Remembering South Dakota's last Milwaukee Railroad worker

After spending nearly four decades working for the Milwaukee Railroad, Irving "I.J." Carey had collected a trove of souvenirs and memorabilia that are now on display at the Carnegie Resource Center in Mitchell.

Shown here is miniature replica of a train traveling along the Milwaukee Railroad, which was created for Irving "I.J." Carey's open house that's on display at the Carnegie Resource Center throughout the remainder of April. (Sam Fosness / Republic)

While the late Irvin “I.J.” Carey's illustrious railroad career has been kept relatively quiet, a display of the memorabilia he collected during his time with the Milwaukee Railroad has brought it to light.

The Reliance native capped a 37-year career with the Milwaukee Railroad before it stopped operating in South Dakota in 1980. After spending nearly four decades working as a telegrapher for the Milwaukee Railroad, which was once the largest railroad in the country, Carey had collected a trove of souvenirs and memorabilia that railroad enthusiasts dream of getting their hands on.

On Saturday, Carey’s historic pieces of railroad memorabilia were on display for the first time inside the Carnegie Resource Center in Mitchell. From old railroad tools to the telegraph Carey used to relay messages. Had it not been for Don Harrell forming a close friendship with Carey before he died a month ago, the relics of the old trains that used to trek down the Milwaukee Railroad through South Dakota may have never been shared with the public.

“I had to gain his trust for him to donate some of these amazing things he collected over the years, and I am so glad I did. Some of these items were wanted badly by the South Dakota State Railroad Museum, so we are very lucky he gave some to us,” Harrell said.

Although Harrell became close friends with Carey about eight years ago, he wasn’t aware of Carey’s deep history with the railroad industry until several years into their friendship. As a railroad enthusiast himself, Harrell instantly bonded with Carey when he revealed his history of working on the Milwaukee Railroad.


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. It began construction 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.

Little did Harrell know that Carey was looked at by former railroad workers and train operators as “one of the best telegraphers in the nation.”

“I knew I.J. as the friendliest greeter at Walmart in Mitchell and for what he’s done for the 4-H group. I had no idea he worked on the Milwaukee Railroad for so many years until we got to talking more and got closer,” Harrell said of Carey, who lived to see the age of 93. “Not only was he a railroader, he was known as one of the best ever telegraphers in the country.”

His career with the Milwaukee Railroad began in 1947, as the then 19-year-old Carey was a station clerk for the former Lake Andes train depot. At that time, the Fort Randall Dam was being built, and Harrell said the Milwaukee Railroad played a vital role in the construction of the Missouri River dam. With the abundance of large rocks in the Lake Andes area that were used to build the dam, the large machinery and equipment needed to move the rocks had to be transported by trains using the railroad.

“I.J.’s job was to do all the paperwork for the loads coming on the train,” Harrell said. “He (Carey) said they were running eight to 12 trains a day in that yard, carrying stone, steel and equipment.”

As Carey became well known for his speedy telegraph skills, which was a vital tool train depots used to communicate with each other before new technology replaced it, he had numerous opportunities to move out of state and take on bigger roles with the Milwaukee Railroad, Harrell said. But the South Dakota native made clear he wasn’t interested in leaving the state.

In his time with the railroad, Carey worked as a telegrapher and train station agent in Rapid City, Kimball, Okaton, Draper, Sioux Falls, Parkston and Mitchell. In between moving across the state for his railroad jobs, Carey and his wife had four children.

“He got such high praise for his telegraphing, and his telegraph was called the ‘Bug,’ which some called the ‘Lightning bug’ since he was so fast at telegraphing. He turned down jobs in Iowa and Minnesota and several other states to stay in South Dakota,” Harrell said of Carrey.


Harrell said Carey was also a talented photographer. Considering he was working throughout the state on the railroad, majestic scenes of nature made for great photo opportunities. Aside from his close family, Harrell said they haven't been shared to anyone else, some of which can be seen on display at the Carnegie Resource Center.

End of an era

In 1979, Carey was about to enter his 38th year working for the railroad when it came to an abrupt end. After nearly four decades with the Milwaukee Railroad, Carey received a telegraph that informed him the railroad was ceasing operations in South Dakota. While coping with the loss of his job, Carey, who was the first South Dakotan to receive the news that the Milwaukee Railroad was coming to an end in the state, had the difficult task of passing the information on to the rest of the state’s railroad employees.

Harrell said the closure of South Dakota’s portion of the Milwaukee Railroad was a “devastating decision” that put over 300 railroad employees out of work, including Carey, who would be the last Milwaukee Railroad worker in the state. He ended his illustrious railroad career in Sioux Falls and eventually moved to Mitchell shortly after.

“He was the first South Dakota Milwaukee Railroad employee to actually get the word that it was closing, and then he had to spread it out to all of the railroaders in the state,” Harrell said. “I.J. said ‘it was heartbreaking,’ because it was an end to an era.”

Lyle Swenson, a friend of Carey's who shares fond memories of the days the Milwaukee Railroad reigned, helped compile the historic records of the railroad for the open house. Digging through the archives of the railroad, Swenson said it brought back some great memories.

"He was an incredible man, who worked very hard to keep the Milwaukee running its best. Trains brought many tourists to the Corn Palace in those days, so we really relied on them for many things," Swenson said.

After Carey’s railroad chapter closed, he continued expanding a horse organization he founded in 1970, which was known as the South Dakota “paint horse club.” The club — which is a club made up of members who organize and sponsor paint horse events — is still going strong today.

Although Carey was widely known for his paint horse club and involvement in the local 4-H group, Harrell said it’s an honor to share a side of Carey’s life that not many know about.


While the Milwaukee Railroad met its end in 1986, the rich history it created during the 20th century remained. And Swenson and Harrell are keeping the railroad history alive through telling the story of their friend and longtime railroader, Carey.

“I am so honored to be able to share all of I.J.’s railroad history. It’s a part of history that should never be forgotten,” said Harrell, as he stood next to a miniature replica of trains traveling along the Milwaukee Railroad that took him over two years to make for the open house.

Related Topics: HISTORY
Sam Fosness joined the Mitchell Republic in May 2018. He was raised in Mitchell, S.D., and graduated from Mitchell High School. He continued his education at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where he graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in English. During his time in college, Fosness worked as a news and sports reporter for The Volante newspaper.
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