the needed land, indicating that he expected to pay $50 an acre for what he needed, although the Times reported on September 14 that:

Brandon land is valuable. One man asked the railroad company two hundred dollars  for one tenth of an acre from one corner of his pasture lot.

     By September 21, grading was under way, and the Times reported that the contracter was required to complete his work by the end of October.
     Just as things seemed to be settled and the rail line a certainty, however, Markesan's Democrat reported in its November 23 issue that:

A very formidable document was on Monday served upon President Densmoor and Secretary Barter of the M. & B. R'y Company, and upon Town Clerk Atkinson, and also the Saturday previous upon W. I. Sherwood, in the shape of an injunction to prevent the delivery of our town bonds to the R. R. Company on completion of the road. The complaint is based upon the ground that there was no notice given to the people that a petition for aid would be circulated for signatures. If we read correctly they allege that the clerk did not even post up notices. The plaintiffs are A. Willard, Ira Davids, E. Lovejoy, Clarence Shayler, H. Graham, George and Henry Gilmore, all residents of this town. Col. Turner of Ripon and Chas. Shepard of Fond du Lac are the attorneys, and the injunction was issued by Judge Gilson, of Fond du Lac. The defendents have twenty days in which to make their answer.

Work was stopped on the project for twelve days while the injunction was settled. It was not until December 14 that the Democrat was able to announce that:

The attorney of the road, Mr. John W. Cary, of Milwaukee, put in an answer, and made a motion for the dissolution of the injunction. It was argued last Wednesday and Thursday, and on Monday last, the following dispatch from the Court to Mr. Cary, tells the decision of the question: "Injunction dissolved. Three days to appeal. Bail bond at $5000." On Tuesday W. W. D. Turner, attorney for Davids & Co., sent the following to Mr. Cary: "The plaintiffs will not appeal on the injunction suit."

     On December 28, the first train arrived in Markesan, and the Brandon Times reported that, "Music, whisky and beer mixed, and cigars were as free as air. Well they never had a railroad before." Under the headline "Markesan Is Now a Railroad Town," and an announcement about a "Grand Celebration" the following day, the Democrat speculated in its January 4, 1883, issue about what it would mean to the community and area:

     As a business point and a thriving town, Markesan has a bright future before her. Isolated as she has always been from all markets she has held her own, and has always been one of the best points for trade in the country. Now, with railroad facilities, and a good market for all products of the farm, she is bound to increase her business very materially. Located in the very heart of the finest farming and stock-raising countries that the sun ever shone on, it must be one of the most important shipping points in this part of the State. A large elevator, with the most approved machinery for handling and cleaning grain, will be in operation long before another crop is harvested. Stock yards will be built in a short time, and one lumber yard, (and perhaps two) will be started at once.
     The coming spring and summer will witness many improvements in what is already here, and a good many new business enterprises will be started. Real estate is changing hands considerably already, and several new buildings have been erected, and more are getting ready to build as soon as spring opens. There is a chance here for good live business men, and such are cordially invited to come and settle with us.
     To the farming interests of this section, the road is of incalculable benefit. The work of marketing can be done at half the expense formerly required, just as good prices can be realized, and farmers can buy their goods, lumber, &c., nearer home, and just as cheap. Then, aside from the profit, the convenience of living in or near a live railroad town, must be apparent to all.

     On January 11, in reporting on the celebration, the Democrat wrote, "When the last spike was driven our people became enthusiastic. Bells were rung, guns were fired, and there was music in the air." It also reported that the railroad ran four free passenger coaches to Markesan and that:

The town was crowded all day, with our own people and from neighboring towns. Everything passed off pleasantly, and not a row or disturbance of any kind during the entire day and night.
     The evening exercises at the hall consisted of speeches and music, and a grand love feast was held.

As a fitting climax to a year of intense frustration and discouragement, however, the Democrat also printed the following after its celebration report:

The railroad track, in is present condition, is unsafe for business, therefore no more regular trains will be run until spring, when the road can be ballasted and buildings can be put up to do business. It seems a little bit tough, but it is the only thing that could be done under the circumstances. But the road is here, just the same, and will be operated as soon as spring opens.

     As good as the paper's word, the railroad began operations the following spring, and every issue of the paper for the following year enumerated the carloads of stock, grain, lumber, stone, merchandise, and passengers traveling on the spur line amid reports of the new businesses arriving in the community and the numbers of workers being employed at the quarry.
     When Densmoor sold his interest in the quarry, by then named Utley after the Superintendent of the railroad line, the following year, however, it was not another piece of bad news on the Brandon-Markesan line. Rather, the purchasers represented a group of Chicago investors who brought substantial new resources to the quarry operation. By the end of 1884, more than eight carloads of stone a day were being shipped to Chicago, Markesan businesses were thriving, and as the Times cheerfully reported:

Markesan hasn't fenced in Brandon yet, perhaps they have concluded to allow us to stay here.

     The apparently ill-fated spur line, which was never extended beyond Markesan, weathered the closing of the Utley granite operations early in the 1920's and the disappearance of the village itself in the early 1940's. In recent years, traffic on the line has again increased to serve the needs of the Badger Mining Company, a sand quarrying operation at Utley east of Pine Bluff. A measure of the importance of the line over the years was taken on June 12, 1999, when the current owners of the line, the Wisconsin Southern Railroad, announced a celebratory six-mile ride from Markesan to Utley. The excursion transported twenty cars of passengers and turned away many others interested in the event.


Last updated 7/1/1999

This site represents an ongoing project to document the history of Green Lake and Fond du Lac counties. If you have information to share, please contact Bob Schuster by email at or at 6020 Kristi Circle, Monona, Wisconsin 53716, (608) 221-1421.