The Cannon Valley Trail runs nearly 20 miles along a segment of the former Chicago Great Western (CGW). The so-called “Corn Belt Route” was a classic “granger” railroad (that is, a Midwestern line that derived a significant proportion of revenue from moving agriculture); it operated an expansive system between Chicago, the Twin Cities, Omaha, and Kansas City. What is today’s trail was originally built during the 1880s and was later added to the CGW network where it became a secondary branch line. It was never a particularly busy part of the CGW, even when first built, and had declined to a point that service ended entirely during the mid-1970s. By then, the Great Western was a subsidiary of the much larger Chicago & North Western, which formally abandoned the line in the early 1980s. Today’s trail was established a few years later.
The birth of the Chicago Great Western was thanks largely to Alpheus Beede Stickney. Better remembered as “A.B.,” his early career focused on teaching and law. In the 1870s, he became interested in the development, construction, and management of railroads. During this time, he was involved with a number of projects, such as the building of the North Wisconsin Railroad, and was vice president of the fledgling St. Paul, Stillwater & Taylor Falls Railroad. Following stints with other companies, Stickney joined the Minneapolis & St. Louis in 1881, and there he directed the construction of the Minnesota Central Rail Road Company (MCRR), now part of today’s Cannon Valley Trail. This system was originally incorporated on May 23, 1857, to construct a new line from the Mississippi River at Red Wing to the Minnesota River at Mankato. However, nothing became of the company for many years. Finally, work began during the spring of 1882; by the end of that year, it was completed to Waterville.
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On January 1, 1883, the MCRR was acquired by the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific (better remembered as the Rock Island), which did not intend to complete the line to Mankato. While Stickney left the M&StL the same year (citing differences with management), the line to Mankato was eventually finished in May 1887. The ever-ambitious Stickney reentered the railroad business in the fall of 1883 when he, and investor William Marshall, acquired the charter for the Minnesota & Northwestern Railroad. This system was another long-abandoned project whose charter had remained dormant since its creation on March 4, 1854, intended for service between St. Paul and the Iowa border.
During early 1884, the road was under construction and was officially opened between St. Paul and Mona, Iowa, on September 27, 1885. As Stickney’s railroad continued to grow, he renamed it in 1887 the Chicago, St. Paul & Kansas City. His intentions were to open service between all three cities. Doing so came through a combination of new construction and acquisition; in 1888 it reached Chicago and in 1890, Kansas City. By then the CStP&KC served much of the Hawkeye State as well. In 1892, Stickney reorganized his company as the Chicago Great Western Railway, at which point much of the now well-remembered system had already taken shape. In the meantime the Rock Island, which controlled the Wisconsin, Minnesota & Pacific (successor to the Minnesota Central in 1883) wanted rid of the property by 1899. That year it was split; the M&StL acquired half while the CGW later picked up the former MCRR segment between Red Wing and Mankato.
At its largest, the Chicago Great Western stretched nearly 1,500 miles and roughly resembled a crooked “X.” All of its lines converged at the small town of Oelwein, Iowa, where the company’s main locomotive shops were located. From this point they headed north, south, east, and west to the Twin Cities, Kansas City, Omaha, and Chicago. Other notable cities the CGW served included Fort Dodge, Des Moines, Council Bluffs, and Cedar Falls. It also reached Rochester, Minnesota, and St. Joseph, Missouri.
The CGW fell into receivership in early 1908, and A.B. Stickney left the company on December 21 that year. The company was reincorporated as the Chicago Great Western Railroad on August 19, 1909, and while Stickney was no longer involved, it soldiered on in a region dominated by much larger competitors such as the Rock Island, Burlington, Milwaukee Road, and Chicago & North Western. For this reason the CGW was always resourceful, frugal, and innovative. Some of its more notable initiatives included operating gasoline-electric rail cars manufactured by the McKeen Motor Car Company in 1910 on lightly-populated branch lines as a means of cutting costs. The company also attempted to standardize freight car designs to improve operational efficiency and worked very hard to increase its freight business. The latter was achieved through a number of means, such as interchanging freight with small electrified interurbans (a practice shunned by most railroads). In addition, it was an early proponent of dedicated meat trains and one of the first to introduce trailer-on-flatcar service, initially tested in the summer of 1935.
Despite these efforts, bankruptcy again found the Great Western in early 1935, partially due to poor management. It finally emerged in early 1941 as, once again, the Chicago Great Western Railway. The World War II years proved prosperous as did the 1950s when another strong management team saw revenues soar and a renewed effort to improve efficiency. The CGW began testing diesel locomotives in standard road-service during late 1946. By the end of 1947, it had nearly fully dieselized its roster, making it one of the earliest railroads to do so. Other improvements came in the form on millions spent on property upgrades and new equipment, while passenger service, never a particularly high priority for the company, ended entirely in the mid-1960s. The CGW became legendary for operating extremely long freight trains, then an uncommon practice, to gain another edge and reduce operating costs. According to H. Roger Grant’s book “The Corn Belt Route,” these trains sometimes exceeded 150 cars!
Despite all of the Chicago Great Western’s attempts to operate a profitable, efficient railroad, it was simply surrounded by much larger competitors. As a matter of survival, it elected to merge with the Chicago & North Western, a union that was finalized on July 1, 1968. Alas, the new owner was not kind to the CGW system and abandoned hundreds of miles of property during the 1970s and 1980s, including the segment that is today’s trail (in 1983).
Railroad attractions in Minnesota include the Duluth & Iron Depot Museum in Two Harbors; End-O-Line Railroad Park & Museum in Currie; Jackson Street Roundhouse in St. Paul; Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad, the North Shore Scenic Railroad, and the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth; Minnehaha Depot Museum and the Minnesota Streetcar Museum in Minneapolis; and The Depot Visitors Center & Railroad Museum in Wadena.