A Northwoods Christmas Train Ride

Dec 23, 2020

Christmas is a time when children and grandchildren return home to visit with elderly parents and celebrate the season.  Traveling by airline or automobile over the holidays can be stressful, but modern highways and airline schedules make it relatively easy to accomplish.  Stress has always been a part of holiday travel, but imagine a time when the pace was slower, and the journey was part of the celebration.  

William T. Evjue was born in 1882 and grew up in Merrill.  He lived most of his adult life in the Madison area and became a powerful voice for progressive causes in the state capital, but he always found a way to return to his Northwoods birthplace, particularly at Christmas.  When the holiday season of 1938 arrived, Evjue, like so many other Northwoods natives, packed up his family and began the trek northward to spend the holiday with his elderly parents in Merrill.

By 1938 automobiles were the preferred means of travel for most people as they allowed convenience of scheduling and avoided the awkwardness of lugging suitcases and Christmas packages onto crowded trains.  However, the wide four-lane highways we enjoy today did not exist in 1938, and the narrow two-lane roads of the 1930s could be treacherous when the weather turned bad.

Heavy snow fell in northern Wisconsin on December 22nd, and when Evjue departed Madison on December 23rd he was not thrilled with the prospect of driving northward through sleet and icy roads.  Therefore, when he reached Portage, he parked the car, hustled his family to the train station, and bought tickets for the North Woods Hiawatha.

Portage was a hub for the Milwaukee Road, and passengers could catch the Twin Cities Hiawatha from this station as well.  The station was a lively place that Christmas as railroad crews utilized every available passenger car to piece together long trains that could accommodate the holiday traffic.  Evjue’s North Woods Hiawatha arrived.  He hustled his family on board and soon they were off in a cloud of steam on their way north.  The train wound its way to New Lisbon where it left the double track of the main line and switched to the single track that headed north all the way to Star Lake.

The train was crowded with holiday passengers journeying to homes in Wausau, Merrill, Tomahawk, and Minocqua, but Evjue’s family found it an enjoyable experience.  They could hear music emanating from the nearby Tap Room, which the family described as a maudlin mixture Christmas Carols and popular Jazz melodies.  When dinner service opened in the Dining Car, the Evjue family hurried over for fear that it would soon be packed.  They were happy to find that the crowds, many of whom were university-age students heading home for the holidays, were mostly in the Tap Room partaking in the Christmas cheer.

In the Dining Car the family enjoyed a freshly prepared three course meal for the princely sum of sixty-five cents.  The train skirted past Merrill’s business district in those days, and the passengers looked out the windows to see the main street decorated with brightly colored lights and festooned with evergreen everywhere.

The Currier & Ives picture was complete as the train pulled in and happy families gathered on the platform to meet loved ones.  On a nippy frosty night with a beautiful blanket of snow over Merrill, the North Woods Hiawatha steamed on toward Tomahawk and Minocqua while the Evjue family went to the family home in Merrill to celebrate Christmas.