The Chicago Great Western Railway, The Corn Belt Route

The Chicago Great Western Railway was one of the Midwest's less-known granger lines.  It largely kept to itself with a focus towards innovation, customer service, and modernity to maintain an efficient and effective business.  The 1,500-mile carrier was a David among Goliath's surrounding by roads nearly or over 10,000 route miles in length like the Burlington, Milwaukee Road, and Chicago & North Western. While its system was not large it did reach many notable markets such as Chicago, St. Paul/Minneapolis, Omaha, and Kansas City.  What the railroad lacked in size it more than made up for in customer service. Always the innovator the CGW was constantly looking to reach new customers, streamline operations, cut costs, and generally carry out any measure to improve its standing.  Its size, stifling regulations, rising costs, and competition from other transportation modes eventually brought about its end.  The much larger C&NW, in an effort to reach the Kansas City gateway, purchased the Corn Belt Route in the late 1960's and set about abandoning much of its network.

Predecessors Of The Chicago Great Western

What became one of the great Midwestern railroads would not have happened without the vision and hard work of Alpheus Beede (A.B.) Stickney.  While the immediate heritage of the Chicago Great Western traces back to the 1880's the company's roots can be traced back to the Chicago, St. Charles & Mississippi Air Line Railroad (CStC&MAL) organized in 1850 to link Chicago with the Mississippi River.  There was some grading carried out by its promoters but ultimately never secured the financial backing needed to actually begin construction.  There were numerous such projects launched around this time to link Chicago from either the east or west.  Hopeful visionaries not only realized the growing importance of this city but also the Midwest's traffic potential of agriculture and natural resources (timber and iron ore to the north and coal to the south).  With the CStC&MAL project going nowhere the Minnesota & Northwestern Railroad (M&NW) was granted a charter by the Minnesota state legislature on March 4, 1854.  According to historian H. Roger Grant's authoritative book, "The Corn Belt Route: A History Of The Chicago Great Western Railroad Company," the M&NW was to build, "...from a point on the North West shore of Lake St. Anthony and St. such a point on the northern boundary of the State of Iowa - as the board of Directors may designate; which shall be selected with reference to the best route to the City of Dubuque."

Chicago Great Western's Notable Passenger Trains

Blue Bird: (Twin Cities - Rochester)

Bob-O-Link: (Chicago - Rochester)

Great Western Limited: (Chicago - Twin Cities)

Legionnaire: (Chicago - Twin Cities)

Mills Cities Limited: (Kansas City - Twin Cities)

Minnesotan: (Chicago - Twin Cities)

Nebraska Limited: (Twin Cities - Omaha)

Omaha Express: (Twin Cities - Omaha)

Omaha Limited: (Twin Cities - Omaha)

Rochester Special: (Twin Cities - Rochester)

Red Bird: (Twin Cities - Rochester)

Twin Cities Express: (Twin Cities - Omaha)

Twin Cities Limited: (Omaha - Twin Cities)

This project also ran into trouble although it may have had more success had it not been for the financial Panic of 1857.  As with the CStC&MAL nothing more happened with the M&NW project until A.B. Stickney got involved.  Along with business partner and investor William Marshall the two purchased the company's 10,000 shares outstanding believing the road could be turned into a successful operation if built.  By then, Stickney was no stranger to the railroad industry.  He was born in Maine on June 17, 1840 and became interested in the railroad industry after the Civil War.  The energetic and sharp young man worked his way up through ranks and several different railroads; he helped build predecessors of the Chicago & North Western and then went to work for James J. Hill's St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway (early component of the Empire Builder's later Great Northern Railway).  He later found top positions at Canadian Pacific and another Midwestern granger, the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway, before going off on his own and acquiring the M&NW's assets.

With Stickney at the helm the M&NW project quickly took off as he began track surveys for a 110-mile line from St. Paul to Mona, Iowa where a connection was established with the Cedar Falls & Minnesota (leased by the Illinois Central).  Actual construction of the route began in 1884 and was officially ready for service on September 27, 1885.  Having a great deal of experience and history of both managing and building railroads in the hotly contested Midwestern market Stickney realized that for his venture was to sustain long term success it must connect with the largest cities.  There was none larger, of course, than Chicago and he quickly made reaching America's railroad capital a top priority.  During May of 1885 Stickney acquired the assets of the Dubuque & Northwestern Railroad, a system originally incorporated on June 20, 1883 as a narrow-gauge to connect Dubuque with an unspecified northwesterly point (" run in a northwestern direction into Minnesota and Dakota and connect with the Northern Pacific...").  Before any construction could take place the road encountered financial troubles which allowed for Stickney's involvement.  

With a new direction, Stickney would utilize the D&NW as part of his Chicago main line.  It would build a 50-mile line west from Dubuque and reach Compton (near Lamont).  From there, another new segment would be constructed from the existing M&NW at Hayfield, running in a southeasterly direction.  The D&NW began construction on July 29, 1885 and the first eight miles was opened to Durango by year's end.  Into 1886 the project picked up while at the same time the M&NW began work on its section.  On October 20, 1886 a through route from Dubuque, along the Mississippi River, to St. Paul was completed and ready for service.  The 253-mile pike was still a relatively small operation in comparison to the surrounding and much larger systems like the Chicago & North Western, Rock Island, Burlington, and Milwaukee Road.  However, considering the relatively late time period in which his system was built it is rather surprising Stickney accomplished what he did.  While the 1880's witnessed more trackage laid across the country than during any other decade, the big grangers mentioned above were already well-established and used a great deal of resources to keep out potential new threats.

While the D&NW/M&NW projects were under way Stickney established a new system, the Minnesota & Northwestern Railroad of Company of Illinois. It was officially incorporated on February 25, 1886 and would build a direct link to Chicago via Dubuque.  Once again Stickney wasted little time in getting the project under way as construction commenced that same July.  The line would not actually reach downtown Chicago but the nearby suburb of Forest Home (Forest Park) and then utilize trackage rights over what later became the Baltimore & Ohio Chicago Terminal.  By February of 1887 the 97 mile line from Forest Home to South Freeport was finished although regular service did not commence until that summer.  Part of the route, which included 27 miles from Forest Home to St. Charles, utilized the grading work of the moribund Chicago, St. Charles & Mississippi Air Line.  To reach home rails into Dubuque trackage rights were secured over the Illinois Central until construction of this final extension began in March of 1887.  After only a year of work the 50-mile line was completed in early 1888 and opened for service on February 9th.

The Chicago main line contained one notable infrastructure project, the 2,493-foot Winston Tunnel.  It proved an expensive and contentious issue throughout its history.  The bore was completed in early 1888 but the unstable blue clay through which it was built required extensive maintenance over the years and a major rebuild in 1902.  As the Chicago line was being finished three major events occurred during 1887: first, Stickney acquired the small Dubuque & Dakota on January 19th which branched from the M&NW at Sumner, reached Waverly, and extended as far west as Hampton; later that year he added the much larger Wisconsin, Iowa & Nebraska. This road had opened a section of track from Waterloo to Des Moines, Iowa (as well as a branch to Cedar Falls).  Stickney connected it with his railroad at Oelwein and then proceeded to push southward into Kansas City reaching as far as St. Joseph in May of 1888.  From there he chartered a new company, the Leavenworth & St. Joseph which was completed to Beverly along the east bank of the Missouri River in December of 1890.  To reach Kansas City directly, trackage rights were carried out over the Rock Island, Union Pacific, and Kansas City, Wyandotte & Northwestern (Missouri Pacific). Finally, while all of this was ongoing his entire enterprise was renamed as the Chicago, St. Paul & Kansas City Railroad in December of 1887 to better reflect the company's future intentions.  

The Chicago Great Western Railway Is Born

As Stickney eyed a westward extension towards the important western gateway of Omaha, where interchange could be established with the transcontinental Union Pacific, his railroad ran into financial hardships and entered receivership on January 16, 1892.  The bankruptcy was short-lived, however, and assets of the CStP&KC were acquired (via lease, the CStP&KC was later dissolved in 1893) by the newly formed Chicago Great Western Railway on July 1st of that same year while Stickney remained in control of the company.  Interestingly, it weathered the crippling financial Panic of 1893 but was unable to continue the road's expansion plans.  One notable event which took place that decade was moving the primary shops from South St. Paul to Oelwein, Iowa.  It was the exact center point of the Great Western system and opened in April of 1899.  The facility contain locomotive and car repair shops, back shops, store house, and other buildings related to maintaining the company's equipment and infrastructure.  A few years later, in 1904, a massive 40-stall roundhouse was completed.

By the early 20th century the railroad's financial situation had greatly improved.  It had already opened its only branch in Illinois to DeKalb, a 6-mile spur running via Sycamore that opened in October of 1895 as the subsidiary DeKalb & Great Western Railway.  It also began branching out to the east and west of its main line south of the Twin Cities during the 1890's, a process which continued into the early 1900's.  Most of this trackage came via acquisition of the Wisconsin, Minnesota & Pacific in 1899 which by 1903 connected Mankato to the west, crossed the Great Western at Randolph, then proceed south to link Red Wing, Bellechester (via a short branch), and Rochester.  The latter town also contained a westward spur running back to the CGW main line at Dodge Center.  Finally, an extension from Rochester headed east to Winona and south to another CGW connection at McIntire, Iowa before terminating at Osage.  The last significant Great Western component was the extension into Omaha.

It began with the takeover of the Mason City & Fort Dodge in March of 1901, sold by close friend James J. Hill.  The pike was originally completed between its namesake cities on October 24, 1886 and once under Chicago Great Western control, Stickney eyed an extension into Omaha.  First, the 9 miles from Manly to Mason City had to be closed and was ready for service by November 1, 1901.  Then, new construction was carried out west of Dodge City in August of 1901.  Passing through small agricultural communities like Carroll and Minden before reaching Council Bluffs in the late summer of 1903.  Finally, a trackage rights agreement was secured with Union Pacific later that November to cross the Missouri River and reach Omaha Union Station.  With this the Chicago Great Western Railway was complete, operating a network of 1,458 route miles.  The system was the classic granger, relying heavily on agricultural traffic while other freight included cement, aggregates, manufacturing, various less-than-carload movements, and interchange business (of note was the CGW's openness to work with local interurban carriers, an enterprise most of the other large railroads ignored).

The Modern "Corn Belt Route"

While the Chicago Great Western was finished by the 20th century's first decade it also entered receivership once more during 1908.  An aging Stickney, despite being given named a co-receiver of the bankrupt property quietly left the company on December 21st, electing to resign and allow the company he had built to be run by other interests.  The reorganization was brief as the Chicago Great Western Railroad took over the property's assets on August 19, 1909.  The new CGW saw stifling traffic during World War I when it was operated by the government through the United States Railroad Administration (USRA).  The good times lasted through most of the 1920's when the company's innovation could be seen when it placed gas-electric "Doodlebugs" in service between Chicago and Omaha during 1924 as a way to cut costs on this lightly-patronized trains.  The company also began using similar McKeen Cars for light-density services.  The good times of the "Roarin '20's" would not last, however, as the Great Depression of October, 1929 hit the country and railroad industry quite hard.  The Great Western at first weathered the troubles but eventually slipped into bankruptcy once more on February 28, 1935.

This was the decade the railroad would also be given its now-classic name, the Chicago Great Western when the CStP&KC was reorganized.  Like all granger roads the CGW first and foremost served the farmlands, the territory which it operated through and it did this successfully for over 70 years.  However, unlike many other railroads it did not embrace the streamliner concept and only kept a modest passenger train fleet before it finally gave up on the business altogether in the mid-1960s when competition from the highways and other railroads made the company realize that it was fruitless to continue the money-losing operation.  Prior to this, however, the railroad realized the mediocrity of the passenger business. As early as the 1920s it was looking for innovative and cheaper methods of carrying about its passenger operations, especially on light branch lines that made little, if any, revenue at all hauling people. It did this by purchasing a number of gas-electric motorcars, which were typically single car operations that were powered by conventional gasoline engines and could handle the job much more cheaply than a steam/diesel locomotive and coaches. 

Because of the railroad’s frugal attitude it was quick to adopt the diesel-electric concept and the efficiencies which could be gained from it. The Chicago Great Western so embraced diesels that it was one of the very first Class Is to entirely dieselize, completing the transformation prior to 1950, in 1949 (many railroads were still operating vast steam fleets at that time)! Another concept the railroad was famous for by means of cost savings, included very long freight trains, sometimes nearing 200 cars in length.  For the CGW’s small size the railroad interestingly had the future TOFC (Trailer-On-Flat-Car) innovation (also known as "piggyback") to its credit by being one of the first to pioneer the concept in the 1930s as a means to combat the ever-increasing truck traffic threat, especially when the new interstate highways were being constructed in the 1950s. 

Diesel Locomotive Roster

The American Locomotive Company

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity

The Baldwin Locomotive Works

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity

The Electro-Motive Corporation/Electro-Motive Division

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
NW216-31, 421948-194917
TR258A-66A, 58B-66B1948-194918
F3A101A-115A, 101C-115C, 150-1521947-194933
F3B101B-112B, 101D-104D1947-194916
F7B113B-116B, 108D-116D, 116E, 116F, 116G1949-195116

Steam Locomotive Roster

Class Type Wheel Arrangement
B-3 Through B-8Switcher0-6-0
C-8 Through C-14American4-4-0
D-1 Through D-4Mogul2-6-0
E-1 Through E-7Ten-Wheeler4-6-0
F-2 Through F-7bPrairie2-6-2
G-1 Through G-4Consolidation2-8-0
H-1, J-2 Through J-2sSwitcher0-8-0
K-1 Through K-6Pacific4-6-2
L-1 Through L-3Mikado2-8-2
M-1Santa Fe2-10-2
T-1 Through T-3Texas2-10-4

Despite the railroad’s attempt to remain as efficient as possible by the 1960s traffic was just drying up. It was not the only railroad suffering, however, as many of the granger roads were also facing traffic crises, as America’s Heartland region could simply no longer support so many railroads. The railroad had talked with many neighboring railroads over the years about possible mergers but none allowed for much in the way of savings. Eventually the CGW would find a partner in the way of the Chicago & North Western and the merger took place in 1968. While the merger with the C&NW signaled the end of the CGW the railroad likely had no other alternative as traffic was simply no longer able to support the railroad and it likely would have fallen into another bankruptcy. The CGW was certainly one of the more interesting granger roads that will forever be remembered for its innovation and commitment to not only itself but also the customers which it served.

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