Sunday, November 07, 2010

Land Grant Railroads in Wisconsin, Part 1

Following is an edited version of a presentation I gave recently at the Wisconsin DOT Fall Rail Conference.

In the 19th century, the United States provided huge grants of public lands for a variety of activities, including canals, education (both elementary and college), homesteads, wagon roads, plank roads & Macadamized roads - and railroads.

Uncle Sam: Land Baron

At the end of the Revolutionary War, the British ceded lands to the United States, including the 260,000 square miles that became the Northwest Territory, which included the area that became the State of Wisconsin in 1848.

The US also acquired:

1803 – Louisiana Purchase 829,000 sq. miles

1818 – British Cession 46,000 sq. miles

1819 – Florida Cessions 59,000 sq. miles

1845 – Texas Annexation 390,000 sq. miles

1846 – Oregon Territory 286,000 sq. miles

1848 – Mexican Cession 525,000 sq. miles

1853 – Gadsden Purchase 30,000 sq. miles

The United States had added about 2,425,000 square miles to its territory and owned nearly all of it. Thus, by the time of the first railroad land grant in 1850, the US owned a vast amount of land.

1850 – Land grant for the Illinois Central began the railroad land grant era and set the model for future legislation.

The grant was hugely successful as detailed by the University of Nebraska at Lincoln's website Railroads and the Making of America (where you can find a rich collection of photos, land contracts, maps, animations, and analysis): 

The transformation of Illinois was nothing less than explosive in these years. The Illinois Central advertised intensely and attracted settlers from England, Canada, Vermont, Germany, and Ireland. Large numbers came from Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and New England. The town of West Urbana in Champaign County provided a useful example: it was a depot in 1854, then in two years it had 1,500 people and farm prices had increased 100 per cent. The county also grew between 1850 and 1860: improved acreage jumped from 23,000 to 170,000 acres, and the value of farm property skyrocketed from $478,000 to $5,178,800. Carbondale, another Illinois Central depot town, stood as a lonely, recently surveyed railroad stop in 1852, but in five years the place attracted over 1,200 residents. Cairo too increased its population in the 1850s, by a remarkable ten times.

Paul Gates suggested that 34,000 sales were made by the Illinois Central from 1854-1870 and these sales brought 100,000 new residents to the state (Paul Wallace Gates, The Illinois Central and Its Colonization Work, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1934, p. 250).
1856 – Congress approves land grants for railroad development in eight states, including Wisconsin.

1860’s – Congress approved land grants for 4 of 5 transcontinental routes.

Congress gave land grants to the states to aid the construction of rail lines for specific routes that included six square miles of land for each mile of track built (later grants increased to 10 sq. miles). Wisconsin used public land grants to build three main rail routes.

1880 US General Land Office map showing land grants for railroads, wagon roads, and canals.

Congress also provided “indemnity lands”, which were replacement lands to compensate for any lands in the main grant that had already been sold and thus withdrawn from the public domain. “Indemnity lands” were the nearest vacant public lands outside of the main grant and not more than 15 miles from the right-of-way (later increased to 20 miles).

From Railroads and the Making of America,

1886 General Land Office map showing grants for railroads and wagon roads.

  The land was provided in a checkerboard pattern of alternating township sections. Odd-numbered sections went to the railroad. Even-numbered sections were retained by the US for sale to private parties.

Map showing a Township section map. Shaded sections were granted to the railroad.

How much land? As of 1886, some 155,000,000 (155 million) acres were granted and 49,650,000 acres were patented to the various states for transfer to the railroads. In Wisconsin, some 2,874,000 acres was certified or patented – about 7% of all lands. For reference, Wisconsin covers 65,498 square miles or 41,918,720 acres.

How much trackage? As of 1886, some 17,724 miles of land-grant railroad tracks had been constructed in 26 states. In Wisconsin, land-grant railroad lines constituted about 20% of total track miles – 973.50 land-grant miles out of 4778 total miles.

How did it work? Congress specified the route and made a grant of public lands to a state. The state legislature then selected the railroad. This selection process was ripe for corruption, as we shall see.

The railroad then filed a map of definite location with the General Land Office of the Department of Interior. The route could be altered so long as the map filed encompassed the actual route as determined by the Department of the Interior. See, Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis Omaha Ry. Co. (Bayfield Branch), 6 Pub. Lands Dec. 209, 1887 WL 561 (D.O.I.)

As soon as the railroad filed its map of the route, the Department of Interior removed all of the land from the public domain, including the indemnity lands. The land grants withdrew 30-mile-wide swaths of public lands from the public domain (later 40-mile-wide. Settlers were then barred from buying lands on the odd-numbered sections located within the main grant and the indemnity lands.

This policy was a source of bitter friction between the railroads and homesteaders, especially when combined with DOI decisions allowing the railroad to alter its route. These corridors of land were removed from public sale while the railroad made its selection of indemnity lands.

How did the land grants help the railroad? As the railroad completed 20-mile sections, the state would certify the completion and the US would release the lands to the railroad. How did railroads use the land?

  • Free land to build the railroad.

  • Provided collateral for bonds (the railroads did not always wait until they had a patent).

  • Revenue from selling most of the lands.

  • Harvested timber and quarried rock for the railroad construction.

  • Sold stumpage rights.
The Wisconsin Central Railroad Company (WCRC) received about 884,000 acres under the 1864 grant for a railroad running from the center of the state to Lake Superior. By 1890, the WCRC had sold 268,194 acres for $765,041 and had received $962,960 for stumpage.

Three main land-grant railroad routes were built in Wisconsin under grants of land passed by Congress in 1856 and 1864. The 1856 law provided for a northwest route and northeast route. The 1864 law provided for the central route.

The 1856 act passed by Congress described the routes :

“from Madison, or Columbus, by the way of Portage City to the St. Croix River or Lake between townships twenty-five and thirty-one and from thence to the west end of Lake Superior; and to Bayfield”;

“and also from Fond du Lac on Lake Winnebago, northerly to the State line…”.

1856 Land Grant Act, Statutes at Large, XI, 20 [Ch. 43, 11 Stat. 20 (June 3, 1856)]

Both routes were later altered by Congress. The Northwest Route was amended to require that run through both Madison and Columbus. The Northeast Route was also altered to run along Green Bay.

Map from unpublished master's thesis by Greiner, Gordon Oswald., Wisconsin national railroad land grants, Thesis (M.S.)--University of Wisconsin--Madison, 1935.

The 1864 Land Grant Act renewed and extended the time to complete 1856 grants and authorized a third route running from the central portion of the state to Lake Superior.

“From Portage City, Berlin, Doty's Island or Fon [sic] du Lac, as said state may determine, in a northwestern direction to Bayfield, and thence to Superior, on Lake Superior.”

1864 Land Grant Act, Statutes at Large, XIII, 66. [Ch. 80, 13 Stat. 66 (May 5, 1864)]

What could possibly go wrong? To be continued.


  1. Graft. And I hope most of us learned about all Giving something away for free usually leads to this little problem.
    Henry George

  2. This is really fascinating. I wish you would give a presentation at the library. I'd come.