Mountain-Bay State Trail History


At a Glance

Name: Mountain-Bay State Trail
Length: 83.4 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Wheelchair Accessible, Horseback Riding, Mountain Biking, Snowmobiling, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Brown, Marathon, Shawano
Surfaces: Asphalt, Crushed Stone, Dirt, Grass, Gravel
State: Wisconsin

A Brief History

The Mountain-Bay State Trail follows a former segment of a secondary Chicago & North Western (C&NW) line that ran west of Green Bay. As was the case with much of the C&NW’s later system, this particular route was acquired through a subsidiary, which provided it with considerable mileage within Wisconsin. While today’s trail runs only as far as Wausau, the original route extended to Marshfield, where it connected with another early railroad that was also acquired by the C&NW. In typical Midwestern fashion, especially for the North Western, the line generally handled various agriculture movements but also moved other freight as well. During the 1970s, the company took steps to eliminate hundreds of miles of secondary trackage across a network that spanned several thousand miles. After realizing the line west of Green Bay needed significant maintenance improvements, the railroad moved toward abandonment rather than spend the millions needed for upgrades.

Perhaps more than any other carrier, the Chicago & North Western most accurately defined the “granger railroad,” that is, a system that derived a considerable portion of freight revenues from agriculture. The earliest C&NW predecessor was the Galena & Chicago Union (G&CU), chartered in 1836. It was the first railroad to operate a steam locomotive out of Chicago in 1848, but by the 1850s, had also transformed into a profitable freight hauler across northern Illinois via the Windy City. From the beginning, agriculture played an important role in the G&CU’s bottom line and continued to do so for more than a century under the C&NW. The company’s direct roots begin in June 1859, when the assets of the Chicago, St. Paul & Fond du Lac Railroad were reorganized as the Chicago & North Western Railway. In 1864, the C&NW acquired the G&CU, and thus was born a noteworthy railroad, stretching some 860 miles out of Chicago and into Wisconsin and Iowa. By 1867, its important main line to Council Bluffs was open, connecting there with the Union Pacific; within a few years, the latter had helped establish the Transcontinental Railroad.

All of this early growth was thanks to the leadership and vision of William B. Ogden, but the C&NW continued expanding throughout the 19th century. Similar to the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific (a.k.a., Milwaukee Road), the C&NW’s blanket of routes across the Midwest were composed largely through acquisition, which included the corridor now a part of the Mountain-Bay State Trail. The railroad had first reached Michigan’s Upper Peninsula at Escanaba via Fort Howard, Wisconsin, during the early 1870s. It then focused on expanding its reach across the region in 1891 by acquiring the 757-mile Milwaukee, Lake Shore & Western Railway (MLS&W). This system was formed in 1872 through the merger of several smaller carriers. Its primary route stretched from Lake Shore Junction, just north of Milwaukee, to Ashland via Appleton. In 1880, it opened a branch from Eland to Wausau, reaching as far as Marshfield by 1890, where it connected with the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railway (a.k.a., The Omaha Road), a C&NW-held property (via stock control) since 1882.

The MLS&W formally merged into the C&NW in 1893, and a decade later, the company improved the Eland–Marshfield line by opening a direct route to Green Bay in 1907. Its lines within the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin provided the C&NW with iron ore and forest products along with general agriculture. According to Tom Murray’s book “Chicago & North Western Railway,” the company operated a network of 4,250 miles by 1890, but it continued expanding well into the 20th century. By 1906, it operated 7,453 miles, and in 1950, it operated 9,693 miles. Additional acquisitions took place even in the postwar period, when it acquired the 44-mile Litchfield & Madison in 1958, the 1,400-mile Minneapolis & St. Louis in 1960, and the Chicago Great Western in 1968 (which also operated more than 1,400 miles). There were also a handful of other smaller systems purchased during the same period. The C&NW was more than just a freight hauler, however, operating several noteworthy passenger trains. The most famous included the fleet of so-called 400s, named because the original could travel the 400 miles between Chicago and Minneapolis in roughly 400 minutes.

By the 1950s, the C&NW found itself facing the same problems of most other granger systems, a network plagued with significant light-density branch lines. At one time these corridors were blessed with considerable agriculture traffic, but as trucks and improved highways took hold, they became a drain on the bottom line. In addition, the C&NW faced the problem of short-haul freight, afflicting much of its routes. In conjunction with poor management, the company was reporting a net loss of $5.5 million by 1956. New leadership that year helped improve the company’s financial outlook but it was still reporting losses. Following the mergers, the North Western boasted an astounding network of 11,600 miles but still faced the branch line issue, deferred maintenance, and short-haul freight.

A merger with transcontinental Milwaukee Road during the 1960s would certainly have helped alleviate this latter problem, but the union fell through. On June 1, 1972, the Chicago & North Western Transportation Company was born, an employee-owned company that acquired the railroad’s assets. Its future outlook changed substantially after this event. That decade witnessed the abandonment of hundreds of miles of secondary branch lines, a process that continued into the 1980s when the company focused on a paring down to a core number of routes. It was also aided by the 1980 Staggers Act that great deregulated the industry and eased the process of setting freight rates and abandoning unprofitable lines. However, the event that truly secured the company’s future was coal in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, desired for its clean-burning properties. The first such trains began rolling over the C&NW in 1984.

During the company’s continued pruning years of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the route that is now the Mountain-Bay State Trail was shed in 1982. According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, this event occurred when a rail detection car discovered that a 13-mile segment between Marshfield and Stratford needed to be rebuilt to support continued service. The C&NW elected against funding the necessary repairs and abandoned the line. In 1995, Union Pacific purchased the North Western, largely to gain access into the Powder River Basin.

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 located 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 located within 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 located in Wisconsin Dells; the Whiskey River Railway located in Marshall (another miniature railroad); Wisconsin Great Northern in Spooner; and Zoofari Express Milwaukee County Zoo miniature train in Milwaukee.

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