For purposes of this website we will highlight the Grand Trunk Western Railroad, which while a subsidiary of the Canadian National Railway operates almost exclusively in the United States to oversee its parent's originally-controlled lines in the country. However, the GTW should not be confused with the Grand Trunk Railway, which predates even the CN and was a large Canadian line that had financial difficulties in the early 20th century forcing the government to takeover the railroad. As for the GTW, it became a fondly remembered classic line alongside the likes of all others we know today such as the Baltimore & Ohio, Pennsylvania, Chicago & North Western, etc. despite the fact that its livery was rather bland, a variation of its parent's. In any event, today the GTW is still technically a subsidiary of the Canadian National although the Class I no longer distinguishes the railroad amongst its locomotive fleet and predominantly survives in name only.
For a complete background on the GTW one needs to learn a bit about the Grand Trunk Railway. The original GTR was sponsored and chartered on November 10, 1852 by Sir Francis Hincks attempting to connect Toronto to Montreal. By 1860 the railroad had already accomplished many of its original goals and also reached into Maine via its takeover of the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad. Additionally, it had reached what is now Port Huron, Michigan via carferry service in 1859. The company flirted with bankruptcy around this time but was able to avoid total financial disaster and saw its outlook improve after the American Civil War had ended in 1865. The Grand Trunk Railway continued to expand is system to such an extent that by 1867 it had become the world's largest railroad stretching from Michigan, throughout southern Ontario and New Brunswick, and into Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire.
At its peak the GTR operated more than 1,100 miles of lines in the U.S. and another over 8,000 in Canada for a total system of more than 9,100 miles. Unfortunately, the 20th century proved the company's downfall as it expanded beyond its means by taking over the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, which stretched to British Columbia as well as another eastern system the Canada Atlantic Railway. The Grand Trunk Pacific proved not particularly profitable upon its completion in 1914 (construction had begun in 1905), which brought down the entire Grand Trunk system. This situation forced the Canadian government to take over the entire railroad in July, 1920. In 1918 the government-created Canadian National Railway was formed and on January 30, 1923 it took control of the GTR. In total, some 214 different railroads would make up the CN instantly providing it a transcontinental system.
Its lines, of course, still included operations in the United States and the new CN needed a separate American entity to manage these. As a result the GTW was created by CN on November 1, 1928 to operate its lines in the Midwest through the states of Michigan, Illinois and Indiana (its New England lines were under the direction of the Central Vermont Railway). The smaller companies that made up these routes included the original Grand Trunk Western Railway, Bay City Terminal Railway, Chicago, Detroit & Canada Grand Trunk Junction, Chicago & Kalamazoo Terminal, Detroit, Grand Haven & Milwaukee, Detroit & Huron, Grand Rapids Terminal Railroad, Michigan Air Line Railway, Pontiac Oxford & Northern Railroad, Toledo Saginaw & Muskegon Railway, (interestingly, the CN-owned Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific of Minnesota remained mostly independent).
Operating as a more-or-less an independent railroad from its parent the GTW continued to expand after its creation. In 1943 it completed the purchase of the Cincinnati Saginaw & Mackinaw, and in 1955 purchased the Muskegon Railway & Navigation Company. The original Grand Trunk Western had jointly owned the Detroit & Toledo Shore Line (the "Shore Line") with the Nickel Plate since the turn of the 20th century, which operated roughly a 50-mile line between Toledo and Detroit. This continued under the GTW with the railroad eventually obtaining the entire route from Norfolk & Western in 1981 (successor to the Nickel Plate). Moving forward in 1980 the company further expanded by obtaining the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton giving it access to southern Ohio all of the way to the Kentucky border at Ironton (the GTW, however, quickly abandoned the southern portion of the DT&I below Washington Courthouse in 1982).
While the Grand Trunk Western Railroad eventually reached into four U.S. states including Minnesota (between Crookston and Emerson, Manitoba), Illinois (to Chicago), aforementioned Ohio, and Indiana (along its route to Chicago) the company was predominantly situated in Michigan where the bulk of its lines were located. Aside from its connection to Detroit and main line to Chicago the GTW served Grand Haven and Muskegon (major carferry points), Grand Rapids, Jackson, Bay City, Caseville, and Kalamazoo. Most often Midwestern lines like the Ann Arbor, Green Bay & Western, and Detroit & Mackinac are associated with providing significant ferry service. However, the GTW was another player in Lake Michigan operations as well with a fleet of ferries including the SS Grand Haven, SS City of Milwaukee, SS Milwaukee, SS Grand Rapids, and SS Madison.
As ferry service in general declined through the 1970s the Grand Trunk ended all car movements over Lake Michigan in 1978. Also of importance was the Grand Trunk's passenger operations which provided key services, notably to Detroit and Chicago, for Canadian National's own trains in its home country. Most of the GTW's trains operated between Chicago and Toronto with names including the Maple Leaf, International Limited, Inter-City Limited and LaSalle. At Chicago, the GTW provided service to famed Dearborn Station, which was used by several American railroads including the Santa Fe, C&O, C&EI, Monon, Erie, and Wabash. It also hosted the Mohawk briefly in the late 1960s to serve Detroit and Chicago.
While the GTW most often featured a basic CN-inspired livery during the diesel era briefly and early on it did showcase a beautiful green and gold livery with a Canadian maple leaf adorning the nose or hood of units (a paint scheme shared by subsidiaries). However, this attractive design lasted only from the 1950s through the 1960s. From a railfan perspective the GTW is remembered as the last Class I system to still operate steam locomotives until 1960. After December, 1991 the GTW quietly disappeared from the public eye when Canadian National reorganized its U.S. properties, which caused individual paint schemes to no longer be needed. As a corporate entity the Grand Trunk Corporation now owns all of the CN's subsidiaries which today includes the GTW, Wisconsin Central Ltd. (formerly the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range and Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific), Illinois Central, and the Bessemer & Lake Erie. To learn more about the classic GTW please click here to visit the Grand Trunk Western Railroad Historical Society's website.