Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad

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Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad
Chicago Milwaukee St. Paul and Pacific Herald.png
MILW Map.png
Milwaukee Road system map
Reporting mark MILW
Locale Idaho
North Dakota
South Dakota
Dates of operation 1851–1986
Successor Soo Line Railroad
Track gauge 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Length 11,248 miles (18,102 kilometres)
Headquarters Chicago, Illinois

The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (often referred to as the Milwaukee Road) (reporting mark MILW), was a Class I railroad that operated in the Midwest and Northwest of the United States from 1847 until 1980, when its Pacific Extension was embargoed through the states of Montana, Idaho, and Washington. The eastern half of the system merged into the Soo Line Railroad on January 1, 1986. The company went through several official names and faced bankruptcy several times in that period. The railroad no longer exists as a separate entity, but much of its trackage continues to be used by its successor and other roads, and is commemorated in buildings like the historic Milwaukee Road Depot in Minneapolis, Minnesota and in railroad hardware still maintained by railfans, such as the Milwaukee Road 261 steam locomotive.

At the end of 1970 it operated 10,448 miles of road on 15,295 miles of track, not including subsidiary Washington Idaho & Montana. That year it carried 17,510 million ton-miles of revenue freight and 267 million passenger-miles.


Early years[edit]

The Milwaukee & Waukesha Rail Road was chartered in 1847. Before it laid its first rails in 1850, its name was changed to Milwaukee & Mississippi, and in 1851, it reached Waukesha, Wisconsin, 20 miles (32 kilometres) west of Milwaukee. The railroad reached Madison in 1854 and Prairie du Chien, on the Mississippi River, in 1857.[1][2] In 1858, the La Crosse & Milwaukee Rail Road was completed between the cities of its name, forming a second route across Wisconsin between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River. It was reorganized in 1863 as the Milwaukee & St. Paul, and in 1867 it purchased the Milwaukee & Prairie du Chien, successor to the Milwaukee & Mississippi.[1]

The Milwaukee & St. Paul ("The Milwaukee Road") acquired in 1872 the St. Paul & Chicago, which has just completed a route down the west bank of the Mississippi from St. Paul to La Crescent, opposite La Crosse. In 1873 the Milwaukee & St. Paul completed a line from Milwaukee south to Chicago. A year later it added "Chicago" to its name, creating the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway (CM&StP).[1]

In the next few years the railroad built or bought lines from Racine, Wisconsin to Moline, Illinois; from Chicago to Savanna, Illinois, and two lines west across southern Minnesota. The railroad reached Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska, in 1882, and reached Kansas City in 1887. In 1893, the CM&StP acquired the Milwaukee & Northern, which reached from Milwaukee into Michigan's upper peninsula.[1][3]

Pacific Extension[edit]

The battle over control of the Northern Pacific Railway and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad in 1901 made the Milwaukee Road aware that without its own route to the Pacific it would be at its competitors' mercy — a commodity the railroad industry was singularly short of. At the same time the Milwaukee Road — considered one of the most prosperous, progressive, and enterprising railroads in the U.S. at the time — was experiencing a change in its traffic dominance by wheat to a more balanced mix of agricultural and industrial products. Arguments against extension westward included the possibility of the construction of the Panama Canal and the presence of strong competing railroads: Union Pacific (UP), Northern Pacific, and the Great Northern Railway. Arguments for the extension banked heavily on the growth of traffic to and from the Pacific Northwest.[4]

In 1901 the president of the Milwaukee Road dispatched an engineer west to estimate the cost of duplicating Northern Pacific's line. His figure was $45 million ($1,275,660,000 today). Such an expenditure required considerable thought; not until November 1905 did Milwaukee's board of directors authorize construction of a line west to Tacoma and Seattle, Washington.[4] In 1905 and 1906 the Milwaukee Road incorporated subsidiaries in South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. The Washington company was renamed the Chicago, Milwaukee & Puget Sound Railway (CM&PS), and it took over the other three companies in 1908. It was absorbed by the CM&StP in 1912.[4]

The extension began with a bridge across the Missouri River three miles upstream from Evarts, South Dakota, at a point named Mobridge. Roadbed and rails pushed out from several points into unpopulated territory. The work went quickly, and the railroad was open to Butte, Montana in August 1908. The route from Harlowton to Lombard was that of the Montana Railroad, the "Jawbone," so named because of the contrast between the promising statements of the line's promoters and the company's perennially-weak financial position. Its mortgage was held by James J. Hill and the Great Northern Railway. Taking advantage of Hill's absence on a trip to England, the Milwaukee Road advanced the owner funds required to pay off mortgage and bought the railroad through the CM&PS.[4]

Construction was also under way to Seattle. The last spike on the line was driven near Garrison, Montana on May 14, 1909. The cost of the extension was $234 million ($6,142,066,667 today). Local passenger service was established later that year; through passenger service was inaugurated in May 1911.[4] The Milwaukee Road began car float service on Puget Sound to connect the railroad with a pair of isolated branches, one on the Olympic Peninsula and the other east from Bellingham, Washington. (The latter had rail connections, but not directly with the main line of the Milwaukee Road.)[4]

In 1912 the Milwaukee Road decided to electrify much of the Pacific Extension. The terrain of the five mountain ranges (the Belt, Rocky, Bitterroot, Saddle, and Cascade ranges), the possibility of hydroelectric power, the difficulties associated with operating steam locomotives through tunnels and in severe winter weather, and an increase in traffic all suggested electrification. The section from Harlowton, Montana to Avery, Idaho was turned over to electric operation in late 1916. Early in 1917 the Milwaukee Road decided to electrify the portion of the line from Othello, Washington to Tacoma. Electric operation on the Coast Division began in 1919, and overhead wires reached Seattle, on a 10 mi (16 km) branch off the main line, in 1927. The electrification cost $23 million ($312,262,452 today), but in 1925 the railroad reported that the savings over steam operation had already amounted to more than half that sum.[4]

The boom in the Pacific Northwest ended around 1910, and the Panama Canal opened in 1914.[4] Traffic on the Milwaukee Road's route to the Pacific came nowhere near the projections but the debt incurred in building it remained.[1][4] The route choice was questionable; it bypassed several major population centers and passed through areas with limited local traffic potential. In addition, most of the line paralleled that of the Northern Pacific.

In 1921 the Milwaukee leased the Chicago, Terre Haute & Southeastern (CTH&SE) and in 1922 acquired the Chicago, Milwaukee & Gary to gain access to the coalfields of southern Indiana via the CTH&SE. Both of those railroads were heavily in debt. The Milwaukee Road entered receivership in 1925.[1]

The company emerged from reorganization in 1928 as the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad. On June 29, 1935, the Milwaukee Road declared bankruptcy again. Despite the financial problems, the late 1930s and early 1940s were interesting times for the railroad. In 1935, the company introduced the Hiawatha, a fast steam-powered streamlined train between Chicago and the Twin Cities. It was an immediate and overwhelming success. In the next few years the train was re-equipped, service was doubled, and Hiawathas appeared on other Milwaukee routes. The cars of the Hiawatha, like most of Milwaukee Road's freight and passenger cars and many of its steam locomotives, were products of the company's shops in Milwaukee.[1]


The postwar boom brought the Milwaukee Road out of bankruptcy, and the railroad remained reasonably healthy into the 1960s. In 1955 UP moved its streamliners from the Chicago & North Western to Milwaukee's Chicago-Council Bluffs, Iowa, route and in the early 1960s Milwaukee Road modernized its Chicago suburban service and built a new station in Milwaukee. The railroad discussed merger with the Chicago & North Western and with the Rock Island.

As a condition of the creation of the Burlington Northern Railroad (BN) it was granted trackage rights on BN into Portland, Oregon; and as a condition of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad merger of the Monon Railroad line from Bedford, Indiana to Louisville, Kentucky.[1] The new connection with the Southern Pacific in Portland increased traffic from 2-4 trains per day prior to the BN merger, to 6-10 trains per day afterwards.[5]

North America's longest electrification had continued unchanged in the same two disconnected portions since its construction, with steam and later diesel power hauling trains over the 212 miles (341 kilometres) of nonelectrified territory between Avery, Idaho and Othello, Washington. With dieselization of the Milwaukee Road after World War II, it appeared that the electrification, by then 30 years old, would be dismantled, but the railroad purchased 12 electric locomotives that been built by General Electric for the Soviet Union and embargoed because of tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Milwaukee Road regauged the "Little Joes" (as they were known) from 5 feet to standard and equipped two with steam generators for passenger service. They went into service between Harlowton and Avery.[4] The electrification soldiered on for another two decades, but diesels showed up under the wires more frequently, sometimes running in multiple with the electrics. By the early 1970s much of the hardware of the electrification needed replacement. The Milwaukee Road de-energized the catenary over the Coast Division in 1972 and ended electric operation on the Rocky Mountain Division on June 16, 1974 — just as the 1973 oil crisis took hold.[4]

Decline and Bankruptcy[edit]

Railroad historian and Trains magazine contributor George Drury commented that "management had made too many wrong decisions: among them building the Pacific Extension, not electrifying between the two electrified portions (or perhaps undertaking the electrification at all), purchasing the line into Indiana, and choosing Flexivans instead of conventional piggyback."[1][6]

After several money-losing years in the early 1970s, the Milwaukee Road voluntarily entered reorganization once again on December 19, 1977. The major result of the 1977 reorganization was the abandonment in March 1980 of everything west of Miles City, Montana, to concentrate on a "Milwaukee II" system linking Chicago, Kansas City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Duluth (on BN rails from St. Paul), and Louisville.

It has been alleged that the abandonment of the western lines was caused by accounting errors. A front page Associated Press story in the Aberdeen American News on November 3, 1979 reported on testimony by David F. Miller, a consultant to the ICC's Office of Rail Public Counsel, that was released on October 26 by Montana Representative Pat Williams. Miller had calculated that the "transcontinental freight line of the Milwaukee made profits of $12.7 million in 1976, $11 million in 1977 and $2.5 million in 1978. In studying Milwaukee Road records, Miller testified, he concluded that worksheets 'indicated that there appeared to be transportation expenses, primarily train and engine crew costs, that were included as a direct cost both in the on-branch cost computation and in the off-branch cost calculation-crew costs which were, in short double counted.'"[7]

Former Milwaukee Road employee Michael Sol comments that "After 1968, all net operating revenue earned by the Milwaukee Road as a system came from its transcontinental operation. In essence, it subsidized increasing losses on the Midwestern portions of the system."[8] "Only 25% of the system mileage, mainly Lines West of Miles City, was contributing 90% of the system revenue growth in the nine year period, 1970-1978."[9]

The Milwaukee Road Archives, a web collection of Milwaukee Road documents maintained by Michael Sol, includes a report commissioned by the railroad from Booz Allen Hamilton that "showed that there was no configuration of the Company as a whole that could be profitable without the transcontinental line." [10][11][12]

Post Bankruptcy[edit]

By 1983 the Milwaukee's map had been reduced to the following:

Three railroads vied for what was left of the Milwaukee Road:

Soo Line purchased the Milwaukee Road in February 1985 and merged it on January 1, 1986. Soo subsequently sold the Milwaukee-Green Bay and New Lisbon-Tomahawk routes to the Wisconsin Central Ltd. By the time Wisconsin Central assumed operations, nearly a thousand miles of the former Milwaukee Road main line across Montana, Idaho, and Washington had been abandoned.[4]

Passenger train service[edit]

Stylized 1939 advertisement featuring a streamlined 4-6-4 class F7 steam locomotive.
Skytop car Priest Rapids, #189, in the Union Pacific paint scheme.

The Milwaukee Road aggressively marketed passenger service through much of its history, maintaining a high quality of service until the end of private intercity passenger operations in 1971. The Milwaukee prided itself on its passenger operations, providing the nation with some of its most innovative and colorful trains. The railroad's home-built equipment was among some of the best passenger equipment ever run on any American railroad. The Milwaukee's reputation for high quality service was the principal reason that UP shifted its service to the Milwaukee Road for its "City" streamliners in 1955.

The Milwaukee Road's Pioneer Limited was one of the first named trains and its colorful Hiawatha trains were among the nation's finest streamliners. The post-World War II Hiawatha trains remain a high-water mark for passenger train industrial design.

Starting in November 1955 the Milwaukee Road assumed joint operation of the Union Pacific's City of Los Angeles, City of Portland, City of Denver, and Challenger trains as well as the UP/Southern Pacific City of San Francisco. After assuming operation of the UP's services, the Milwaukee Road gradually dropped its orange and maroon paint scheme in favor of UP's Armour yellow, grey, and red, finding the latter easier to keep clean.

The Milwaukee Road's streamlined passenger services were unique in that most of its equipment was built by the railroad at its Milwaukee Menomonee Valley shops including the four generations of Hiawatha equipment introduced in 1933-34, 1935, 1937–38, and 1947-48. Most striking were the "Beaver Tail" observation cars of the 1930s and the "Skytop Lounge" observation cars by industrial designer Brooks Stevens in the 1940s. Extended "Skytop Lounge" cars were also ordered from Pullman for Olympian Hiawatha service in 1951. The Olympian Hiawatha set, as well as some full-length "Super Domes" were later sold to the Canadian National Railway.

In popular culture[edit]

  • The 1930 film Danger Lights was filmed in the Milwaukee Road's yard and shop at Miles City, Montana and on the main line.
  • The Wausau, Wisconsin depot was used as the logo of Employers Insurance of Wausau (now part of Liberty Mutual Insurance). The logo itself was a combination of the downtown depot, with a backdrop of the community's skyline.
  • On August 26, 1999, the United States Postal Service issued the 33-cent All Aboard! 20th Century American Trains commemorative stamps featuring five celebrated American passenger trains from the 1930s and 1940s. One of the five stamps featured an image of the Hiawatha, known as "Fastest Train in America", as it traveled over 100 miles per hour (160 km/h).
  • In the closing pages of The Great Gatsby, fictional narrator Nick Carraway recalls "coming back west from prep school and later from college at Christmas time." He describes riding the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul from Chicago to his unnamed hometown. The hometown of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the novel's author, was St. Paul.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Drury, George H. (1994). The Historical Guide to North American Railroads: Histories, Figures, and Features of more than 160 Railroads Abandoned or Merged since 1930. Waukesha, Wisconsin: Kalmbach Publishing. pp. 374–377. ISBN 0-89024-072-8. 
  2. ^ Patrick C. Dorin (1978). The Milwaukee Road East: America's Resourceful Railroad. Seattle: Superior Publishing Company. 
  3. ^ Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Company (1950). Four Generations on the Line: Highlights Along the Milwaukee Road's First Hundred Years. Chicago: Ringley - O'Brien Press. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Drury, George H. (1994). The Historical Guide to North American Railroads: Histories, Figures, and Features of more than 160 Railroads Abandoned or Merged since 1930. Waukesha, Wisconsin: Kalmbach Publishing. pp. 81–84. ISBN 0-89024-072-8. 
  5. ^ Sol, Michael (August 25, 2005). "The Milwaukee Road". Trains Magazine Forums. Retrieved 2014-12-31. 
  6. ^ Jones, Todd (2000). "What Really Happened". Milwaukee Road Online. Retrieved 2005-01-08. 
  7. ^ "Congress approved funds to keep Milwaukee going until Dec. 15", Aberdeen American News (Aberdeen, SD), November 3, 1979: 1 
  8. ^ Sol, Michael (October 5, 2004). "The Milwaukee Road". Trains Magazine Forums. Retrieved 2014-12-31. 
  9. ^ Sol, Michael (August 1, 2005). "The Milwaukee Road". Trains Magazine Forums. Retrieved 2014-12-31. 
  10. ^ Sol, Michael (August 28, 2005). "The Milwaukee Road". Trains Magazine Forums. Retrieved 2014-12-31. 
  11. ^ 1977 Bankruptcy files
  12. ^ The Milwaukee Road's Demise, Notes From Michael Sol

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]