Today’s Cowboy Trail spans much of the Chicago & North Western’s fabled “Cowboy Line” across central and western Nebraska. The entire route gave the C&NW access well into Wyoming, its farthest western reach. It was constructed by a predecessor road during the latter 19th century and was fully acquired by the C&NW during the early 20th century. Initially, the line provided the railroad with rather substantial freight traffic, but as the years passed, this faded when local shippers were lost with the rise of automobiles, trucks, and improved highways. Additionally, the Cowboy Line offered connections with no cities of strategic importance, aside from Rapid City, South Dakota, which the C&NW already served via another route. Following years of neglect and short cutbacks, most of the route was abandoned during the early 1990s.
The Chicago & North Western was one of the great, so-called “granger railroads,” systems in the Midwest that derived a significant portion of their freight revenue by moving agricultural products. Other notable systems to fall under this heading included the Rock Island, Milwaukee Road, Soo Line, and Chicago Great Western. The history of the C&NW traces back to the Galena & Chicago Union chartered in 1836. The G&CU is notable as not only being Chicago’s first railroad but also the first to operate a train out of the city—in 1848. In 1859, the Chicago & North Western was born, acquiring the assets of the bankrupt Chicago, St. Paul & Fond du Lac; in 1864, the C&NW and G&CU merged. The former’s name was retained, and the new system stretched 860 miles across Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin.
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Throughout the remainder of the 19th century, the C&NW continued an aggressive approach toward expansion in order to tap new sources of freight revenue and reach important cities such as Council Bluffs, Omaha, the Twin Cities, St. Louis, Green Bay, and Duluth. Its reach across much of Nebraska, western South Dakota, and Wyoming could be attributed to a subsidiary known as the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad. This road was organized on January 20, 1869, and began extending west from Fremont, Nebraska, where it connected with the Sioux City & Pacific (also acquired by the C&NW). In 1871, the FE&MV (AKA the “Elkhorn Route”) had reached Wisner, 50 miles away. However, construction slowed for some time before picking up again during the latter 1870s, when it reached Oakdale in 1879. During the next decade, the railroad expanded prodigiously, and by 1886, it had pushed rails to Casper, Wyoming, and extreme western South Dakota via Rapid City. The North Western, through its FE&MV subsidiary, was the first to reach this region, which was in the midst of the great Black Hills Gold Rush. Other railroads to later arrive here included the Milwaukee Road and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy.
The C&NW acquired control of the Elkhorn Route in 1884 but did not fully absorb the FE&MV until 1903, according to Tom Murray’s book Chicago & North Western Railway. The entire “Cowboy Line” (or “Lander Line” as it was also known) at that time operated between Fremont and Casper—roughly 560 miles—while the C&NW continued pushing west, reaching Lander in 1906. Allegedly, management had grand ambitions of opening a fully transcontinental route to the Pacific Coast, although construction never continued beyond Lander. In the end, the Cowboy Line became a long agricultural branch and through the early 20th century, provided the North Western with considerable freight. According to the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission, in 1932 the corridor served “…66 farm dealers, 117 coal dealers, 48 grain elevators, 55 lumber dealers and 128 gas/oil receivers.”
Alas, much of this traffic was lost to improved highways and the growing trucking industry after World War II. The Chicago & North Western witnessed its fortunes fall and rise throughout the 1950s and 1960s, although it continued expanding during this time, acquiring such smaller systems as the Minneapolis & St. Louis, Chicago Great Western, and Fort Dodge, Des Moines & Southern. While the railroad served several large cities, it was built around the idea of moving agriculture, yet much of this traffic disappeared during the second half of the 20th century. Included here, of course, was the Cowboy Line. As freight declined, the corridor became an unwanted appendage within the C&NW network; deferred maintenance witnessed trains creeping along as slow as 10 mph in some locations.
The railroad saw an economic resurgence during the 1980s due to low-sulfur coal mined in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, which grew in demand beginning in the early 1970s. The C&NW’s Cowboy Line lied strategically within reach of this lucrative traffic; however, it would need hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrades to handle the numerous heavy coal trains running daily over the route. The railroad simply did not have this cash available, although it initially attempted to work with Burlington Northern, the first to serve the Powder River Basin (or “PRB” for short) in operating a joint line within the region. Ultimately, as a means of gaining needed financing, Union Pacific became involved in the C&NW project. A revised plan was hatched, this one involving a new 55-mile connector between the western end of the Cowboy Line and a nearby UP route reaching western Nebraska/southeastern Wyoming. This decision proved less expensive and ultimately decided the future fate of the Lander Line.
The new connector opened for service in 1984. Following a few years of additional use, the C&NW petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to discontinue service on the Cowboy Line between Norfolk and Chadron, a portion of which forms today’s Cowboy Trail. The ICC would eventually grant abandonment of the route as far west as Merriman; the last train over the line ran on December 1, 1992. Since then, most of the remainder of the old route has also been pulled up by various parties.
Railroad attractions across Nebraska include the Durham Museum in Omaha; Fremont & Elkhorn Valley Railroad/Fremont Dinner Train in Fremont, which runs on 17 miles of the old Cowboy Line; Golden Spike Tower overlooking UP’s massive yard in Bailey Yard at North Platte; Omaha Zoo Railroad in Omaha; Stuhr Museum of The Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island, featuring a small collection of historic rolling stock; and the Trails & Rails Museum in Kearney.