Grab a ticket for one of the most memorable family-centered rides and peek into history with a day at the railway. Located in the village of North Freedom in Sauk County, the Mid-Continent Railway Museum offers visitors a unique travel experience on their Heritage Railroad, followed by a look at an impressive collection of train cars and diesel locomotives that will delight every rail enthusiast!
A Living Museum
The Mid-Continent Railway Museum, which opened in 1963, recreates the feel of a small-town way of life during what was known as the Golden Age of Railroading. It proudly features operational trains, displays of various rolling stock, educational exhibits, historical photographs, and many railway antiques and collectibles.
Visitors are welcomed by a wooden train depot with a ticket counter, crossing shanty, water tower, section shed, and engine house. There is also a fun cut-out board to snap a photo and pose as a conductor! Public restroom facilities are available in addition to a covered area with tables, where families can rest and enjoy a picnic lunch.
You’ll find multiple buildings nestled on the property containing the indoor portion of the museum, all of which uniquely emphasize the preservation of rail memorabilia from the 1880-1916 era. The newest addition is Coach Shed #2, a 10,500-square-foot display building. The outdoor display yard allows visitors to get up-close and check out century-old favorites like the Copper Range locomotive #29, Soo Line #2645, and Kewaunee Green Bay & Western #49.
Notably, the museum has the largest collection of wooden passenger cars in the United States, including six out of the seven only surviving wooden boxcars. The boxcars were built by the Mather Stock Car Company and were later carefully restored. The nation’s last surviving fish car, known as Wisconsin Fish Commission Badger Car #2, is also a part of the collection.
In total, the museum displays thirteen steam trains, seven diesel locomotives, including the Chicago and North Western 1385, and over 40 train cars, while more are currently under restoration.
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A Ride on the Rails
Beyond the impressive stock is an interactive experience for visitors – a ride on the Heritage Railroad. Guests are invited to embark on a 7-mile (11km) roundtrip journey on an antique steel coach where a conductor calls out “all aboard!” and punches tickets as he chats about the railway and its past.
The hour-long ride brings passengers through North Freedom and the Baraboo Hills and passes through La Rue, a former mining community. The train then stops at a rock quarry by Quartzite Lake before returning to the depot on the same route. At a smooth operating speed of 15 miles per hour (24km/hr), passengers will get to take in the picturesque scenery and observe the process of switching tracks and reversing the train.
The rails in which the tour train travels are an original part of the 1903 Chicago and North Western Railway mainline. The area’s spacious fields made it a prime spot to form the line where it remains. The branch line consisted of a 3-mile (4.8km) route and was completed at the cost of $40,533 at the time. With the current inflation rate, the project would now ring up to a hefty $1,257,458 – a significant increase over the last 118 years!
Back to the Depot
After the train ride, visitors return to the depot to see more train memorabilia and visit the gift shop. The shop is filled with an assortment of merchandise, trinkets, and treasures ranging from toy trains, lantern decor, family apparel, mugs, books, plush conductor animals, and sweet treats like Engineer Bear gummies.
The depot boasts a rich, local history of its own. It was built in 1894 by the Chicago & North Western Railway, just three miles west of North Freedom in what was known as Ablemans, Wisconsin. The quaint town, now known as Rock Springs, was once home to the 83-foot building before it was moved to the museum. Today, the museum’s depot still serves its intended purpose with the same paint scheme that graced the walls in 1894. Inside, visitors purchase their ride tickets and wait to board as crews check their daily bulletins.
Planning a Visit
The Mid-Continent Railway Museum is open every weekend from early May until late October in addition to special events.
There are also several train ride types to choose from. The most popular is the coach train ride, available throughout the season. The ride is perfect for those of all ages and moves along at a kid-friendly pace. For an extra-special outing, consider booking a ride on a themed dining train. Dining trains will resume in 2022 and offer passengers the opportunity to enjoy a delicious meal paired along with a relaxing ride.
2021 Special Events
- Harvest Limited: October 2-3, 2021
- Autumn Color Weekend: October 9-10, 2021
- Pumpkin Special: October 16-17, 2021
- Pick a pumpkin at Quartzite Lake!
- Santa Express: November 27-28 & December 4-5, 2021
- Santa visits with each family, and elves give small gifts!
Visiting the train museum is free; however, a ticket purchase is required to ride the trains. Coach passenger trains are also wheelchair accessible with a lift for passengers with disabilities or limited mobility. Advance bookings are highly recommended, and you can buy tickets online.
The museum is an all-around engaging opportunity for children and their families. It provides an educational day paired with fun, history, and adventure. So, get your caboose moving and roll out to the museum for your next family day out!
- Mid-Continent Railway Museum, E8948 Museum Road, North Freedom
- Hours: Saturday & Sunday, 9:30am-5pm
- Admission: FREE to visit the museum; train rides require a ticket purchase
- Find current train ticket information and rates >
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Special Note for 2021 COVID-19: Federal Regulations from the CDC and TSA require masks while aboard the trains and at the transportation facilities at this time. Be aware that cancellations may occur and check their website before visiting.