The Grand Trunk Western Railroad, "The Good Track Road"

The Grand Trunk Western (GTW) was one of three notable U.S. properties owned by Canadian National Railway (others being Central Vermont and Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific).  Its network was relatively small, less than 300 miles, but its hotly contested Detroit - Chicago corridor was a vital artery allowing CN access to the Windy City.  Until the Grand Trunk Corporation was created in 1971 with an emphasis on greater efficiency and profits, GTW was a double-edged sword.  It moved considerable high-valuable freight, notably autos and autoparts, but its short-haul nature proved a bane in generating respectable income.  The history of GTW begins long ago, predating the Civil War as a small operation in Michigan.  Later, the Canadian-controlled operation managed to open a direct link into Chicago.  At the turn of the 20th century the property first gained its now well-remembered name and then following a series of government reorganizations found itself under the wing of Canadian National.  During the early 1990's, CN opted to restructure its American enterprises resulting in GTW predominantly losing its corporate image.  Today, it remains a paper corporation of CN's American holdings and important Chicago corridor.

For purposes of this article, we will highlight the Grand Trunk Western Railroad which should not be confused with the Grand Trunk Railway although the two carriers do share some . The GTR predates even CN and was once a large Canadian line that had financial difficulties in the early 20th century forcing the government's hand at reorganization.  Its history is complex although to understand the GTW's lineage a basic understanding of the Grand Trunk Railway.  It was essentially the Canadian's version of America's eastern trunk lines (Baltimore & Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York Central, and Erie) intended to link the Northeastern/New England ports with Chicago.  On November 10, 1852 the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada (GTR) was incorporated with intentions of connecting Portland, Maine with Detroit, Michigan via Montreal and Toronto.  Once this task had been completed routes to both Chicago and New York City were eyed.  The latter initiative was never accomplished although a Windy City connection was achieved.  The immediate heritage of the GTW begins when the Chicago, Detroit & Canada Grand Trunk Junction Railroad (CD&CGTJ) was formed on March 16, 1858 to connect Detroit with Port Hurton, a distance of 60 miles.  It opened for service on November 21, 1859.  As Don Hofsommer's book, "Grand Trunk Corporation: Canadian National Railways In The United States, 1971-1992" notes it was soon leased by the GTR for the purpose of forming its Detroit-Chicago connection.

Pushing Towards Chicago

It was not long before Grand Trunk interests realized that reaching Chicago would be a monumental uphill battle as Vanderbilt interests and their New York Central system were pushing their own line across Michigan.  While other carries like the Wabash, Pere Marquette, and Nickel Plate Road served the Chicago - Detroit market, it was the Vanderbilts which dominated the region via their Michigan Southern (Lake Shore & Michigan Southern) and Michigan Central.  They also controlled the stragetic Canadian Southern (CASO) linking Detroit with Buffalo, New York via southern Ontario.  As a result, the territory became quite hostile and the Grand Trunk had to fight the Commodore's son, William, to achieve its goal.  The younger Vanderbilt was ultimately outfoxed by his Canadian counterparts as the GTR pieced together a series of railroads across Michigan in 1879: the Port Huron & Lake Michigan (linking Port Huron with Flint it first opened in 1871 and totaled 66 miles); Peninsular Railroad of Michigan (opened between 1869 and 1872 it was 115 miles in length, connecting Lansing with South Bend, Indiana); and the Peninsular Railroad Company of Indiana (extending west from South Bend it had opened 45 miles to Valparaiso by 1873).

With these acquisitions, the Grand Trunk had cutoff all friendly connections to Vanderbilt's Chicago & North Eastern, which was purchased to prevent GTR's opening its own through route into Chicago.  The C&NE was only 49 miles in length, first opening in 1877.  However, it would provide GTR with the crucial link needed between Flint and Lansing.  With nowhere else to turn Vanderbilt soon capitulated and sold out to the Canadians.  As Patrick Dorin notes in his book, "The Grand Trunk Western Railroad: A Canadian National Railway," all of these properties were first operated as the Chicago & Lake Huron Railroad, which became the Chicago & Grand Trunk Railway in 1880.  Service opened to Chicago on February 8th following completion of the Chicago & State Line Extension running 47 miles from Valparaiso to Elsdon (Chicago).  It later gained access to one of the city's six great terminals, Dearborn Station, by helping to establish what later became the Chicago & Western Indiana (It also held ties in the creation of the Belt Railway of Chicago, the city's and country's first such belt line system.).  With a through route now established, GTR's attention pivoted to building up its reach across Michigan.  Much of the growth came as a result of Grand Trunk's Great Western Railway acquisition on August 12, 1882.  This was another Canadian flag that served southern Ontario from Niagara Falls to Windsor.  It also owned a notable U.S. property, the Detroit, Grand Haven & Milwaukee Railway, itself a merged system.  

The DGH&M's lineage includes the Detroit & Pontiac (opened in 1844 it operated 26 miles between its namesake cities) and Detroit & Milwaukee (built between 1855 and 1870 it operated a rather substantial network of 163 miles between Pontiac and Grand Haven).  More additions followed that decade when the Toledo, Saginaw & Muskegon Railway (it owned 96 miles from Ashley to Muskegon) was added in 1888 and the Cincinnati, Saginaw & Mackinaw (a 54-mile operation connecting Durand to Bay City) in 1890.  Finally, other notable components added around this time were the Michigan Air Line (linking Richmond to Jackson, 105 miles); Pontiac, Oxford & Port Austin (completed in 1883 it maintained 100 miles from Pontiac to Caseville); and finally the short Chicago, Kalamazoo & Saginaw (finished in 1901 it was a short branch running 11 miles from Pavilion to Kalamazoo).  While this growth was ongoing a vitally important infrastructure project was completed in 1891, the St. Clair River Tunnel between Sarnia, Ontario and Port Huron, Michigan.  It was the first bore of its kind ever completed in North America and provided an all-rail link between the Grand Trunk Railway and its Michigan properties.

Notable Passenger Services

The International Limited: (Montreal - Detroit - Chicago)

Inter-City Limited: (Montreal - Detroit - Chicago)

Maple Leaf: (Montreal - Detroit)

At that time the Grand Trunk was an impressive operation; it maintained its own 800-mile corridor from Portland, Maine to Sarnia while linking Montreal, Quebec, and Toronto.  It also controlled the Central Vermont, and Michigan roads previously mentioned.  To extend its reach and compete against the Canadian Pacific and Canadian Northern, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was formed on October 24, 1903 to build to the Pacific coast.  At this time, to simply its American holdings in the Wolverine State the Grand Trunk Western Railway was created on November 22, 1900 to manage these assets.  The vehicle behind all of this growth was Charles Hays.  He was tragically killed when the Titanic sank on April 14, 1912 and his transcontinental dreams, as well as reach the New York City market, died with him.  This event, followed by the financial Panic of 1907 and 1910 strike ended all such dreams.  In his book, "Canadian National Railway," author Tom Murray notes the carrier's heritage began in May of 1915 when the Canadian government added the National Transcontinental Railway the Intercolonial & Prince Edward Island Railways which it had controlled for many years.

The Grand Trunk Western Railroad

It then added the financially troubled transcontinental Canadian Northern (Quebec City  Vancouver) in December of 1918, followed soon afterwards by the Grand Trunk Pacific.  On June 6, 1919 the holding company known as Canadian National Railway was created under which all the above were placed.  The properties were then collectively known as the Canadian National Railways.  Another important addition occurred in January of 1923 when CN picked up the Grand Trunk Railway and its affiliates.  As a means of further corporation simplification the Grand Trunk Western Railroad (GTW) was born on November 1, 1928 to operate all rail assets between Detroit and Chicago.  Included here was the Grand Trunk Western Railway; Detroit, Grand Haven & Milwaukee; Chicago, Detroit & Canada Grand Trunk Junction; Toledo, Saginaw & Muskegon; Pontiac, Oxford & Northern; Detroit & Huron; Michigan Air Line; Chicago & Kalamazoo Terminal; Bay City Terminal; and Grand Rapids Terminal.  The new GTW also continued holding an interest in terminal carriers Belt Railway of Chicago, Chicago & Western Indiana, and the Detroit & Toledo Short Line while also maintaining car ferry service between Muskegon and Milwaukee via the Grand Trunk - Milwaukee Car Ferry Company.

Interestingly, throughout much of its corporate existence as a separate CN property, Grand Trunk Western struggled to earn a profit despite the importance of corridor.  For reasons already mentioned, it moved high-value freight, and was an important artery of Detroit's automobile manufacturers, but its short-haul nature made profits difficult to procure.  It struggled through the downturn of the Great Depression and then witnessed relatively strong performance during the traffic blitzkrieg of World War II.  After the conflict, however, things were different.  The GTW, by the 1960's, was posting at least $8 million in deficits annually.  For many years parent CN had paid little mind to its subsidiary's struggles.  As a result, nothing changed at GTW with little innovative thought and the same old, business as usual approach employed.  By the 1960's CN finally began exploring ways to improve services at GTW, partially brought about through complaints of a major customers, General Motors.  The idea of outright sale to a large American Class I was also mulled but ultimately headquarters in Montreal decided a new team, led by Robert Bandeen, would point the carrier in a new, and hopefully more profitable, direction.  

One tactic involved placing all the U.S. properties under one holding company.  The Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific, in particular, was the most lucrative of three and could help mask the GTW's losses.  As a result the Grand Trunk Corporation was born in 1971; officially, GTW, Central Vermont, and DW&P were placed under it on July 31st that year.  The move immediately helped as Mr. Hofsommer's book notes that GTC posted a net income of $3.9 million for 1972.  Another big help involved the retirement of money-losing passenger services when Amtrak launched on May 1, 1971.  By then, GTW was losing more than $2 million annually and was happy to pay the required entry fee to shed these trains; final runs were made on April 30th.  As Bandeen and his group worked to further cut the red ink and increase earnings efforts were aimed at eliminating anything which did not make money.  In December of 1973, GTW got out of the commuter when it turned over its Detroit - Pontiac services to the Southeastern Michigan Transportation Authority (SEMTA).  Then there was the car ferries, another deficit producer.  Until January 1, 1954, GTW worked in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Railroad at Muskegon to run ferries into Milwaukee, interchanging there with the Chicago & North Western, Soo Line, and Milwaukee Road.

Through the late 1960's the service still provided more than 800,000 tons in freight annually while also providing for a bypass around congested Chicago.  Unfortunately, operating the boats (City of Milwaukee, Grand Rapids, and Madison) was extremely expensive and GTW was finally given Interstate Commerce Commission authorization to discontinue the service. The last run made from Milwaukee to Muskegon when the City of Milwaukee tied up in the latter port on October 31, 1978.  The decade also saw a handful of abandonments including Jackson - Lakeland (35 miles) and Coopersville - Grand Haven (15 miles).  Other improvements included the purchase of new road-switchers from Electro-Motive, implementation of centralized traffic control (CTC), and laying heavy welded-rail.  In 1975 the railroad began marketing itself as the "Good Track Road" and introduced a new red, white, and blue livery featuring a stylized "GT."  Management worked hard to bring in new traffic and this effort also paid off by launching trailer-on-flatcar (TOFC) service, oil trains, and food products.  By the end of the 1970's, GTW was posting a net profit.

The 1980's proved a turning point for the railroad.  As the merger movement played out across the United States and other carrier's struggled, GTW watched carefully as it looked for further growth via acquisition.  It picked up the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton in 1980, which offered additional access to customers in the Detroit area (notably Ford's gigantic River Rouge Complex), interchanges with Class I's across Ohio, and access into Cincinnati via Conrail trackage rights (the southern third of the DT&I system was soon abandoned below Washington Court House).  It then took the extremely bold initiative in 1982 at purchasing the slimmed-down, bankrupt Milwaukee Road by acquiring the entirety of its $250 million in debt.  While this fabled Midwestern no longer reached the Pacific coast it provided incredible opportunity by providing access to Louisville, Kansas City, and the Twin Cities.  From a network and public standpoint, marriage with the GTW made the most sense.  It appeared the marriage would happen until Chicago & North Western and Soo Line both filed applications in between the summer of 1983 (C&NW) early January of 1984 (Soo) to submit their own bids.  Both carriers not only offered to take on the debt but also pay an insanely high price.  

Steam Locomotive Roster

Numbers

2664-2683

2684

3515-3519

3516 (2nd)*

3720-3724

3740-3747**

3748-3757

5627-5631

5632-5634

6037-6041

6312-6336

6405-6410

7474-7498

7519-7521

7522-7526

8300-8304

8305-8319

8320-8329

8340-8349

8370-8381

Wheel Arrangement

2-8-0

2-8-0

2-8-2

0-8-2

2-8-2

2-8-2

2-8-2

4-6-2

4-6-2

4-8-2

4-8-4

4-8-4

0-6-0

0-6-0

0-6-0

0-8-0

0-8-0

0-8-0

0-8-0

0-8-0

Class

N-4-d

N-4-e

S-1-g

S-1-g

S-1-h

S-3-b

S-3-c

K-4-a

K-4-b

U-1-c

U-3-c

U-4-b

O-18-b

O-18-d

0-19-a

P-5-a

P-5-b

P-5-c

P-5-e

P-5-g

Builder

Alco

Alco

Alco

Alco

Alco

Alco

Alco

Alco

Baldwin

Baldwin

Alco

Lima

Lima

Lima

Alco

Alco

Alco

Lima

Baldwin

Baldwin

Date Built/Notes

1907-1911

1911

1918

1918

1918

1923

1924

1924

1929

1925

1942

1938

1920

1923

1919

1923

1924

1927

1927

1929

*  Rebuilt from 2-8-2 #3516.

** #3740 renumbered #4076, #3742 to #4078, #3744 to #4079, and #3745 to #4080.

Diesel Locomotive Roster

Numbers

73

78-79

1000-1003

1500-1503

1509-1519

1950-1951

4134-4139

4427-4441

4539-4546

4552-4557

4600-4629

4700-4707

4900-4901

4907-4922

4930-4933

4950-4952

5700-5708

5709-5734

5800-5811

5812-5836

5844-5849

5850-5861

5900-5929

5930-5937

6200-6204

6250-6254

6400-6404

6405-6425

7010-7016

7017-7019

7225-7232

7262-7268

7900-7914

7966-7974

8026-8027

8034-8035

8082-8090

8091-8111

8119-8121

8162

8196-8205

9006-9027

Model Type

Boxcab

SC

CS-9

SW1200

SW1200

RS-1

GP9

GP9

GP9

GP9

GP9R

GP18

GP9

GP9

GP9

GP18

GP38-2

GP38-2

GP38AC

GP38-2

GP38-2

GP38-2

SD40

SD40-2

GP38

SD38

GP40

GP40-2

SW9

Sw1200

SW900

SW900

NW2

NW2

S-4

S-4

S-4

S-2

S-2

S-4

S-4

F-3

Builder

J.G. Brill Company

Electro-Motive

Alco

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Alco

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Electro-Motive

Alco

Alco

Alco

Alco

Alco

Alco

Alco

Electro-Motive

Date Built/Notes

1926, Acquired 1934

1938, Ex-#7800-7801

1979-1980, Rebuilt S-4's

1955

1957-1960

1957

1958-1959

1954

1957

1957

Rebuilt GP9's

1960

1954

1957

1958

1960

1972

1972, Ex-MP

1971

1977-1980

1977, Ex-P&LE

1978, Ex-Rock Island

1969-1970

1975, Ex-MP

1966-1969, Ex-DT&I

1969-1971, Ex-DT&I

1968, Ex-D&TI

1972-1973, Ex-DT&I

1952-1953

1955

1956

1958

1941-1942

1947-1948

1953

1955

1955

1942-1946

1947, Ex-CN

1951, Ex-CV

1956

1948

The above roster information is courtesy of "The Grand Trunk Western Railroad: A Canadian National Railway" by Patrick Dorin and Don Hofsommer's, "Grand Trunk Corporation: Canadian National Railways In The United States, 1971-1992."



By the time the war was over C&NW had bid a staggering $781 million and Soo $571 million (Soo was ultimately the winner by bankruptcy Judge Thomas McMillen).  With this defeat the GTW and Grand Trunk Corporation settled into a regional role providing the best service possible for its parent. In the early 1990's CN opted to further simplify its American holdings by largely eliminating their identities when "CN North America" in December of 1991.  As Mr. Hofsommer's book points out the move integrated marketing and operations for purposes of "introducing a single system [for] seamless transportation" of customers as the railroad put it.  A few years later, in 1995 CN itself was spun-off as a private, independent company that no longer carried any ownership under the Canadian government and remains so to this day.  Interestingly, while the GTW had failed in its Milwaukee Road purchase, CN eventually did spread its way across the Midwest in some capacity when it purchased Illinois Central in 1998.  The legendary "Main Line of Mid-America" offered access to Omaha as well as a corridor running the spine of America into New Orleans.

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