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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Badger #2 fish car with pike fry in Woodruff, Wis., circa 1916. © E. Custiss, DNR photo
Badger #2 fish car with pike fry in Woodruff, Wis., circa 1916.
© E. Custiss, DNR photo

December 2006

Across the trestles of time

In decades long past, the Badger Fish Cars hauled fry
to stock remote Wisconsin waters. Now old No. 2
may be back on track.

David L. Sperling


The Badger rides again
Where railroaders let off some steam

Part of the art in providing a quality product is delivering the goods, especially when "the goods" have a short shelf life. When the product is perishable, like live trout, success is measured in whether the stocked goods stink or swim.

When Wisconsin's first state fish hatchery, Nine Springs, was established south of Madison in 1876 the roads didn't stretch nearly as far and wide across Wisconsin as the streams. Fish could darn near swim to stocking grounds faster than they could be transported. Transcontinental rail lines had been completed only seven years earlier. As the rails carrying the iron horse spread a metallic web across the landscape, fish managers seized the opportunity to adapt the new technology to move fish more quickly to distant waters.

In 1873, Dr. Livingston Stone of the U.S. Fish Commission made the first transcontinental train trip with live fish as cargo, transporting shad in milk cans from the East Coast to California for stocking. A team of assistants worked in shifts, changing water and continually added ice to keep the temperatures cool, maintain dissolved oxygen in the water, and skim off fish slime.

Early rail shipments of stocking fry were expensive and labor intensive. Milk cans containing fish fry were loaded into baggage cars on trains, and a crew of hatchery workers called "messengers" tended the fish. Getting the fry to stocking points in healthy condition was no picnic. Wisconsin Superintendent of Fisheries, James Nevin, described the chore in his 1891-92 report to the state Fisheries Commission:

"In May and June it is very difficult to carry fish long distances without an accompanying abundance of ice to...keep the temperature down to the proper degree. An improved method of caring for the safety of the fish is needed. At present the employees are often compelled to change cars three or four times on a trip, transferring from one baggage car to the other all the cans and paraphernalia. If the train happens to be late and the employees miss connections, they may be left for some time upon some railroad crossing platform with their cans of fish. The chances are that with no facilities for giving the fry proper care, they will perish before arriving at their destination. Besides these inconveniences it happens that in nine times out of ten there is no room in the baggage car for more than 20 to 25 cans at a time, and then they are badly crowded, with steam pipes running around the car, ruining the fry and with no room to get at the fish to attend them. I often wonder at the employees getting them to their destination in as good condition as they do."

Most live fish moving by rail in the early days were destined for the tables of inland consumers who demanded it fresh. In 1880, a German inventor, Arno Gustav Pachaly, developed the first insulated railcars. His design featured iceboxes suspended overhead and pumps attached by pulleys to the train wheels that pumped air into water-filled tanks of fish. His patented contraption kept fish in the pink on the journey from Bohemia to fish markets in Berlin.

The U.S. Fish Commission and several states adapted Pachaly's insulated railcar design to carry hatchery fry for stocking streams. By 1892 state hatcheries were shipping about 45 million eggs, fry and fingerlings for stocking in state waters.

To ship more fish to stock at greater distances from the hatcheries, Nevin petitioned the state Fisheries Commission in 1893 to seek a $5,000 appropriation from the legislature to buy a rail car specifically designed for transporting and stocking fish. Seven other states had already made such investments, but lawmakers had another powerful incentive: Wisconsin wanted to make a good showing at the upcoming World's Fair in Chicago, the Columbian Exposition celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus's "discovery" of America. A highlight of the state display in the fisheries building included an aquarium of live native fish, which Nevin transported to the fairgrounds in the brand new rail car, dubbed Badger.

Both the fish and the rail car became novel fair attractions. The car, 55 feet long and divided into sections with a center aisle, contained a galley kitchen at one end to feed the crew of attendants. The other end was equipped with Pullman upper and lower berths on one side across from a small bathroom and closets. The main body of the car held 12 fish tanks, each three-feet square and 18 inches deep. The tanks were insulated with thick, galvanized iron and drain pipes that fed into eight barrels and tanks slung under the car; each held up to two tons of water and ice. A six-horsepower engine-and-boiler combination circulated jets of air and water through the bottom of each fish tank. Open-ended stand tubes at the top of each tank drew off slime and waste. When the car arrived at a stocking area, the train stopped over a bridge and tubes were lowered into the water to stock fish directly into rivers and streams. The car was built to passenger rail car standards so it could travel safely at faster speeds.

Badger #2 fish car interior, featuring the fish tanks, circa 1912. © DNR photo
Badger #2 fish car interior, featuring the fish tanks, circa 1912.

© DNR photo

In spite of their sleek design, fish cars were a real challenge for railroad workers. The cars were much heavier than normal passenger coaches. It took powerful engines to start the cars rolling, well-engineered routes to keep the cars on track, and good brakes to slow them down. Over the years the cars were blamed for some train wrecks and accidents, but their safety record remained strong enough that they continued to be built to move regional specialties across the nation: The 30-ton Stillwell Oyster Car built by the Pullman Company in 1897 transported live oysters from the Texas coast to Kansas City, Missouri. Special trains moved lobsters from Massachusetts to San Francisco and Dungeness crabs from San Francisco across the country to Chesapeake Bay.

As staff gained experience, the Badger was put to greater use in Wisconsin. In 1895, the car traveled just under 2,100 miles. One year later, the rail crew traveled 30,859 miles stocking fish in Wisconsin and averaged 15,000 to 20,000 miles a year through 1914, when the rail car was taken out of service and sold to the Canadian government to disappear down the tracks of history. Its whereabouts today are unknown.

The Badger rides again

Badger No. 2 was built by the Pullman Company of Illinois for the Wisconsin Fisheries Commission in 1912. Befitting the $13,500 price tag, the 72-foot car featured wood and steel for added strength, 15 fish tanks, and linoleum floors for easier maintenance. Its crew of four enjoyed more spacious accommodations including bigger sleeping quarters, a kitchen, salon and an observation room. Old photos of the new car reveal the clean elegance of Badger No. 2's construction; the decorative linoleum, leather seats, well-fitted wooden berths, big windows and artful lighting fixtures reflect the fine craftsmanship of the day. Functional yet stylish, Badger No. 2 was fancy enough to occasionally transport state Fisheries Commission members to meetings around the state.

But time and modes of transportation moved on. By the 1930s, the state's ever-growing network of paved roads allowed tanker trucks with aerators to reach even more waters more quickly using fewer staff to stock fish; by comparison, fish cars were costly and cumbersome to operate.

Badger No. 2 had a long, productive life and remained in service until 1945, when it was decommissioned and sold to a private railroad contractor, Walter H. Knapp, Inc. of Milwaukee. It was later sold to the Mid-Continent Railway Historical Society in 1960. The society, located in North Freedom, Wis., about seven miles west of Baraboo off Highway 136, specializes in preserving structures and equipment from 1885-1915, when steam locomotives were king and 90 percent of the nation's passengers and freight moved by rail. The society's collection includes 13 steam locomotives, 38 passenger cars, 31 freight cars, 21 cabooses, and 15 pieces of service equipment such as rail snow plows and wreckers. Like Badger No. 2, many of these pieces are one-of-a-kind items salvaged by society members for restoration to their original appearance.

This goal was not very evident when Badger No. 2 became the very first railcar purchased by Mid-Continent for its collection. Badger No. 2 was moved to Hillsboro, Wis. in 1962 to carry passengers for the first operating season until the museum's home depot was shifted to North Freedom in 1963. The "Fish Car" served as a passenger coach on the museum's rail line for many years. It was last used on the Snow Train in 1985.

Badger No. 2 became a strong favorite for restoration when research performed by the society's Collections Manager, Leah Rosenow, revealed the car's unique status as the country's sole surviving fish-stocking car. The project was brought to the attention of Tom Jeffris, president of the Jeffris Family Foundation of Janesville. His willingness to help finance the refurbishment of the nearly century-old car came with two conditions: First, that it be restored to its 1912 appearance; and second, that everything on the car be functional, just as it was when first put into service by the Wisconsin Fish Commission.

Current state of what was once the salon area of Badger #2. © Mid-Continent Historical Society Collection
Current state of what was once the salon area of Badger #2.

© Mid-Continent Historical Society Collection

Jeffris' input helped shape what soon became the society's most ambitious project. The foundation's challenge grant of $475,000, presented to Mid-Continent at a ceremony held at the Nevin Fish Hatchery in August 2006, represents about half the cost to restore the car. The railway historical society now has approximately 16 months to meet the challenge by raising the remaining $475,000 needed to bring Badger No. 2 back to its original elegance.

In addition to financial support from the Jeffris Family Foundation, Avalon Rail, Inc. of West Allis helped with the restoration plan. Prior restoration projects were kept within the historical society; members donated their time to do the hands-on work and their money to cover the costs of a project. Ordinarily, a coach restoration project might cost a mere $50,000 but would take 12 years or more to complete. Once the full amount of the Jeffris challenge has been met, Badger No. 2 will roll down the rail to Avalon and receive a makeover that will be completed in a mere 12 months.

Restoring Badger No. 2 will involve applying new exterior siding and renewing the underbody and interior. Windows will be replaced and refitted with much of the remaining original glass. The interior layout will be returned to its original configuration, including reinstalling walls and the 15 fish tanks. The kitchen, bathroom, salon and observation room will be reconstructed to full operational status, including the berths. All of the woodwork will be revarnished and repainted where necessary. The ultimate goal of the restoration is to return Badger No. 2 to its 1912 form, meaning it will look as it did when it first rolled out of Pullman's shops.

Once restored, Badger No. 2 will represent a unique period in railroad history, serve as an integral piece of Wisconsin and DNR history, and stand as a testament to the state's proud legacy of ecological preservation. On display at Mid-Continent, Badger No. 2 will be a dynamic and tangible educational tool for museum visitors and an authentic artifact for academic research.

If you would like to help get some living history back on track, you can send your tax-deductible gift to a fund set up specifically to benefit Badger No. 2. Simply make your check payable to The Badger No. 2 Fund, and mail it to Wells Fargo Bank, P.O. Box 529, Baraboo, WI 53913 ATTN: Cathy Althoff. Come aboard and help restore this special piece of Badger history that delivered so many years of fine fishing to Wisconsin streams and anglers.

David L. Sperling edits Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.