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.
A haven for Alcos was the Green Bay & Western; seen here is C424 #321 and #319 rolling across the C&NW diamond at Merrillan, Wisconsin on September 18, 1982. Until operations ended in the early 1990s the railroad used almost exclusively Alcos.
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 Chesapeake & Ohio Railway to
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).
A rebuilt low-nose RS3u #308 switches Norwood Yard in Green Bay on September 25, 1987.
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,
A Trio of Alco Centuries are still hard at work after more than three decades of regular service as they ready their train to leave Norwood Yard on August 22, 1991.
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