The railroad locomotive was invented about 1830 and the railroad quickly replaced canals in the eastern part of our country as the main method of shipping freight. Development of the railroads to the west, however, was much slower and it was 1855 when the talk of building a railroad in Manitowoc began. The plan called for Manitowoc to become the primary shipping port for grain from inland areas. Grain would be shipped to Manitowoc by train to the lake front then transported by ship to other ports on the Great Lakes.
The line was to be built from Manitowoc to Menasha and track was actually laid from Manitowoc to Reedsville for this project. The Panic of 1857, closely followed by the Civil War, eliminated the money available for this project and it was not until 1872 that the railroad finally came to Manitowoc. Unfortunately for the City of Manitowoc, railroad lines from the interior of the state had already been built to Milwaukee, making that city the major shipping port for grain.
Two railroad lines were built connecting Manitowoc with the interior of the state. In 1872 the first line was completed between Manitowoc and Menasha. This line was built by the Milwaukee Lakeshore and Western Railroad Company (later the Chicago and Northwestern Railway Company). It had stations at Branch, Whitelaw, Cato, Grimms, Reedsville, Brillion and Forest Junction. This allowed for goods delivered to the port in Manitowoc to be transferred onto the trains and transported to these developing towns. Prior to the coming of the railroad, deliveries were made using a team of horses and traveling over poor roads. A trip from Whitelaw to Manitowoc and back was frequently an all day journey.
The second rail line was constructed in 1896 by the Milwaukee and Lake Winnebago Railroad Company, which later became the Wisconsin Central Railway Company and then the Soo Line. It ran from Manitowoc through Hilbert Junction to the Fox Valley area and opened up many small towns including Collins, Quarry, Valders and Gjerpen. A depot was built at each of these places and received both freight and passengers awaiting transportation to and from the City of Manitowoc. Many businessesgained from using the railroad, especially dairy farmers who found that they could send their fresh milk and cream into the cities and villages for processing aboard the morning “milk train”.
From the late 1870s to the 1920s the railroad was the principle means of transporting both goods and people between cities, towns and villages. Even after the coming of the automobile, poor road conditions limited its use in rural areas and it was not until the end of World War I that the pressure was put on all levels of government for improved highways and hard-surfaced roads.
The Collins Depot was built in 1896. It was designed with areas for passengers, station agent and freight. In the baggage room was stored all of the freight, produce or baggage that needed to be loaded onto or taken off the train. On the opposite end of the building is the Waiting Room where passengers would await the arrival of the train. For 35 cents, a person could ride the train from the Collins to Manitowoc and return on that same day. Frequently the benches in the waiting room had metal dividers on them to prevent people from sleeping on the benches. Especially during the times of economic crisis, like during the Depression, “hobos” or “tramps” would ride the empty box cars. These were men who had no jobs and were either out seeking employment wherever they thought there might be work for them or those who wanted to travel and see “a bit of the world” before settling down in a place and earn a living. Since the depot had a potbellied stove in the Waiting Room it was an ideal place for them to spend the night.
In the center of the building was the Station’s Agent’s Office. On the side facing the Waiting Room was the Ticket Window where passengers would buy their tickets for the journey. The office also featured an alcove area which allowed the Agent to see trains approaching from either direction. The agent was responsible for putting up signals to indicate to the railroad engineer that the track was clear. Often there were freight trains that had to go onto a side track to await the passing of a passenger train, which always had the right of way. A green signal arm in an upright position indicated that the track was clear. A red warning light, or amber, indicated that the engineer was to proceed with caution.
Another chief duty of the Station Agent was to send and receive telegraph messages as they were sent over wires. Using the Morse Code (named for its inventor Samuel F.B. Morse), which uses a variety of short and long taps to represent each letter of the alphabet, the Agent would be able to send and receive information on freight shipments, the arrival or departure of trains, as well as any delays, or news of importance to his community or those nearby. The agent also made up the Bills of Landing when freight was sent and made sure to get receipts from persons indicating that they had received what the Bill of Landing said they were to receive. The agent also handled mail shipments. The mail was usually carried on passenger trains and would be delivered to the Depot in mail bags. The mail bags were then picked up by the postmaster in the town and sorted for pickup or delivery.
Over the years the Collins Depot had 12 Station Agents: the first was a Mr. Petingale, then Martin G. Valleskey, Frank Lefky, Clarence Schindley, Max Pankratz, Walter Mahloch, Walter Sneed, Louis Riggs, Fred Lang, Ed Henley, Ed Hallverson and the last agent was Mirrabelle Gutenschwader. The Depot served the community well.
Because of the marshland between Collins and Manitowoc, heavy rains or the spring thaw could make roads from Collins to Manitowoc impossible making the railroad especially important for providing an open route between the town and other towns and cities. Section crews worked out of Collins and maintained the tracks and switches as well as keeping the water available for the steam locomotives.
With the passing of time, the Depot was purchased from the Wisconsin Central Railway and became property of the Soo Line Railroad. Passenger service ceased from the Collins Depot in the 1930s, freight in 1950 and the building was eventually abandoned.
In 1970 the Soo Line Railroad made the Collins Depot available to the Manitowoc County Historical Society. With sponsorship from the Clipper City Model Railroad Club of Manitowoc, the building was purchased for $300 and the Club took on the responsibility of moving and restoring the depot.
The Collins Depot was moved to Pinecrest Historical Village in 1972.