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A passion for the railroads

Gary Holzinger, author of the new book "The Badlands Route: The Milwaukee Road from Mitchell to Rapid City," signs a book Saturday at the Dakota Discovery Museum. Holzinger held a book signing at the Dakota Discovery Museum, which featured a presentation from South Dakota Railroad Museum Executive Director Rick Mills. (Sam Fosness / Republic)

Gary Holzinger's passion for railroads led him on a wild journey through South Dakota in an old motorcar during the mid-1990s.

And now, that very passion has inspired him to write a book that details South Dakota's unique history through what used to be one of America's largest railroads, the Milwaukee Road.

Holzinger's book "The Badlands Route: The Milwaukee Road from Mitchell to Rapid City," was published on Oct. 23, and the Iowa native held a book signing Saturday at the Dakota Discovery Museum in a town that comes up often in his book, Mitchell.

"Writing this book was a memory I'll cherish forever," Holzinger said. "Since the eighth grade, I was fascinated with railroads systems and trains."

Holzinger's story began in the late 1950s, when the then-teenager was living in Wyoming, Iowa, a small town that was home to the local depot agent Arnold Sobotka, the man responsible for sparking the intrigue of railroads into Holzinger.

"One day, he put me on the caboose to go to the next town and back, and that just nailed my interest," Holzinger said. "I became really good friends with Arnold, and he taught me many interesting things about the Milwaukee Road."

From that point on, Holzinger's fascination with trains and railroads kept burning in his heart, leading him on a search for an old motorcar, which is a small two-seat railroad car that was used to inspect miles of railway tracks throughout much of the 20th century. In early 1990, he ended up finding five motorcars for sale in Canada, and he bought all five. He eventually refurbished one, which sits in his front yard today in Anamosa, Iowa.

However, one of Holzinger's other motorcars became the driver of his journey through South Dakota on an old railroad that used to go through his hometown in Iowa, the Milwaukee Road.

"My friend and I are both railroad enthusiasts, so we jumped on what we saw as an opportunity of a lifetime, driving our motorcars through the beautiful state of South Dakota," he added.

Holzinger and his longtime friend embarked upon three separate week-long journeys for three consecutive summers through South Dakota. The two were fascinated with South Dakota's unique history, prompting them to seek permission to ride the old Milwaukee Road, starting in Chamberlain and ending in Rapid City.

"It was just my friend and I in the wild, and the fact that we didn't have cell phones made it that much more of an adventure," he said. "We would take a week off of work each summer to make it down the railroad as far as we could."

In order for Holzinger to ride on what used to be the Milwaukee Road in South Dakota, but is now the Dakota Southern Railway, he had to get permission from the current owners of the railroad.

According to Holzinger, the railroad route they took hadn't seen a train west of Kadoka since 1980.

"That area of the railroad was as smooth as glass," he said.

Gazing out into the majestic, rugged Badlands and getting lost in the beauty of pheasants flocking through the rolling plains, Holzinger said the journey was an experience he will never forget.

Throughout each summer's week-long trek on the railroad, Holzinger documented the experience by video taping the entire journey west. Along the way, Holzinger witnessed more than just the beauty of South Dakota.

"Once we got to the Badlands, the going got a little tough because of the excess rocks that were covering the railroads, which added some challenge on our way west," Holzinger said. "We even saw a mountain lion feeding on a carcass."

Many of the small towns Holzinger passed through on his journey are written about in his book, as he said there is so much interesting history in many of the towns they passed through.

At one point, the Milwaukee Road was the largest railroad in the country, which began in Chicago and extended all the way to the Pacific Northwest in Seattle, Washington. It was completed in 1847 and reigned as one of the most important railroads for over a decade, until 1977 when the Milwaukee Road filed for bankruptcy, which led to its demise. In 1986, the Milwaukee Road was no longer, but the rich history it created during the 20th century remained.

"We discovered many unique things, and the book goes in depth on what we discovered on our journey," Holzinger said. "This railroad was so important for so many towns it passed through, and South Dakota was at the center of the Milwaukee Road, and it's the reason a lot of towns were established."

The now-retired 74-year-old credits Rick Mills, director of the South Dakota State Railroad Museum in HIll City, for helping him through the book writing and publishing process.

And after seven years of writing his book in what he says was a "labor love," Holzinger is proud of the finished product.

A member of the South Dakota State Railroad Museum, Holzinger felt compelled to give back to the museum, and he is donating all of the profits from book sales to the Hill City-based gallery that published the book.