The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, commonly
known as simply the Milwaukee Road, is best remembered for its Hiawatha
passenger trains and electrified main line known as the Pacific Coast
Extension or PCE. The fact that the great railroad is no longer with us
is not as disheartening as knowing how and why its end came about. Its
loyal and hardworking employees through the end were sadly cheated by upper management,
which made a series of dumbfounding decisions beginning in the 1970s
that ultimately ended in the railroad being sold to a rival in 1985.
Today, what's left of the Milwaukee is cut up amongst different
railroads and the best engineered rail line through the rugged Rockies
and Cascades is but weeds and trails, a vital transportation artery no
longer available to shippers and the American economy.
Little Joe #E21 sits along the western end of the railroad's electrified Rocky Mountain Division in Avery, Idaho during August of 1971 as it readies to depart with an eastbound manifest.
While the Milwaukee Road was another of several Midwestern
granger roads (meaning that it served the heart of America’s breadbasket
in the Midwest and plains) it clearly distinguished itself from the
many others by having a direct transcontinental line to the Port of
Seattle, which competed with the likes of the western railroads, Great
Northern (GN) and Northern Pacific (NP). Like
its name implies you can probably guess the CMStP&P's began in its
namesake city Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1847 as the Milwaukee &
Waukesha Railroad but soon changed its name as the Milwaukee &
Mississippi. Operations commenced in 1850 when it connected its two
original namesake cities (Milwaukee and Waukesha). After being renamed
and then taken over by the Milwaukee & St. Paul the M&StP became
known as the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul when it reached Chicago.
After extending out through much of the Midwest serving the Heartland
the railroad added “Pacific” to its name when it decided to build West
(this was also due to a bankruptcy in 1925), all the way to the Pacific
coast and Seattle, Washington which it reached in 1909. The Milwaukee, just a few years later in 1915, electrified its
Rocky Mountain and Coast Divisions between Harlowton, Montana and
Seattle, Washington, including south through Tacoma, a distance totaling
over 616 miles (there was a gab in this electrification between Avery,
Idaho and Othello, Washington). The electrified lines would make the
railroad a celebrity in the railfan community as few other freight
railroads boasted such a project, or electrification at all!
The Milwaukee, though, was the very last to build a main line to the
Pacific coast, a feat already completed years before by the NP and GN.
In doing so it avoided larger cities en route to the coast, sacrificing
traffic for speed. While foregoing traffic it accomplished its goal of
speed as the Milwaukee boasted the shortest and best engineered route
between Seattle and Chicago. When the piggyback revolution (i.e., truck
trailers fixed directly to railroad flat cars) caught on in the 1950s
and 1960s the railroad was one of the first to embrace it and began
service in the mid-1960s. Because of its clear advantage of a direct
route between Chicago and Seattle it soon dominated the market in the West.
Not only was the railroad famous for its electrification but also its Hiawatha
passenger trains, especially those that operated through the heartland
on its main line that reached the cities of Cedar Rapids, Iowa and
Omaha, Nebraska. Featuring steam locomotives of the Hudson (4-6-4) and
Atlantic (4-4-2) classes they
could regularly reach speeds of over 100 mph across the flat plains
along track that was virtually as straight as an arrow from Chicago to
points West and their Reduce to 90 trackside signs are legendary.
Interestingly, the Milwaukee purchased diesels from most builders but was never fond of GE products. Those which it did own were mostly used on its western lines, until the road shutdown that section of the property. Seen here are a trio of U33Cs led by #5703 as they power an ore train southbound near Homer, Minnesota on May 15, 1980.
As traffic began to drop throughout the 1960s, coupled with passenger trains that were draining
profits even further, when Amtrak was created in 1971 the railroad was
happy to rid itself of its long distance trains as well as its extensive
commuter operations in the Chicago area, the latter of which was taken
over by today’s Metra, a regional public commuter service operated with
public funds. (A common myth is that passenger trains earn profits, which is not true. Passenger trains rarely, if ever, earn
a profit simply by passenger fare, and were able to be operated for so
many years by the private railroads because freight revenues and
contracts with the United States Postal Service offset the expenses.)
With its web of branch lines in the Midwest and several other
railroads fighting for the same amount of traffic that could no longer
support so many railroads, the Milwaukee Road found itself in a hopeless
situation on the eastern half of its system (and it was unable, along
with the other railroads, to abandon most of these unprofitable lines
because government regulations did not allow for such until the 1980
introduction of the Staggers Act which deregulated the entire industry).
However, all was not lost for the Milwaukee. Its savior, for the time being, was its Pacific Extension. Even as the company’s management
began to make increasingly idiotic decisions during the 1970s (such as
scrapping the electrification just as the oil embargo hit the nation)
and defer maintenance across the entire system (which had actually begun
after the cessation of passenger trains to the west coast in 1961),
their main line to the Pacific Northwest continued to earn the company a healthy profit.
However, the company’s fate was sealed when in another short lapse of vision management decided in the late 1970s to file for bankruptcy
somehow determining that Lines West was the cause of their
profitability issues. Soon after in early 1980 the PCE was abandoned
and scrapped west of Miles City, Montana (some 1,100 miles of track!).
While the results of this and other abandonment projects on the eastern
side of the system worked to some degree
in cutting costs the now much smaller railroad, which no longer
competed for the lucrative traffic entering the Port of Seattle (which
today is booming), made for a prime merger target and in 1985 the Soo
Line Railroad purchased the company (it's unfortunate that the most
profitable lines of the Milwaukee were abandoned while the eastern
system with its many branch lines was the contributing factor to drains
on bottom line earnings).
In truth the new "Milwaukee Road II" was never as profitable as management claimed it would be and former employees
and others within the company have long stood by their testimony that
Burlington Northern officials knew before even many within the company
that the CMStP&P would file for bankruptcy. Still, while it has
often been claimed the BN took part in some kind of conspiracy and
sabotage against the MILW, from the much studying I have done this does
not appear to be the case.
All signs of the Milwaukee's collapse in the 1970s point to simple management
ineptness, top brass simply wasn't interested in operating a railroad
and there are several interesting facts that seem to conclude that this
is what happened. First, when BN was created in 1970 several
stipulations of the newly merged western giant played right into the Milwaukee's hands giving it several new traffic interchange points.
Perhaps officials never knew what they had but the
railroad's profits skyrocketed after the merger.
For instance, the CMStP&P essentially controlled the Port of
Seattle as it commanded nearly 80% of its originating traffic and also
held roughly 50% of the total container traffic originating from the
Pacific Northwest in general. In other words, the Milwaukee was
completely dominating freight volume between Chicago and Seattle (it
also didn't hurt that the railroad could shave almost a full day off
transit times compared to that of the BN). Having said that, why would a
railroad so completely controlling Pacific Northwest long-haul freight
traffic so easily bow out? Anyone with a basic understanding of profit
and loss would understand the lunacy of such a move yet this is exactly
what Milwaukee Road management did.
SD40-2 #20 is southbound through Jasonville, Indiana with its train on July 26, 1980. Before its abandonment of Lines West the Milwaukee boasted an end-to-end system stretching from Louisville, Kentucky (with trackage rights over the Louisville & Nashville) to Seattle, the furthest reaching railroad of all time prior to the mega-merger movement.
Second, for some reason, after the Pacific Extension was abandoned and ICC officials were reviewing the railroad's books they discovered expenses on the line had been double-entered. Needless to say ICC accountants were totally dumbfounded by this find and after obtaining correct figures on the route came to realize that even with the total loss of the efficient electrics after June of 1974 and virtually no maintenance done on the line during the entire decade of the 1970s, it still earned a profit!
A startling revelation of the railroad's bankruptcy is what actually caused it. Amazing as it seems, the railroad filed for bankruptcy due to the heavy volume of traffic over the PCE, which the line simply could not handle due to the extremely poor condition of the track and right-of-way (resulting from lack of maintenance). In other words, Lines West had literally been run into the ground... And finally there is the story of top management attempting to sell the railroad to Burlington Northern, and if true (which is very likely from the many MILW historians' comments I have read, such as Rob Leachman who broke this story, which comes directly from BN executive at the time, Bob Downing) would make sense of why the railroad was left for dead from the early 1970s onward.
Steeple-cab motor #E80 performs its daily switching duties at the yard in Deer Lodge, Montana during August of 1971.
Around 1972 then Milwaukee chairman Bill Quinn was working hard
to sell the railroad to BN. During one inspection trip over Lines West
Quinn is said to have secretly offered the railroad to BN for absolutely
nothing save for its heavy debt! No one, not even the vice-president
or other top officers ever knew about this deal. BN was very intrigued
and ultimately agreed but with the stipulation that until ownership was
transferred the Milwaukee Road was to make no major capital investments
Quinn then took the proposal to the Chicago-Milwaukee Corporation board
(which owned the railroad). Since they wanted nothing more then to rid
themselves from the railroading business they were very pleased with the
deal. However, one member is said to have objected to one condition,
that the Milwaukee Land Company, which owned vast timber property in the
Rocky Mountains be sold and not given away for nothing. The price for
the Milwaukee Land Company was set at $50 million but when advised of
this change the BN did their own study and concluded the company was not
worth such money and ultimately walked away from the entire offer
(interestingly the Milwaukee would sell its timber holdings for $125
An A-B-A set of covered wagons led by E9A #33-A power the Morning Hiawatha across the bridge over the Mississippi River near Hastings, Minnesota as the train is just a few miles into its southward trip to Chicago on June 24, 1964.
These are just a few of the interesting events that took place within
the company as it crumbled away in the 1970s. With the evidence and
history I have read, with the vastly superior Puget Sound main line and
system which stretched from Kentucky to Washington state, if the
Milwaukee would have had a competent management team who actually
wanted to operate a railroad it very likely would still be in operation
today. In any event, at the rate the railroad's management was making
even the most common sense of mistakes along with a baffling
double-entry on expenses it was simply a matter of time before the
railroad fell apart. Perhaps the saddest part of all is that with the CMStP&P out of the way Burlington Northern had a virtual monopoly
on Chicago-Seattle traffic, a scenario which holds true to this day.
In any event, with the Soo Line purchase thus closed the book on one of
our country’s most interesting and dynamic railroads.
An A-B-A-A set of F7s led by #106-C awaits its crew at Pigs Eye Yard in St. Paul on the morning of June 4, 1964.
For further reading on the collapse of the Milwaukee in the
1970s and why it should have never abandoned its coast extension, the
web resources below are quite interesting and very informative. Of
particular note is an essay by Michael Sol detailing his experiences as
part of an engineering team assessing the viability of the railroad's
It seems that most focus on the Milwaukee is always on its western route, electric motors, or passenger trains but it also rostered some rather large steamers such as 4-8-4s and 2-6-6-2s. In this scene two of its Class F 4-6-4 Hudsons, double-head the Olympian into St. Paul on September 5, 1947.
Steam Locomotive Roster
A Through A4 (Various)
B1 Through B4
C1 Through C5-a (Various), NC1
F1 Through F5 (Various)
G3 Through G7-s (Various)
H3 Through H7-b (Various), NG
I2 Through I6 (Various)
L2 Through L3 (Various)
M2, NM1, NM2
N1/s, N2, N3
S1 Through S3
The Milwaukee's largest steam locomotives, the Class N3-s 2-6-6-2 Mallets; seen here is #9301 leading the eastbound Olympian out of Spokane, Washington during April of 1932.
Three Milwaukee Road AS616s with #561 up front are moving through the yard in St. Paul with their train on June 10, 1964.
Today electrics no longer conquer St. Paul Pass on the Rocky
Mountain Division and all is quiet over the famous Pacific Extension
except for the sound of Mother Nature and the occasional hiker along a
number of rail/trails created along the abandoned rights-of-way. Likewise, Hiawathas no longer pace across
America’s Heartland and pass amongst the farmland of the Omaha main line in Iowa. However, the sprinting Indian
logo lives on with the Milwaukee Road Historical Association and Amtrak
continues to operate a passenger train named after the famous Indian. Perhaps more than other the Milwaukee Road was the most tragic loss to our national rail network, a perfectly viable and profitable system abandoned due to incompetence.