Milton, county, state probing blaze
MILTON A piece of Milton's railroad history stood in charred ruin as investigators sifted through the burned-out interior of Liberty Station, seeking clues as to how the former train depot caught fire late Wednesday.
Milton police, the Rock County sheriff's investigators and a state Division of Criminal Investigation arson team worked Thursday to learn the cause of the fire that officials say gutted Buckaroo's BBQ and Bucked Off Saloon at 231 Front St. on the city's west side.
Damage totals weren't available Thursday, but Milton Deputy Fire Chief Rob Calhoon said the building was heavily damaged by fire, smoke and water.
"We had to wait until daylight today to get an accurate idea of the scope of things, but I can say the inside of the building is extensively damaged," he said.
Firefighters had to cut holes in the roof as crews worked to put water on the fire, which broke out just before 9 p.m. Wednesday.
Witnesses at a nearby tavern described the stucco building as an inferno, with flames shooting out of the doors and windows as fire crews from four departments battled to quell the blaze Wednesday.
A train caboose that is part of the property and a Beloit-built Fairbanks Morse Engine that the city owns near the building also were damaged, officials said.
Calhoon said it was not clear Thursday how the fire started or whether it was accidental or set on purpose.
"We're not ruling anything out," Calhoon said.
Buckaroo's BBQ and Bucked Off Saloon were closed at the time of the fire. The buildings weren't occupied when the blaze broke out.
Liberty Station made headlines in September when Buckaroo's BBQ was broken into and burglarized twice in one week. A Milton teen later was arrested in connection with one of the burglaries.
Milton Police Chief Dan Layber, himself a former DCI investigator, said it was too soon to know what caused the fire Wednesday.
"It's way too early to say if it was accidental or someone torched the place. It'd be pure speculation," Layber said in a phone message to The Gazette on Thursday.
The office of the State Fire Marshall, which investigates fires, confirmed it was assisting in the probe but declined further comment.
Buckaroo's BBQ and Bucked Off Saloon owner Chad Kligora did not immediately return a call made by The Gazette.
The building on the west edge of Merchant's Row served as a passenger train depot at Milton Junction from 1924 to the late 1960s. The station was a major stop for mail and passengers, and the station had one of the state's few "Y" junction switching stations.
Milwaukee Road and Chicago & North Western rail lines once crossed there.
More recently, the building housed a string of restaurants. Perhaps the best-known incarnation in the building known by locals for years as "The Junction" was seafood restaurant Liberty Station.
Cindy Wright, former owner of Liberty Station, said she watched her old restaurant burn Wednesday, but she could only stay 10 minutes. Many of her former restaurant employees were standing there, and it was too hard.
Wright remembers fixing up the building, which was vacant for years before she reopened in 1982—the same week Milton College closed. She remembers when she sold the place in 2001, and the day technicians brought in the train engine and caboose on modified rails and then stripped the engine out.
The old depot was the first place she took her daughter after she was born 29 years ago.
"It's a big part of my life, up in smoke," Wright said.
Janesville locomotive enthusiast Bill Heurser is part of a group who seeks to preserve Milton's railroad history. Heurser said he wasn't ready to see the burned out depot.
He pointed to a time in 1910 when President Teddy Roosevelt's congressional campaign stopped at the depot during a whistle stop train tour. Heurser said the building, which has no registered historical designation, is on the site of two former train depots that also burned down—one on Christmas.
Heurser feared the fire and the water damage were too much for the building's stucco. He wondered if it's now a lost cause.
"It's a real shame," Heurser said. "That depot was once the center of this community, even though it was way out on the west end of town."