Chicago Great Western Railroad

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Chicago Great Western Railroad
Reporting mark CGW
Locale Illinois
Dates of operation 1885–1968
Successor Chicago & North Western Railway
Track gauge 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) 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 2,474 million net ton-miles of revenue freight and 4 million passenger miles; at the end of that year it operated 1,469 miles of road and 2,117 miles of track. On July 1st 1968 it merged with the Chicago & North Western Railway (C&NW), which abandoned most of CGW's trackage.


Stickney era[edit]

CGW, circa 1897

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, Minneapolis & 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]

1907 CGW ad

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[edit]

CGW's Blue Bird

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., replaced Stickney as president. Felton realized that the railroad could not survive in the fiercely competitive markets it served without an ambitious and sustained effort to innovate and modernize. New rails, new locomotives including several Mallet locomotives (which set a precedent for the railroad acquiring large steam locomotives with substantial horsepower) pulled ever-longer freight trains over the system, and gasoline-powered motorcars to replace steam power on the lightly used passenger trains, were hallmarks of this rehabilitation.

During this time period the CGW purchased an innovative 'Breach' Battery powered motorcar, equipped with 220 type A8H Edison nickel-steel batteries for power and 10 type A8H cells for light. This battery powered motorcar arrived from Breach, in 1912 [2] and during trial run speeds of 40 mph were obtained on level track, 28.6 mph on a 1 percent grade. In addition CGW had purchased four McKeen gasoline cars in 1910, and it continued the motorization of its passenger trains with the purchase of Electro-Motive's first gas-electric car(M-300) in 1924. 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.[citation needed] In 1929 CGW converted three old McKeen cars to a deluxe gas-electric train, the Blue Bird, for service between Minneapolis and Rochester, Minnesota.

Joyce era[edit]

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[edit]

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. 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 joined a trend that it was thought 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] One of the reasons cited for the demise of so much CGW trackage is that the C&NW only wanted the CGW line to Kansas City, and considered the rest of the system surplus. After the liquidation of the Rock Island in 1980, the C&NW acquired the ex-Rock Island route to Kansas City and abandoned most of the ex-CGW route.[7]

Passenger operations[edit]

1906 blotter promoting CGW's passenger service
Chicago Great Western Limited
CGW 116A on display at Oelwein, Iowa

CGW was not a noteworthy passenger carrier, although it did field several named trains mostly running between Chicago's Grand Central Station 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.[citation needed] CGW's most notable passenger trains from its major terminal cities included:[8]

  • 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


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i 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. 75–77. ISBN 0-89024-072-8. 
  2. ^ a b Railway Age Gazette Magazine November 15, 1912
  3. ^ Chicago Daily Tribune. December 28, 1934.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  4. ^ Chicago Daily Tribune. February 16, 1941.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  5. ^ Chicago Daily Tribune. March 3, 1965.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  6. ^ Chicago Daily Tribune. July 1, 1968.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  7. ^
  8. ^ CGW Ticket Folder; April 1930

Further reading[edit]

  • Hastings, Philip R. (1980). Chicago Great Western Railway. Carstens. OCLC 6806250. 
  • Grant, H. Roger (1984). The Corn Belt Route: A History of the Chicago Great Western Railroad Company. ISBN 0-87580-095-5. 
  • Bee, Roger; Brown, Gary; Luecke, John C. (October 1984). Chicago Great Western in Minnesota. Blue River Pub Co; 1st Edition. ISBN 0-930431-00-6. 
  • Edson, W. D. (Spring 1986). "Locomotives of the Chicago Great Western". Railroad History: p 86–113. ISSN 0090-7847. 
  • Fiore, David J. Sr. (July 24, 2006). The Chicago Great Western Railway. Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 0-7385-4048-X. 
  • Luecke, John C. (2009). More Chicago Great Western in Minnesota. Grenadier Publications. 

External links[edit]