The Green Bay and Western Railroad, The Green Bay Route

The Green Bay and Western Railroad, also known as the "Green Bay Route," was a bridge line connecting Green Bay and central Wisconsin with Winona, Minnesota. The GB&W’s origins date as far back as the mid-19th century and the railroad is best remembered for the movement of auto part and agricultural products. However, to railfans the Green Bay Route is best remembered for its large all-Alco fleet of diesel locomotives as the railroad possessed an impressive fleet of various models from the builder. The downfall of the GB&W was its loss of interchange and car ferry traffic. By the late 1980s the railroad had lost many of its connections with its western interchange partners as a result of mergers and bankruptcies. Couple this with the downfall of carfloat movements (which the GB&W depended heavily on) and the railroad was destitute by the early 1990s during which time it became part of Wisconsin Central Ltd., itself purchased by Canadian National in the fall of 2001.  

The GB&W's history began as an interest by its owners to lay claim to the freight traffic originating and terminating along the northern Mississippi River and ferry this traffic to the growing city of Green Bay. And so, things began in 1866 with the chartering of the Green Bay & Lake Pepin Railway (after the Green Bay & Minnesota Railroad of 1853 had fallen through). Three years later, building from Green Bay the fledgling railroad had reached New London, nearly 40 miles to the west and by 1873 the main route that would become the GB&W reached Winona, Minnesota some 214 miles away. 

To better reflect the railroad’s new name it was changed to the Green Bay & Minnesota Railroad that year, at the same time coming under the control of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western (the Lackawanna). After the main line to Winona was completed the new railroad found traffic and profits hard to come by and after two bankruptcies emerged as the now-famous Green Bay and Western Railroad in 1896.  The extent of the GB&W was reached in 1906 once it took control of the Ahnapee & Western Railway, which connected the railroad with Kewaunee and Sturgeon Bay where carfloat/barge operations were established with both the Ann Arbor Railroad to Frankfort, Michigan and the Pere Marquette (later Chesapeake & Ohio) to Ludington, Michigan.

The Green Bay Route reached its fullest extent in 1934 when president Homer McGee, who remained at the helm for 28 years, oversaw fast improvements and upgrades to the railroad’s infrastructure, property, and equipment. After improving the main line to reach speeds of over 50 mph he phased out steam locomotives with more efficient diesels from Alco (apparently the GB&W purchased nearly all Alcos due to its success with the builder during the steam era).  With its profitable carfloat operations in the east the railroad also had extensive interchange points in the west with railroads including the Ahnapee & Western Railway (Casco Junction, Wisconsin); Chicago & Northern Western (Green Bay, Merrillan, New London, and Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin and Winona, Minnesota); Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (East Winona and Winona, Minnesota); the Milwaukee Road (Green Bay and Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin and Winona, Minnesota); and the Soo Line (Black Creek, Plover, Stevens Point, and Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin).

The downfall of the GB&W began in 1978 when it was purchased by the Itel Corporation. While ownership by Itel did not directly hurt the railroad it’s loss of traffic could not be turned around and by the early 1980s the Green Bay & Western was seeing a mere one carfloat movement daily after the Ann Arbor discontinued the service. By 1990 car ferry service ceased altogether and the GB&W was nearly destitute. Finally, with fortunes not improving, a few years later in 1993 the GB&W was purchased by the Fox Valley & Western Railroad, a subsidiary of the new Wisconsin Central system (Wisconsin Central, Ltd.).

Diesel Locomotive Roster

The American Locomotive Company

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
S1102-1031941, 19492
RS27310, 316-318, 902-9031960-19626
C424311-314, 319-3221963-19658
FA-1501-503, 506-5071947-19495
RSD152400, 2403-24071959-19606

General Electric

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
70-Tonner600-601 (Ahnapee & Western)19522

Steam Locomotive Roster

Class Type Wheel Arrangement
B-25, B-35Mogul2-6-0
D-47, D-48Mikado2-8-2

Soon after the Wisconsin Central abandoned most of the original GB&W main line. In 2001 the WC itself was purchased by the Canadian National Railway, leaving what little is left of the original Green Bay & Western under the Class I's control.  If you are interested in learning more about the GB&W please consider joining the Green Bay & Western Historical Society. The society is a relatively new organization but is dedicated to preserving the history of the Green Bay Route and your support and help in not only contributing to that effort but also the growth of the society would be very welcomed and deeply appreciated. 

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