A Brief History
The Glacial Drumlin State Trail features a section of the Chicago & North Western’s (C&NW) former main line between Milwaukee and Madison. This particular corridor was constructed during the C&NW’s expansion era of the late 19th century, a time in which the company was building or acquiring numerous railroads across the Midwest. The North Western would eventually grow into a dominant carrier throughout the region, operating thousands of miles between Chicago, Wyoming, the Twin Cities, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In an effort to shed or sell redundant trackage during the 1980s, the company abandoned part of the route now comprising today’s trail. The rest of the corridor, west of Cottage Grove, is still active as part of Wisconsin & Southern.
The yellow and green locomotives of the C&NW were a ubiquitous sight across the Midwest for decades. The colors truly befit a company that handled large volumes of agriculture throughout its corporate existence. Its earliest predecessor was the Galena & Chicago Union (G&CU), chartered in 1836, while the Chicago & North Western Railway was created in June 1859 by William Ogden through the assets of the bankrupt Chicago, St. Paul & Fond du Lac Railroad. In 1864, the C&NW merged with the Ogden-controlled G&CU to form an 860-mile network reaching southern Wisconsin through northern Illinois and into Iowa.
Ogden left the company in June 1868, but his philosophy of growth through acquisition continued throughout the 19th century. Notable C&NW acquisitions during this time included the Iowa Midland Railway; North Western Union Railway; Toledo & North Western; Sioux City & Pacific; Freemont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley (FE&MV); Winona & St. Peter; Milwaukee, Lake Shore & Western(MLS&W); and the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha (CStPM&O, a.k.a., “The Omaha Road”). Among these, the CStPM&O operated 1,482 miles alone, the FE&MV 1,301 miles, and the MLS&W another 757 miles. According to Tom Murray’s book “Chicago & North Western Railway,” the company boasted a network of 7,951 miles by 1893, which included subsidiaries. The corridor now a part of the Glacial Drumlin State Trail was completed through new construction by a C&NW subsidiary named the Milwaukee & Madison Railway. Formed in 1880 to connect its namesake cities via Waukesha and Lake Mills, 80 miles in all, the railroad was completed two years later. Murray points out that the new line provided a better routing to both the Twin Cities and other points within the C&NW system.
Before the company embarked on additional acquisitions during the 1960s, its network included 9,693 miles by 1950, radiating from Chicago and Milwaukee to reach the Twin Cities, Kansas City, Council Bluffs/Omaha, St. Louis, Duluth/Superior, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and as far west as Lander, Wyoming. While the C&NW was heavily involved in the movement of agriculture and operated hundreds of miles of branch lines, it also fielded a double-track route to Omaha/Council Bluffs and provided an important corridor to the Twin Cities. The former was particularly notable since it offered a connection with the transcontinental Union Pacific (UP). During the streamliner era, the two worked together to host UP’s “City of Portland,” “City of San Francisco,” “City of Los Angeles,” and “City of Denver” until 1955. In comparison, the latter fielded its original “400” streamliner, so named because it could travel the roughly 400 miles in only 400 minutes. Finally, there was North Western’s lines into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which offered a stable and profitable source of iron ore traffic.
The ongoing Great Depression forced the C&NW into bankruptcy on June 27, 1935, and it did not emerge from this prolonged receivership until June 1, 1944. While the company faced no other additional bankruptcies, the postwar period was one of financial hardships and an uncertain future. According to a report released in 1946, the railroad suffered from light-density branch lines, relatively high freight rates, an above-average operating ratio, and a high degree of short-haul traffic movements. It was also plagued by relatively poor leadership during these years and a physical plant suffering from deferred maintenance, which led to UP pulling its “City” trains off C&NW rails.
In 1956, the company came under new leadership when Ben Heineman stepped into the presidency. He was able to reduce operating losses somewhat and oversaw the acquisitions of several notable systems, including the Minneapolis & St. Louis in 1960 and Chicago Great Western in 1968. This allowed it to boast a system of 11,600 miles, astounding considering that the C&NW did not reach the West Coast. However, the issue of excessive trackage was still not addressed, and a merger with the transcontinental Milwaukee Road was missed during the decade, which would have helped alleviate its short-haul issue. In an interesting move that was radical at the time, the C&NW, then a subsidiary of Northwest Industries, was sold to company employees, giving rise to the Chicago & North Western Transportation Company on June 1, 1972. The decade witnessed roughly 1,800 miles of trackage removed from the network, which continued into the 1980s as the C&NW attempted to streamline operations into a core network.
Cutbacks included part of its Milwaukee to Madison route, which was abandoned between Waukesha and Cottage Grove in 1983 after the railroad elected not to carry out needed bridge repairs citing lack of traffic. The decade witnessed the C&NW moving its first load of coal out of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin in 1984. Desired for its clean-burning properties, this coal has grown into a steady and profitable form of freight for railroads since the early 1970s. The C&NW also enjoyed a surge in intermodal traffic, allowing the company to enjoy good financial years by the 1990s. It also became an attractive merger partner and was acquired by Union Pacific in 1995.
Railroad attractions in Wisconsin include: the Brodhead Historical Society Depot Museum in Brodhead; Camp Five & Lumberjack Steam Train in Laona; East Troy Electric Railroad Museum in East Troy; Green County Welcome Center in Monroe’s restored Milwaukee Road depot; the Historical Village in New London, featuring C&NW’s restored depot as well as other railroad rolling stock; Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom; Monticello Depot Museum & Hostel in the town’s restored Milwaukee Road depot; National Railroad Museum in Green Bay; Osceola & St. Croix Valley Railway in Osceola; Railroad Memories Museum in Spooner; the miniature Riverside & Great Northern Railway in the Wisconsin Dells; the Whiskey River Railway in Marshall (another miniature railroad); Wisconsin Great Northern in Spooner; and Zoofari Express Milwaukee County Zoo miniature train in Milwaukee.Do you have Historical Photos of the Glacial Drumlin State Trail?
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