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Chicago Great Western - A Capsule History

The Chicago Great Western (not to be confused with the Chicago & North Western) was a Granger road, which radiated out from its hub in Oelwein, Iowa. Main lines went to St. Paul, Chicago, Kansas City, and Omaha. It was a spunky competitor against the larger Granger roads, and it had some difficult times.

It had the disadvantage of arriving at the larger cities long after its competitors were established, and its hub – Oelwein – was in the middle of the cornfields, far from those larger cities. And, because it was the last railroad to transverse an area, it often had the more difficult route. (See the CGW map, elsewhere on this web site.)

What most people remember, however, was the sight of very long freights, powered by A-B-B-B-A sets of F units. These maroon and/or red units were “classics”, and are remembered fondly. One train and one crew would pull all of that freight from terminal to terminal in order to cut overhead. Steam engines and passenger trains had been retired somewhat earlier than on competing roads, and the CGW experimented with welded rail and piggyback as a means of getting ahead. While trying to cut costs, it tried to be as efficient as possible in delivering meat, in refrigerator cars, from Minnesota to Chicago. So the image of the CGW that remains is essentially positive, and it still has many dedicated fans, non-withstanding the fact that it was merged out of existence in 1968.

If you went back in time to the steam era, you would see typical smaller and medium-sized steam locomotives all over the system. There were over one hundred 2-6-2 Prairie types But there were some real anomalies in CGW motive power. The CGW fabricated some huge Mallet locomotives around 1910. These were needed to power the freights up the grades out of the Mississippi River Valley. Because they were so large, they stayed near the grades where they worked. Eventually, they became more trouble than they were worth. About the time they left, the CGW bought some truly modern, and very large, steam locomotives. The Texas-type 2-10-4’s were an unqualified success. They roamed most of the system on the main lines (avoiding light rails), and they pulled the long freights for which the CGW had become famous. They could go from Chicago to Oelwein, and could handle their train coming out of the Mississippi River valley, if they weren’t overloaded.

Before the automobile took over, the CGW did field some passenger trains, including some worthy attempts to capture business. But the route from St. Paul to Chicago, via Oelwein, was not competitive – especially when you consider the competition. One rider remembered the journey on the night train out of Dubuque going up out of the Mississippi River Valley. Because of the constant flow of “S” curves, the moon alternated from the left hand side of the car to the right.

The Legionaire, the Blue Bird, and the Red Bird were notable attempts to capture business, often using rebuilt equipment to save money. Motor cars were used whenever possible to cut losses. And the final passenger run from St. Paul to Omaha featured some second-hand, ex- Milwaukee Road equipment, pulled by F units.

As mentioned, the CGW adapted quickly and successfully to the diesel. Switchers were purchased from Westinghouse, Alco, Baldwin, and EMD, with NW-2’s predominating. Most surprisingly, there were only two EMD geeps, which supplemented the Alco road switchers. But the mainstay power was the roster of F units, purchased for enough years that minor variations were found. The CGW had a large percentage of B units, and its A units were not set up to run inside the set as boosters. (Thus, some sort of A-B-whatever lashup was the norm.) Then some GP30’s were purchased; and, just before the merger, the SD40 units started pulling on the mainline. (See NWL , Summer 2003 issue, still available at this time as a back issue.)

This capsule history cannot begin to cover the history of the CGW in detail. It may be necessary to refer to The Corn Belt Route by H. Roger Grant. An excellent, shorter history may be found in Chicago Great Western: Depots Along the Corn Belt Route by Jerry Huddleston (and Joe Piersen)

Mr. A. B. Stickney was the driving force behind the CGW. By combining pieces of railroad, and using construction companies, Stickney ended up wealthy, being one of the upper class in St. Paul, and living as a neighbor of the great James J. Hill. Stickney pulled together the Minnesota & Northwestern, which eventually went from Minnesota to Chicago. One of his companies, eventually named the Chicago St. Paul & Kansas City, went through central Iowa to the Kansas City area. The Winona & South-Western (later W&W and WM&P) constructed a “route challenged” branch to Winona, Minnesota. The Minnesota Central constructed a line across the center of Minnesota, on the Waterville to Red Wing axis, and then the WM&P (Wisconsin Minnesota & Pacific) became the central-eastern part of the CGW. And the Mason City & Fort Dodge was originally built in west-central Iowa to tap the coal fields, but it ended up building the extension to Omaha.

Although there were minor abandonments of the CGW, the system remained mostly intact until the merger with the C&NW on

Below are some dates in the chronology of the CGW:

  • 1882 Construction begins at Northfield, MN hoping to reach Waterville and Red Wing,MN
  • 1884 Stickney begins construction near Randolph, MN.
  • 1885 The M&NW and the D&NW combine to reach Dubuque.
  • 1886 Construction begins in Illinois to reach Chicago.
  • 1886 The Mason City & Fort Dodge completes the line between Mason City and Fort Dodge.
  • 1887 Construction begins towards Kansas City.
  • 1888 Construction begins to Winona, MN (by another company).
  • 1903 Omaha extension is completed.
  • 1903 A short cut-off is completed between Oelwein and Waverly.
  • 1908 The CGW enters receivership. Stickney relinquishes control.
  • 1908 A major strike is solved with the mediation of Frank Kellogg, a friend of President Roosevelt.
  • 1909 Samuel Felton takes charge of the CGW and starts rehabilitating the worn-out road.
  • 1909 The CGW is reconstituted as the Chicago Great Western Railroad, a name change that will be revisited years in the future.
  • 1910 The CGW purchases and builds very large Mallet locomotives. These were used around the hills of the Mississippi River valley.
  • 1923 The Red Bird passenger train is instituted on the Rochester route, with some running on the C&NW.
  • 1929 The Blue Bird is instituted on the Rochester route. Composed of rebuilt McKeen motor cars, the train used the weaker route on all-CGW trackage. The train soon became a victim of the Depression, April 20, 1930.
  • 1929 Felton steps down and takes the CGW president, Colonel Howard, with him. In reality they were forced out by the Joyce interests.
  • 1929 Joyce puts in Victor Boatner as president.
  • 1930’s Patrick Joyce controls the CGW with the help of the Bremo Corporation. This resulted in corruption and the draining of CGW assets, which were already suffering because of the Depression.
  • 1930’, early The East Stockton Terminal is shut down with the departure of the Mallet locomotives. The new Texas types did not need that terminal.
  • 1930 The first Texas type steam locomotive runs on the CGW, ushering in modern power.
  • 1931 Joyce fires Boatner after an episode where Boatner appeared nude in public.
  • 1934 The first diesel, # 2, is purchased from Westinghouse.
  • 1935 The CGW seeks bankruptcy protection. In 1938mand 1939 the court provided a restructuring plan.
  • 1935 – 1936 New trailer-on-flat car service is instituted, a major innovation for a steam railroad. (It had been tried previously by the CNS&M interurban.)
  • 1941 The court allows reorganization under the “new” name of the Chicago Great Western Railway. Subsidiary corporate names, such at the Mason City and Fort Dodge, disappeared.
  • 1947 The CGW abandons the DeKalb branch and uses trackage rights over the parallel C&NW.
  • 1947 The CGW begins using the first of its new F units. While the CGW had used diesels before, this marked the beginning of the end of steam.
  • 1949 William N. Deramus III becomes president of the CGW. He was young and well-educated.
  • 1950 The new Des Moines brick depot is constructed. While it represented a modern CGW, it was built on an unstable site and proved to be a Deramus failure.
  • 1953 A costly strike hurts the railroad and its workers.
  • 1955 The first issue of the employee magazine, Safety News, is instituted.
  • 1956 the offices of the president, general manager, and legal counsel were moved from Chicago to Kansas City. In spite of the fact that the hub of the CGW was in Oelwein, some of the offices were located in strategic cities. However, presidents like Reidy were frequently found in Oelwein.
  • 1957 E.T. Reidy is elected president. He will remain until the end. (Deramus resigns)
  • 1962 – 1963 Merger talks with the Soo Line take place, but neither side was serious enough to commit.
  • 1963 New GP30’s are ordered and placed in operation. They are often called “second-generation” motive power.
  • 1964 Consultants recommend a merger with the C&NW.
  • 1964 A national agreement allows for the elimination of firemen. The CGW releases 67 men.
  • 1965 The last passenger train runs on September 29th from Omaha to St. Paul.
  • 1968 The CGW is merged into the Chicago & North Western on July1st, just after Midnight.
By Joe Piersen

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