One of the best remembered granger railroads of the Midwest was the Chicago Great Western Railway (CGW), whose tagline was the “Corn Belt Route.” A granger railroad was one that derived a significant portion of revenue by moving agricultural products. They were primarily centered in America’s Heartland, notably Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Today’s Great Western Trail uses a little more than 16 miles of a former CGW right-of-way that was once part of its main line to Kansas City. The route was originally built by a predecessor in the late 1880s and one of four fanning out from central Iowa that served all major nearby cities, including Minneapolis/St. Paul, Chicago, and Omaha/Council Bluffs. During the late 1960s, the CGW was acquired by the larger Chicago & North Western Railway (C&NW), which went later abandoned the line south of Des Moines in the 1980s.
The Chicago Great Western traces its earliest roots back to the Minnesota & Northwestern Railroad (M&NW), incorporated on March 4, 1854, to connect the St. Paul area with northeastern Iowa. However, it was not until the company’s charter was acquired by A.B. Stickney during the early 1880s that actual construction took place. Stickney was a lawyer, although he gave up practicing after becoming interested in the railroad business during the 1860s. Over the years, he worked with various companies, including the Canadian Pacific, and believed he could affectively develop and grow his own railroad after acquiring the M&NW. Construction of the M&NW began in September 1884 and had reached Dubuque, Iowa, by December 1886. To better reflect ambitions for the railroad, Stickney chartered a new company in June that year, known as the Chicago, St. Paul & Kansas City Railway (CStP&KC). The latter officially acquired the assets of the M&NW a year later. By 1887, the CStP&KC had connected to Forest Park, just outside of Chicago.
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With his sights now set on reaching Kansas City, Stickney took over the Wisconsin, Iowa & Nebraska Railway (WI&N) around the same time. This system was also known as “The Old Diagonal” because it stretched more than 100 miles diagonally across most of central Iowa between Waterloo and Des Moines, with a branch to Cedar Falls. A small gap between the W&IN and CStP&KC existed between Waterloo and Oelwein, which was closed in 1887. Only a year later, at the end of 1888, the WI&N was opened to St. Joseph, Missouri, via Des Moines. A section of this now comprises the Great Western Trail. The line reached Leavenworth, Kansas, through a lease of the small Leavenworth & St. Joseph Railway in 1891. A link into Kansas City was gained via trackage rights over the Rock Island and Missouri Pacific. In 1892, the CStP&KC was reorganized as the Chicago Great Western Railway.
The rail line’s last major extension was to Omaha, Nebraska, after the turn of the century when it acquired the Mason City & Fort Dodge Railroad in 1901. The line was completed two years later in 1903. The CGW would bring a few other small systems under its wing, but for all intents and purposes, its 1,500-mile network was complete.
From the early 20th century on, the company focused its efforts on upgrading property and implementing fine passenger service. Its two notable trains to serve Kansas City via the Twin Cities included the Tri-State Limited and Mills City Limited. Unlike most railroads, which established shops and maintenance facilities in Chicago, the CGW elected to construct its primary shops more than 250 miles west of the Windy City at the small town of Oelwein, Iowa. This little community was centrally situated at the junction of its four major lines to Chicago, Kansas City, Omaha, and the Twin Cities, making it an ideal location for these facilities.
While the Chicago Great Western worked hard to make passengers happy and keep its trains running on time, the railroad operated relatively low-key trains and did not become distracted with the streamliner craze that hit the industry during the 1930s. Instead, it turned its attention to customer service and keeping its shippers pleased, a trait for which it was remembered until the railroad disappeared into the C&NW. The CGW was one of the few large railroads to work with interurbans in establishing carload freight interchanges. These small systems, usually less than 100 miles in length—some only a mile or two—were electrically operated; most sprang up after 1900. They derived most of their revenue from transporting local passengers, although some worked to build up their freight business as well. Most railroads believed that interurbans were inferior, and primary competitors refused to interchange with them. This was rather an absurd notion, considering the levels of freight and passenger traffic most interurbans handled was insignificant compared with the big railroads.
The CGW experienced two receiverships over the years; the first was in 1908 when it was reorganized as the Chicago Great Western Railroad a year later and then again in 1941 when it once more became the Chicago Great Western Railway. Despite these setbacks, for the most part the company was blessed with good management who constantly looked for ways to improve operations. For instance, in 1929 it began the first ever train-air service in conjunction with the Universal Air Lines. The Great Depression quickly ended the concept. Then in 1936, it was one of the first to employ trailer-on-flat-car service (TOFC), which moved truck-trailers on flatcars. The idea became increasingly popular over the years, especially during the 1960s and ‘70s. In another first, the CGW was one of the earliest to embrace diesel locomotives, which first entered service on the railroad in 1946. The CGW had become completely diesel by 1949.
Since it never heavily developed passenger service, the company was not as seriously affected by the postwar downturn when the traveling public began opting for air and highway travel instead of trains. By 1956, only two trains remained on its timetable: the Mills Cities Limited and the combined Nebraska Limited/Twin City Limited, serving the Twin Cities and Omaha. As the railroad began feeling the pinch of the new Interstate highway system, which took away more freight traffic, it attempted to find a merger partner during the 1960s and was taken over by the Chicago & North Western in 1968. Unfortunately, the C&NW was not especially kind to the former CGW network and began abandoning various sections throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, including the route south of Des Moines in 1985.
Nearby railroad attractions include the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad in Boone; Delmar Depot Museum in Delmar (inside the restored Milwaukee Road depot); Midwest Central Railroad that operates restored steam locomotives in Mt. Pleasant; and the official Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs.