Popular Sovereignty and Railroad Regulation: The Saga of the West Wisconsin Railroad

Evelyn Atkinson

Wisconsin’s infamous Potter law of 1874 is considered the beginning of state attempts to regulate railroad corporations in the late nineteenth century.  Yet the social context of the law has never been explored.  Examining the case study of the West Wisconsin Railroad reveals that the Potter law was merely the tip of a much larger movement to reassert popular sovereignty over railroad corporations that emerged in Wisconsin in the 1870s.  Farmers, along with merchants, townspeople, passengers, lawyers, and politicians, rallied to reclaim what they saw as the right of the people to control corporations like the railroad.  Yet as the experience of the West Wisconsin Railroad illuminates, in practice popular control over the railroads was hard to enforce.  The complete dependency of local communities on the railroads for their livelihoods overcame more abstract claims of popular sovereignty in specific cases.  Even when it was widely conceded that the railroad had abused its privileges and acted unfairly or even illegally, local communities and state actors were often reluctant to enforce the law to hold railroads accountable for fear of losing railroad access altogether.