The Chicago and North Western Railway, Route of the "400"
Of all the many granger roads which sprawled out across the Midwest, the
Chicago and North Western Railway is likely the best remembered of all.
When the railroad was merged unto the Union Pacific in 1995 it was one
of the oldest railroads in the Midwest, its name unchanged since 1859.
Because of its age the C&NW actually has the distinction of being
the first railroad to operate a train out of Chicago, the Pioneer. The North Western's main line into that city is also a key link in the Union Pacific’s empire today. While its eye-catching green and yellow paint no longer adorns locomotives today the 'North Western's legacy certainly continues to live on. Today, large sections of the C&NW have been abandoned or severed while others remain important corridors under UP.
A tired and dirty Chicago & North Western E8A #508 was relegated to commuter service by the date of this photo as it rolls through Western Avenue in Chicago on May 26, 1981.
The very familiar 'North Western name has its roots dating
back to the late 1840s when the Galena & Chicago Union was chartered
to reach Freeport, Illinois and the Mississippi River from Chicago,
which it accomplished via two separate lines. The other railroad to
make up the original C&NW was the Chicago & Fond du Lac,
chartered to build throughout northeastern Illinois and the UP of
Michigan. The C&NW was born in 1859 when the C&FL was
reorganized as the Chicago and North Western and then merged with the
G&CU in 1864. After the CN&W’s formation it began to aggressively expand and grow, mostly in the form of acquisitions and mergers although it did construct a number of its own lines, particularly branch lines to serve the Heartland and agricultural
By the late 1860s the railroad had completed its most
important line, which connected Council Bluffs, Iowa with Chicago,
essentially a straight shot across Illinois and Iowa (this is the line
used today by Union Pacific to reach and serve Chicago, it sees dozens
of trains daily). Throughout much of the C&NW’s life it did two things; serve the
Heartland and northern Great Lakes regions as well as ferry traffic to
and from Chicago, particularly the Union Pacific, a close ally for
years. The railroad’s final growth period came during the late 1950s
when it acquired the Litchfield & Madison giving the CN&W
entrance to St. Louis. Other acquisitions included the much larger
roads of the Minneapolis & St. Louis in 1960 and Chicago Great
Western in 1968, totaling nearly 3,000 miles in additional trackage.
A C&NW GP9 and slug BU-2 are doing some switching work at the yard in Superior, Wisconsin during August of 1976. By this date much of the road's motive power had a dusty and dirty appearance due to financial troubles.
While this swelled the railroad’s size to over 10,000 total rail miles
it lost much of this in the 1970s when America’s breadbasket could no
longer support so many railroads and thus the C&NW dumped many of
these unprofitable lines. Aside from the North Western’s freight operations it was quite
successful with its passenger operations as well, both its own and those
of the Union Pacific. It’s most famous was its fleet of ”400”’s, streamlined trains which competed with the likes of the Milwaukee Road’s Hiawathas and the Burlington’s Zephyrs.
While never quite as successful as the other competitors’ trains it
did hold its own and did well enough that the Chicago and North Western
operated an entire fleet of ”400”’s, ranging from the Twin Cities “400” and Dakota “400” to the Flambeau “400” and Peninsula “400”.
These trains served all of the railroad’s largest markets although
they slowly began to disappear as intercity passenger rail travel
dwindled starting in the 1950s and 1960s.
Aside from its long-distance trains the C&NW
also operated a number of commuter operations, particularly around the
Chicago and Milwaukee regions. To accomplish this it used bi-level cars
and was one of the first to implement the “push-pull” method of
commuter operations to save both time and money. It would, eventually,
however, rid itself of even this and turn the commuter operations over
to local and state governments. Although the railroad was no longer in the passenger business by the 1970s and 1980s it began to streamline operations and earn
healthy profits. One way it did this was by opening a modern new rail
line into the lucrative Powder River coal basin in the mid-1980s
allowing it to tap the highly demanded low-sulfur coal found in the
region. It also renewed its partnership with the Union Pacific at this
time and for the next decade the road prospered.
Until 1955 the C&NW also forwarded the Union Pacific's City fleet to Chicago, after which time the Milwaukee Road handled such duties.
Pictured here is one of the final locomotives the C&NW ever owned; C44-9W #8724 leads a unit coal train through the open farmland of Lombardville, Illinois on June 18, 1995.
Alas, however, the inevitable happened in the 1990s, like so many
roads before it the Chicago and North Western became another part of the
Union Pacific in 1995. Although the C&NW is no longer an
independent company almost all of its main lines continue to serve as
important arteries under the UP banner, especially its Powder River coal
basin line. The Union Pacific also recently paid homage to its
predecessor by painting one of its new EMD SD70ACe locomotives into a version of the railroad’s famous green and yellow
company livery and numbered 1995 after the year the C&NW was merged
into its system. Today, aside from the new EMD in heritage C&NW
colors, there are still a few in original colors although they are now
few and far between so be on the lookout for them!