The History of the Bearskin State Trail

Sep 26, 2018

The Bearskin State Trail in Oneida County is a popular destination today.

As part of our series A Northwoods Moment in History, Gary Entz tells us about how it's changed over the years.

The Bearskin State Trail in Oneida County is part of the Wisconsin State Park system and a popular year-round trail used by hikers, cyclists, and snowmobilers.  The trail is a converted railway corridor and was once part of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad.  As scenic as the trail is today, just imagine what it must have looked like through the window of a classic 1930s-era streamliner.

The trail existed long before any railroads or logging camps were in the area, but when loggers arrived to take advantage of Northwoods timber the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad forged along the trail into the Northwoods and by late 1887 reached what is today the town of Minocqua.  The railroad hauled timber south to the mills until the turn of the century when nearly all the pine and hardwood forest was gone.

With the collapse of the timber industry the railroad sought other means to garner a profit out of its established line.  The recreational attraction of the Northwoods was not lost on the railroad or early residents.  Residents soon started building resorts in the region, and the railroad cooperated by advertising the fishing, camping, and hunting opportunities of the area to out-of-state passengers.  Minocqua became a tourist destination, but it was in the mid-1930s that the Milwaukee Road’s flagship Hiawatha Streamliners made their appearance.  The Northwoods Hiawatha was actually Class G 4-6-0 steam locomotive shrouded to mimic the appearance of the faster Class A streamliner, but it was still a beautiful train that had luxury coaches, a dining car, and a classic Beaver Tail Parlor car at the rear.

The Northwoods Hiawatha provided transportation from Chicago to Star Lake in the summer with service cut back to Minocqua after the summer tourist season ended.  Although few took note of it at the time, the town road that became Highway 51 was established in the late 1930s as well.  Highway 51 made little difference till the end of World War II, but after the war America prospered as never before.  Automobile culture took over the nation’s transportation.  With a decline in ridership, the Northwoods Hiawatha began cutting back service, running only “Fisherman’s Specials” on the weekends.  By 1956 the railroad cut service to Minocqua completely and went no further north than Wausau.  Service ended altogether in 1970, and the abandoned rail line was converted into the Bearskin Trail.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. Some sound effects for this commentary came from Freesound.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.