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Chicago Great Western

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Chicago Great Western

Chicago Great Western Railroad
Reporting mark CGW
Locale Illinois
Dates of operation 1885–1968
Successor Chicago & North Western Railway
Track gauge (standard gauge)
Length 1,495 miles (2,406 kilometres)
Headquarters Chicago, Illinois

The Chicago Great Western Railroad (reporting mark CGW) was a Class I railroad that linked Chicago, Minneapolis, Omaha, and Kansas City. Through mergers and new construction, the railroad, named Chicago Great Western after 1892, quickly became a multi-state carrier. One of the last Class I railroads to be built, it competed against several other more well-established railroads in the same territory, and developed a corporate culture of innovation and efficiency to survive.

Nicknamed the "Corn Belt Route" because of its operating area in the midwestern United States, the railroad was sometimes called the "Lucky Strike Road", due to the similarity in design between the herald of the CGW and the logo used for Lucky Strike cigarettes.

In 1960 it reported 2474 million net ton-miles of revenue freight and 4 million passenger miles; at the end of that year it operated 1469 miles of road and 2117 miles of track. In 1968 it merged with the Chicago & North Western Railway (C&NW), which abandoned most of CGW's trackage.


Stickney era

By the late 1870s the Upper Midwest was spiderwebbed with the lines of four major railroads:

Even so, there were people who thought there was room for more. One of those was A. B. Stickney, who had been construction superintendent of the St. Paul, Minnesota & Manitoba (forerunner of the Great Northern Railway), general superintendent of the western portion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and an official of the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway. Stickney decided to build a railroad from St. Paul to Chicago. He acquired the franchise and outstanding stock of the Minnesota & Northwestern Railroad (M&NW), which had been chartered in 1854 to build a line from Lake Superior through St. Paul, Minnesota toward Dubuque, Iowa. The charter was particularly enticing to Stickney because of a tax limitation clause it contained.[1]

Construction of the railroad started at St. Paul in September 1884, and a year later the line was open to the Iowa state line, where it connected with a railroad the Illinois Central Railroad had leased. Stickney, however, was intent on having his own line, so even before the M&NW was completed he acquired and merged with it the Dubuque & Northwestern Railroad (D&NW). That railroad had been incorporated in 1883 to build from Dubuque to Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada, or at least to a connection with the NP. The M&NW met the D&NW near Oneida, Iowa, in October 1886.[1]

Meanwhile the Minnesota & Northwestern of Illinois Railroad was building west from what is now Forest Park, Illinois. Completed in early 1888, the engineering feat of the line was the longest tunnel in Illinois, the half-mile long Winston Tunnel, named for the construction company that built the line.[1]

Stickney realized that Minnesota & Northwestern was hardly an appropriate name for a railroad that began at St. Paul and went to Chicago. He renamed it the Chicago, St. Paul & Kansas City Railroad (CStP&KC) and set out for Kansas City. He acquired the Dubuque & Dakota Railroad, a short line from Sumner, Iowa, through Waverly to Hampton, and the Wisconsin, Iowa & Nebraska Railway (WI&N), a line from Waterloo, Iowa to Des Moines. The WI&N was nicknamed "The Diagonal" for its direction across the state of Iowa. Stickney extended the WI&N east to connect with his main line at Oelwein and southwest to St. Joseph, Missouri, and Leavenworth, Kansas, arriving there in 1891. Trackage rights over a Missouri Pacific Railroad subsidiary carried CStP&KC trains to Kansas City.[1]

Construction costs and rate wars began to adversely affect CStP&KC's financial situation — Stickney was an advocate of simplified freight rates and a practitioner of rate cutting. The railroad was reorganized in 1892 as the Chicago Great Western Railway (CGW). Stickney took advantage of depressed prices during the Panic of 1893 to rebuild the railroad and erect new shops in Oelwein, the hub of the railroad. In 1901 the CGW leased the Wisconsin, Minnesota & Pacific Railroad, which had lines west out of Winona and Red Wing, Minnesota, and the Mason City & Fort Dodge Rail Road. The latter railroad (which had been controlled by James J. Hill since the late 1880s) served as a springboard for CGW's extension to Omaha. The route to Omaha, opened in 1903, led through laregely unpopulated territory. A CGW subsidiary planned, developed, and sold towns at regular intervals along the line. About the same time the railroad planned and surveyed an extension to Sioux City but dropped the idea in 1906 because of the expense. CGW even set its sights briefly on Denver before turning its attention to a policy of encouraging the short lines, both steam and electric, with which it connected.[1]

Felton era

The CGW entered receivership in 1908. J. P. Morgan purchased it and reorganized it as the Chicago Great Western Railroad in August 1909. Samuel Morse Felton, Jr., well known as a rehabilitator of weak railroads, replaced Stickney as president. During World War I, United States Railroad Administration control diverted much business from the CGW, but government payment for damages helped finance postwar improvements. To cut passenger expenses, CGW replaced steam trains with motor cars. CGW had purchased several McKeen gasoline cars in the early 1900s, and it continued the motorization of its passenger trains with the purchase of Electric-Motive's first gas-electric car. In the mid-1920s CGW teamed up with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway to offer through Pullman car service from the Twin Cities to Texas and Los Angeles. In 1929 CGW converted three old McKeen cars to a deluxe gas-electric train, the Blue Bird, for service between Minneapolis and Rochester, Minnesota.[2]

Joyce era

Felton retired in 1929 when a syndicate of industrial traffic managers led by Patrick H. Joyce acquired control of the CGW. The new management completely revised the operational structure of the railroad, closing facilities and discharging employees. The Joyce administration got involved in a stock manipulation scheme — it included the Van Sweringen brothers of Cleveland and the Kansas City Southern Railway (KCS) — that resulted in CGW's bankruptcy in February 1935.[3] More noteworthy fruits of the Joyce era were three dozen 2-10-4s for freight service and the inauguration in 1936 of piggyback service.[1]

A 1941 reorganization reverted to the Chicago Great Western Railway, which included a number of previously separate subsidiaries.[4] Immediately after World War II the railroad began to dieselize; dieselization was complete by 1950.[1]

Deramus era

In 1948 a group of Kansas City businessmen began to invest heavily in the CGW. Among them were William N. Deramus, Jr., president of KCS, and his son, William N. Deramus III. Within a few months the younger Deramus was president of the CGW. Under his direction the railroad caught up on deferred maintenance and improved its physical plant. Passenger service was reduced to a single coach-only train each way between the Twin Cities and Kansas City, the Twin Cities and Omaha, and Chicago and Oelwein. With the intent of reducing train-miles, CGW began to run enormously long freight trains behind sets of six or more F-units. Service suffered as trains were held to reach maximum tonnage and through trains performed local work. The railroad consolidated its offices at Oelwein and Kansas City and closed its Chicago general offices. The last passenger trains, between the Twin Cities and Omaha, made their last runs on September 29, 1965. They lasted as long as they did because of mail and express traffic inherited when C&NW dropped its Twin Cities-Omaha trains.[1]


CGW did reasonably well during the 1950s and 1960s, but it became clear that it would have to merge to survive.[5] As early as 1946 there had been a proposal to merge CGW with the Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railroad and Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad, and during the Deramus era it was generally thought that KCS and CGW would team up. CGW investigated merger with the Rock Island, with the Soo Line Railroad, and with the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway, but it was with the rapidly expanding C&NW that CGW merged in July 1, 1968.[6] C&NW subsequently abandoned most of the CGW.[1]

Passenger operations

CGW was not a noteworthy passenger carrier, although it did fleet several named trains mostly running between Chicago and the Twin Cities. Regardless of the railroad's small size and meager passenger fleet it looked for ways to more efficiently move passengers, such as employing all-electric (battery powered)[2] and gas-electric motorcars on light branch lines, which was much cheaper to operate than traditional steam or diesel-powered trains. CGW's most notable passenger trains from its major terminal cities included:[7]

  • Rochester-St.Paul-Minneapolis
    • Rochester Special
    • Red Bird
    • Blue Bird
  • Chicago-St.Paul-Minneapolis
    • Great Western Limited
    • Legionnaire
  • Kansas City-St.Paul-Minneapolis
    • Tri-State Limited
    • Mills Cities Limited
  • Des Moines-Chicago
    • Chicago Special
    • Southwestern Limited
  • Omaha-St.Paul-Minneapolis
    • Nebraska Limited
    • Omaha Express
    • Twin Cities Limited
    • Twin Cities Express


Further reading

External links

  • Hub City Heritage Corporation Oelwein Railroad Museum
  • There are two sites named the Unofficial Chicago Great Western page:
    • the Unofficial Chicago Great Western page
    • the Unofficial Chicago Great Western site
  • Chicago & North Western Historical Society (includes predecessor roads)

Template:Omaha Railroads

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