Kenneth Burbach Collection

Biography

Ken Burbach has seldom left the house without a camera since he was a boy. He was born in Richland Center in southwest Wisconsin in 1937, a town served only by a branch line of the Milwaukee Road, now abandoned. About 1939, the family moved some fifty miles southwest to Lancaster, served by the Chicago & North Western, and very near the end of the C&NW line from Madison to the east. Trains were not especially frequent, but it helped Ken that the Burbach house was only a block or two from the tracks and a three-stall roundhouse. It also helped that World War II was underway and that the postwar boom occurred when Ken was a boy so Lancaster train traffic was at its peak. The station agent befriended Ken, and he got to know crew members as well. He would ride his bicycle to the station, and the crew often treated him with rides.

Besides the daily attraction of local freights and passenger trains, Ken occasionally was treated to long-distance passenger trips to Southern California, where his mother had relatives. She ran a dress shop in Lancaster, and when business was good, or about every two years, the family enjoyed a trip on the Santa Fe’s Super Chief. In off years, they traveled on the less-expensive El Capitan. The combination or personal travel and local exposure hooked Ken.

In 1949 the family moved a hundred miles northeast to Portage, Wisconsin, a Milwaukee Road town on the main line with lots of activity compared to Lancaster. Friends of Burbach’s father worked for the railroad, and fostered Ken’s interests.

Burbach’s high school graduation occurred during the Korean War, and he served three years in the Army there, after which he attended Carroll College (now University) in Waukesha, Wisconsin, just west of Milwaukee. Then he taught history at the high school in New Berlin, Wisconsin, a Milwaukee suburb that puts the accent in Berlin on the first syllable. He ended his professional career working in the Madison area for a private publishing firm, the Bureau of National Affairs with headquarters in Washington, D.C., as one of its fifteen-hundred employees.

All along, his camera was at his side. His wife, he admits, was “not a big railfan” but enjoys the occasional long-distance train trip. Together, they have ridden the Canadian across Canada, the Orient Express to Istanbul, and the Blue Train of South Africa.

Burbach’s railroad photography covers consists largely, he says, of “old stuff.” He means roundhouses, wooden bridges, “something unique.” Burbach donated some two thousand color slides to the Center, and as he suggests, their strength can be found in infrastructure as well as equipment, covering the 1960s to the 1990s.

–Jack Holzhueter


Chicago & North Western coaling tower at Dekalb, Illinois, in May 1980. Photograph by Kenneth Burbach

Burbach Collection Overview

  • Gift of Ken Burbach
  • 2,000 color slides
  • 1960s to 1990s
  • Upper Midwest
  • Railroads include the Milwaukee Road, Soo Line, and Chicago & North Western