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An Illinois not-for-profit corporation dedicated to preserving the legacy of the C&NW and its predecessor roads since 1973.

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Chicago & North Western - A Capsule History

For many years the Chicago & North Western was the probably the largest and most profitable of the Midwestern railroads. By 1910 it had reached an apogee, which continued more or less through the 1920’s. It called itself the “Pioneer Railroad” because a predecessor, the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad, was the first railroad running out of Chicago (and all of Illinois), beginning in 1848. The C&NW also pioneered many “firsts” in railroad history.

The left-handed operation of the C&NW set it apart from other railroads in the US. It is fairly certain that the stations along the predecessor G&CU were on the “wrong” side, and when a second track was laid into Chicago, left-handed running allowed inbound passengers to wait in the warm depot. Otherwise, the depots would have had to be rebuilt or moved. The notion that British capital forced this left-hand running does not work. In those days no investor in Europe, let alone New York, would risk money on anything out on the uncivilized prairie. The investors were almost all local farmers and businessmen. ……They did very well, it might be noted.

When the legendary president Marvin Hughitt retired as president in 1910, the C&NW was finishing up on its long and successful expansion and consolidation. Many smaller lines had been absorbed, substantial depots had been built, and miles of track had signals installed -- many of those miles were double-tracked. Hughitt worked with the board for many years thereafter, and the C&NW was considered relatively prosperous until the Great Depression.

Then the Great Depression came and bankruptcy followed. Highway traffic on new roads took revenue from the system and the overuse of equipment and infrastructure during WWII left the C&NW on the verge of another bankruptcy by the mid-1950’s.

In 1956 Ben Heineman became president and instituted the painful reforms and economy measures that gave the C&NW some tentative viability. Heineman also began the purchase and consolidation of other Midwest railroads, which resulted, eventually, in the elimination and abandonment of all but the core of the system. Heineman’s successors used government money for track upgrading and held on until the Coal Line in Wyoming could be opened. At that point prosperity returned to a railroad that was now much leaner.

When the C&NW was merged into the Union Pacific in 1995, it exited from the scene a winner, unlike some of its competitors, which were broken up in the bankruptcy courts. The Union Pacific had acquired a good deal of C&NW stock over the years and decided to protect its main Chicago route with outright ownership. Also, the Union Pacific had just suffered the humiliation of being outbid by the Burlington Northern in the contest to take over the Santa Fe, so the take-over of the C&NW helped to restore its image (temporarily)

All of the details of the C&NW history and the history of all the predecessor lines exceed the scope of this capsule history, but the timeline below highlights some of the important dates and events that one should know:

  • 1836 The Galena & Chicago Union Railroad was chartered by the State of Illinois. During most of that decade it was assumed that the Illinois Central would be the first railroad and would dominate the center of the state. But the IC could not get organized promptly and it failed to realize that Chicago was the dominant location in Illinois.
  • 1846 William Butler Ogden became the third president of the G&CU. He was probably one of the three most important men in C&NW history. He was also mayor of Chicago and a promoter of the iron mines in Upper Michigan, to name just two of his accomplishments.
  • 1848 (October) A second-hand locomotive, the “Pioneer”, arrives in Chicago by boat.
  • 1848 (October 25) The Pioneer pulls the first train in Illinois from Chicago to the end of the line near the Des Plaines River (in the present town of River Forest).
  • 1853 The G&CU reaches Freeport, IL and stops short of its target, the lead mining town of Galena. Soon it redirected itself directly towards the Mississippi River, in a direct line west out of Chicago.
  • 1855 A telegraph line is run out to Freeport, and the operation of trains by telegraph became a “first” in the nation.
  • 1855 The G&CU lays a second track out of Chicago and it starts left-handed operation. Experts agree that the left-hand operation was an easy way to avoid moving all the depots to the other side of the tracks. Other explanations make little sense.
  • 1855 The new line is open between Turner Junction (West Chicago) and the Mississippi River at Fulton, IL. This line became the basis for the core route to the west on the C&NW.
  • 1858 The G&CU operates the first sleeping car, west of Chicago, from Chicago to Freeport.
  • 1859 The Chicago & North Western Railroad is chartered by the legislatures Wisconsin and Illinois.
  • 1862 The Cedar Rapids & Missouri River RR., headed by John Blair, continues building across Iowa, hoping to reach Council Bluffs. Blair leases the CR&MR to the G&CU, providing the Chicago company with what will eventually become a mainline portion of a transcontinental railroad. The C&NW also leased the Chicago Iowa & Nebraska RR, which had built from Clinton to Cedar Rapids, starting in 1856.
  • 1864 The first regular Railway Post Office (RPO) car is placed in service on the C&NW.
  • 1864 The Galena & Chicago Union is merged into the C&NW. It had been an unqualified success, and its profitability convinces investors in the East that a railroad on the uncivilized prairie could make money. The G&CU had been forced to raise its money from the “uncivilized” residents of the prairies and the prairie towns. This was a landmark merger in railroad history, and it took place as the Civil War raged in the South.
  • 1864 The C&NW also acquires the Peninsula Railroad in Upper Michigan. Surprisingly, this part of the system was disconnected, which put the C&NW in the boat business for a while. An ore dock is constructed at Escanaba.
  • 1867 The CR&MR reaches Council Bluffs.
  • 1866 The Chicago & Milwaukee is acquired by lease, giving the C&NW a route from Chicago to Milwaukee.
  • 1868 William Butler Ogden retires.
  • 1869 The Fremont Elkhorn & Missouri Valley begins building the Nebraska route that will later be known at the “Cowboy Line”.
  • 1871 The Great Chicago Fire devastates the city, and the railroad takes a heavy loss, including many records – for example, most of the G&CU records. (October 6th)
  • 1881 The new Wells St. depot opens in Chicago.
  • 1881 Kate Shelley saves a passenger train at a washed-out bridge. She becomes a living legend, and the C&NW later names a train after her.
  • 1887 Marvin Hughitt becomes president of the C&NW, guiding the railroad through its “Golden Age”.
  • 1891 The C&NW adopts the ball and bar trademark/logo, which will survive, with some modifications, until the end of the railroad.
  • 1893 The C&NW completes the purchase of the Milwaukee Lake Shore & Western, which later became the Ashland Division, encompassing many of the routes between Milwaukee and Ashland.
  • 1900 (June 8th) The prodigious Kate Shelley bridge over the Des Moines River, west of Boone, is opened. This double-tracked bridge survives today, somewhat modified, under Union Pacific ownership.
  • 1901 The first R-1 is delivered to the C&NW, and the R-1 soon became the dominant, general-purpose steam locomotive.
  • 1903-1904 The “New Line” is built between Chicago (Mayfair) and Milwaukee, providing an alternative route for trains, so that they could by-pass the more congested cities along the lake. A cut-off is constructed at Lake Bluff so that trains could cross back to the “Old Line”.
  • 1903 (February 28th) The Fremont Elkhorn & Missouri Valley is absorbed into the C&NW, which already had de facto control.
  • 1906 The first trains run to Lander, Wyoming, which marked the end of the westward expansion of the C&NW. Plans to get to the West Coast never materialized.
  • 1910 Marvin Hughitt steps down as president, but is able to continue to exert some control as Chairman until 1925.
  • 1911 The Madison Street Station (the Chicago Passenger Terminal) is opened. Designed by the firm of Frost & Granger, it made the old Wells St. Terminal obsolete, and it was retired. Frost & Granger (or just Frost) designed almost the all of the major C&NW depots. They were connected to Marvin Hughitt by marriage.
  • 1911 The “Adams Cutoff” gives trains a shortcut from Milwaukee to the Twin Cities. It was the last major line constructed in Wisconsin.
  • 1914 The line from Nelson to Benld is finished. That line was essentially a route to the coal mines. The C&NW owned the Superior Coal Co in that area. And the line also provided access to Peoria. Years later, with the purchase of the Litchfield & Madison, the line reached Madison, IL, which was a gateway to St. Louis.
  • 1926 The first diesel on the C&NW is purchased for use in Chicago as an element of smoke control. Others would follow. The C&NW already had some internal combustion power on its motor cars, which were used in passenger service.
  • 1928 Automatic Train Control is installed on selected locomotives and it was used on the main line from Chicago to Council Bluffs. But this was accomplished in segments, over a period of time.
  • 1928 Marvin Hughitt dies.
  • 1929 Delivery of thirty five Class H locomotives took place. These very large steam locomotive, build by Baldwin, were the most powerful on the C&NW. Because of their weight, they were restricted to the main line from Chicago to Council Bluffs, but soon were allowed to go to Butler Yard in Wisconsin. Some were equipped for passenger service, and were used primarily on the heavy trains in joint service to the West Coast (Though they went no farther west than Council Bluffs.).
  • 1929 Proviso Yard is reopened as a huge, modern, freight classification yard. It featured retarder devices at the top of the classification hump. Later the yard would house a huge LCL freight house for the sorting of Less-Than-Carload-Lots.
  • 1935 The “Twin Cities 400” makes its inaugural run. It consisted of completely rebuilt, standard cars and locomotives. There were no funds for streamlined equipment, which was coming into vogue.
  • 1935 Streamliner/diesel M-10001 is inaugurated. While this ran over C&NW rails, it was purchased and owned by the Union Pacific as the “City of Portland”. The “City of Los Angeles” and other streamliners were inaugurated the next year.
  • 1936 The C&NW files for bankruptcy, after defaulting on obligations in 1925. The management still fought to retain responsibility for the stock, but the ICC and the courts rendered the stock worthless.
  • 1939 The new, streamlined “Twin Cities 400” is placed in service, having been approved by the bankruptcy court. It was an immediate success, competing with streamlined equipment on the CB&Q and the CMStP&P. Other streamlined 400’s would follow.
  • 1940’s Diesels start to make inroads into the steam roster. FT diesels are purchased for freight service in 1945, with government permission.
  • 1941 – 1945 World War II puts a great strain on the physical plant of C&NW. Some passenger service that was considered a “luxury” or seasonal, was discontinued; instead, long troop trains plied the C&NW.
  • 1944 The C&NW emerges from bankruptcy.
  • 1948 1948 was celebrated as the Centennial Year of the C&NW, using the G&CU’s inauguration as the starting date. For the C&NW it was an unprecedented Public Relations opportunity. Simultaneously, the Railroad Fair was held in Chicago, mindful of the G&CU date. In addition, a time capsule was buried, though it seems unlikely that it will be recovered in 2048.
  • 1950 CTC was installed on the main line from West Chicago to Nelson. It would later be expanded.
  • 1952 Automatic Train Stop is instituted on the line from Chicago to Wyeville. As with ATC on the West Line, it was a safety measure to protect high-speed trains. It proved to be untimely because high-speed service was reduced considerably by 1963.
  • 1955 The first bilevel cars are purchased from St. Louis Car Company. Many other similar cars would come from Pullman Co. in the next two decades, though with the addition of head-end electrical power. The RDC cars, which were also supposed to rescue commuter service, did not prove satisfactory and were sold. – but the bilivels succeeded and similar cars are in use even today.
  • 1955 Poor management and the costs of an obsolete plant bring the C&NW close to bankruptcy.
  • 1955 The passenger agreement with the Union Pacific/Southern Pacific was ended by the C&NW. This was a radical departure from decades of cooperation.
  • 1956 Ben Heineman becomes Chairman of the C&NW and institutes many changes to return the C&NW to profitability. By the end of his tenure the C&NW was a different railroad, and both the freight and suburban operations could run at a profit during the good years.
  • 1956 Steam operation officially ended on the C&NW, thought some hidden pockets of steam existed on the fringes.
  • 1957 The CStPM&O (“Omaha Road”) is leased by the C&NW, thus ending forever its semi-independent status.
  • 1957 The word “Railway” appears on rolling stock in the trademark/herald. This was a logical consequence of the discontinuance of the Streamliners and the downgrading of the 400’s and the trend away from billboard lettering. It also apparently coincided with the demise of the Omaha road in the same year.
  • 1958 The Litchfield & Madison is absorbed, giving the C&NW its own access to St. Louis.
  • 1958 Bilevel 400 service is instituted. Using specially-adapted bilevels for long-distance service, the expense of these (two) trains was sort of an unofficial trade-off for the right of the C&NW to abandon other passenger service.
  • 1960 Push-pull bilevel suburban service is instituted using older diesels that were adapted for head-end electrical power.
  • 1960 The M&StL is purchased. Ben Heineman begins an expansion/abandonment program with a railroad that he “cut his teeth on”.
  • 1963 The ”Twin Cities 400” and the “Rochester 400” were discontinued.
  • 1968 the Chicago Great Western is absorbed. This sort of move enabled the C&NW to expand its system, while paradoxically it started the wholesale abandonment lines in the Midwest. The C&NW now gets access to Kansas City, via the CGW route.
  • 1968 The Fort Dodge Des Moines & Southern and the Des Moines & Central Iowa were purchased by the C&NW. These were marginal properties, but they had some industry, which the C&NW was able to access.
  • 1971 Older diesels enter a rebuilding program at the Oelwein Shops, a former CGW facility.
  • 1972 The C&NW becomes “Employee Owned”, instituting an innovative ownership structure. The trademark/logo is changed accordingly.
  • 1973 The first SD40-2’s are purchased. These represent a new era in motive power, even though they had been preceded by other “First Generation” models.
  • 1973 The Board of Directors approves a resolution to build a line into the Powder River coal fields.
  • 1980 Safety Yellow replaces the older, Traditional Yellow color on all equipment. This bold move did not prove as successful as hoped.
  • 1980’s An Executive Business Train is put together from rebuilt, used cars from other railroads. While there had been business cars before, this “new” train represented a large outlay of capital and was extravagantly impressive.
  • 1981 A complete rebuilding of all the road cabooses takes place. This was a costly program, which probably did not anticipate the elimination of most cabooses in the near future.
  • 1982 The “Employee Owned” structure is eliminated and C&NW stock is no longer reserved for employees. The trademark/logo reverts to the “System” wording.
  • 1983 The Spine Line of the bankrupt Rock Island is purchased, giving an improved route to Kansas City. The CGW line to KC becomes surplus.
  • 1983. The Coal Line starts construction under the aegis of the Western Railroad Properties Inc. A connector is make to the Union Pacific and the old Cowboy Line becomes surplus after extensive flooding and is by-passed. Powder River coal becomes the “pot of gold” for the C&NW.
  • 1984 The first trainload of coal leaves from a Powder River mine.
  • 1985 The C&NW tries to take over a bankrupt Milwaukee Road, but is defeated by a combination of the Soo Line’s bid and the court’s preferences.
  • 1986 The Winona to Rapid City line is sold to the DM&E. This proves to be an exception to the preference the C&NW had to choose abandonment over sale.
  • 1988 The lines near Green Bay, north of Milwaukee, are sold to the FRVR. Neither the C&NW nor the FRVR was able to effectively serve the area and make money. The Wisconsin Central, which later took over the FRVR, however, was able to work successfully.
  • 1989 General Electric locomotives are purchased and used successfully on the Coal Line and in general service. This excluded EMD, which had recently sold SD70’s and SD80’s to the C&NW. But those EMD locomotives did not do well by comparison.
  • 1989 The C&NW was taken by surprise in the era of leveraged buyouts. Japonica Partners, L.P. intended to acquire the outstanding shares of CNW Corp. after already acquiring 8.8% ownership. Management was nonplused. After considering employee ownership again, management decided to find a “friendly” takeover partner. The C&NW then approved a “definitive merger agreement” with Blackstone Capital Partners, L.P., which quickly outbid Japonica. Stock price increases set national records. The Union Pacific and an insurance-based financial company backed the Blackstone Group and kept the Omaha to Chicago line safe from Japonica’s grasp. The C&NW corporate structure was completely changed, and the railroad was effectively saddled with heavy long-term debt and high interest payments. Drastic cuts had to be made all over the system.
  • 1991 The Traditional Yellow returned to the paint schemes of the rolling stock, the locomotives, and the Business Train. Not only did it honor a long tradition, it also weathered much better.
  • 1993 An initial public stock offering is tendered. UP investments are transferred to non-voting common stock, representing 25% ownership.
  • 1993 New GE Dash 9 locomotives are purchased and are painted in a dramatic “lightning” scheme. Other similar locomotives would soon be purchased, including the innovative AC locomotives, which were painted in the same scheme.
  • 1995 (March) The UP announces its intent to acquire 100% of the C&NW’s publicly traded stock at a price of $35 per share. This was the beginning of the end for the C&NW. Management negotiated with the UP for the best possible deal, since a takeover seemed inevitable and since the UP had plenty of money to counter any opposition.
  • 1995 (April 24th) The 24th was the last day of operation of the C&NW. It took place on a weekday and few people were on hand to watch the demise of a proud railroad, which once was the stellar system in the central Midwest.
Compiled by Joe Piersen

Archives Notes
Swanson and Baker timeline in the Winter 1998 issue of North Western Lines
Grant’s The Chicago &North Western
Yesterday and Today

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