While the Wabash Railroad was never a large carrier its legendary status
far surpasses its size. The system was a Midwestern carrier connecting
Buffalo, New York with cities such as Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis,
Kansas City and Omaha. At its peak it was only a little over 2,000
miles in length but its bridge line status, markets served, and high speed freight service
made it a quite successful railroad, especially during its latter
years. Eventually the Wabash was swept up in the merger mania beginning
in the late 1950s and after a long stint of Pennsylvania Railroad ownership it eventually
became part of the sprawling Norfolk & Western system in the 1960s. Today, many of the railroad's principal main lines remain in use.
GP7 #475 wears the road's classic livery of two-tone grey and blue sporting the flag herald as it pulls a single caboose through the yard at Springfield, Illinois on August 15, 1965.
Wabash Railroad had its beginnings dating all of the way back to the
early 1830s when in 1834 when the Northern Cross Railroad was chartered
to connect the towns of Danville and Quincy. The railroad itself never
completed its original main line (only reaching Springfield) and was
sold in 1847 being first renamed the Sangamon & Morgan Railroad and
later in 1853 its name changed again to the Great Western Railroad. The
railroad would finally reach Danville in late 1856, over 20 years after
it was originally chartered.
Of course, the Great Western was not the only component of the
historical Wabash. Two other railroads would also make up the railroad,
which included the Toledo, Wabash & Western Railway and Toledo
& Illinois. The TW&W was actually a merged railroad of two
lines, the Toledo & Illinois and Lake Erie, Wabash & St. Louis,
with the T&I building to connect Toledo with the Illinois/Ohio
border and the LEW&StL building to connect Attica, Indiana with the
Great Western. In 1856 the T&I and LEW&StL merged to form the
TW&W and soon after included the Great Western. After the TW&W
fell into receivership in the 1870s it emerged in 1877 as the Wabash
The final component of the classic Wabash included the North Missouri
Railroad, which was chartered in 1851 to connect St. Louis with points
west, eventually reaching Kansas City in the early 1870s. Unfortunately
costs of construction were a
heavy strain on the railroad and it fell into receivership being
reorganized as the St. Louis, Kansas City & Northern in 1872.
It was also during the 1870s that the system's future would come to be
shaped by famed (or perhaps notorious, depending on your point of view)
rail baron Jay Gould. Attempting to create a true transcontinental
railroad, and already controlling the Union Pacific at the time, Gould
gained a majority interest in both the Wabash and StLKC&N seeing
both as the Midwestern link to his future “shore to shore” system, and
renaming the new railroad the Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific.
By the early 1880s Gould had built the Wabash into a formidable
Midwestern system by reaching Chicago and Detroit with route miles
surging to over 3,500. Alas, however, this is where Gould’s dream began
to die. In 1884 the railroad was out of cash and fell into bankruptcy and Gould eventually lost all control of the company. While the railroad’s former lines began to be auctioned off a group of investors
and shippers managed, in 1888, to hold together much of the original
Wabash system and reorganizing it as the Wabash Railroad Company in the
spring of 1889 (and which would become a recurring theme throughout the
early 20th century).
By the 20th century the railroad began to rebound by improving
operations and building new, more efficient, connections to a number of
markets it already served. However, another setback occurred when the
railroad was again reorganized in 1915 as the Wabash Railway. This
reorganization was another result of a grand dream to build a true
transcontinental, this time by Gould’s son, George, who attempted, and
failed, to add the Wheeling & Lake Erie and Wabash Pittsburgh
Terminal Railway to the Wabash as part of his transcontinental plan (much of this failure was the result of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s opposition to the company’s entrance into Pittsburgh).
SW9 #368 pulls switching duties at the Kedzie and 79th Street yard in Chicago on April 9, 1965.
The company never had an extensive passenger fleet although it did provide high-quality service with names like the Banner Blue Limited and Midnight Special. Most legendary, however, was the Wabash Cannon Ball, which operated between Detroit and St. Louis. The train's status was so popular with the general public that it survived right up until Amtrak in 1971 after the N&W attempted to discontinue it in the 1960s! Following its latest grand dreams going awry and the Great Depression,
which found the railroad once again (and for a final time) reorganized
as the Wabash Railroad Company, the system became known as a
high-speed Midwestern rail artery with a highly diversified
traffic base ranging from auto parts to produce, a trait that many
continue to remember it for even today.
City of St. Louis: (St. Louis - Denver - Cheyenne - Los Angeles)
Des Moines Limited: (St. Louis - Des Moines)
Detroit Arrow: (Chicago - Detroit)
Detroit Limited: (St. Louis - Detroit)
Kansas City Express: (St. Louis - Kansas City)
Midnight Limited: (St. Louis - Kansas City)
Omaha Limited: (St. Louis - Omaha)
Pacific Coast Special: (St. Louis - Pacific Coast)
Red Bird: (Chicago - Detroit)
St. Louis Limited: (Detroit - St. Louis)
St. Louis Limited: (Des Moines/Omaha - St. Louis)
St. Louis Special: (Kansas City - St. Louis)
The Midnight: (Chicago - St. Louis)
"Wabash Cannon Ball": (St. Louis - Detroit)
Two cabooses, #2720 and #2772, sit at the 75th and Western Street yard in Chicago on April 9, 1965.
During the mid-20th century, the company was under PRR
control for over 30 years beginning in 1932. However, the Pennsy was
ordered to relinquish its majority stock
ownership in the 1960s when it planned to merge with the New York
Central. With the Norfolk & Western and Nickel Plate already in
serious merger discussions it was decided to allow the Wabash to be
included with the N&W and NKP. In 1964 the Wabash and Nickel Plate
became new divisions of the N&W and the Wabash-controlled Ann Arbor
Railroad was handed over to the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton. Today
the railroad continues to live as its former main lines remain an
important artery for operator Norfolk Southern.