In the pioneer days, the Colby area was a land of seemingly unending forest. As there was money to be made in the lumber business, saw mills popped up along the rivers and streams. However, the need for more reliable transportation for the mills was apparent, and soon talk of rail lines to service the area began.
When the Civil War ended, the government planned to give more attention to protecting the Canadian border. Current roads were dusty trails and made troop movement difficult. Land for a railroad to stretch from Menasha to Ashland was secured.
With the financial backing of Gardiner Colby from Boston, who agreed to put nine million dollars into the line, the project began. There were to be 250 miles of track to be constructed. On June 1, 1871, the first spade of dirt was turned; on November 15 of the same year, a train arrived in Stevens Point. Sixty-three miles of track had been put down.
In early 1872, the contract for the remaining miles of track was signed for the area from Stevens Point west and north to Lake Superior. By September, 51 miles of track brought the railroad to “Midget City”, the current location of Colby. The main railroad construction crew made its headquarters there for two years.
The first depot was built in 1872 and was called Station 51. It served as a “railroad house,” meaning that pioneers arriving in the area could store their household goods there until securing living accommodations.
April 15, 1873 was the day the rail was completed and began its northward expansion. The town became known as Colby in honor of Charles L. Colby, son of financier Gardiner Colby.
The lumber business helped clear land to be used for farms, surrounding Colby in all four directions. Businesses popped up in Colby, as people needed food, hardware, and clothing supplies, medical, dental, and legal attention, and furniture and building materials. There also seemed to be no shortage of hotels and saloons in Colby. The Colby Centennial Book, published in 1973, lists nearly 100 businessmen serving the town in 1887. What a bustling, busy place Colby must have been in those days.
So, when you are in Station 51 or Midget City or Colby (whatever you wish to call it), take time to look around for remnants of those early days when Colby was a pioneer town. Stop in at the Colby Public Library to peruse through the Centennial book or look at old newspapers on the microfilm reader. There is truly a treasure trove of area history waiting for you.