The history of the Wisconsin Central Railway is rather fascinating and
quite a roller coaster of different owners, lines, and names. The
earliest railroad by that name dated to the 1890s and in later years
owned a system stretching across the Badger State. The original route
was under the control of the Soo Line for much of its existence. After
taking over several smaller systems in the 1980s the Soo tried to increase traffic
along their lines in Wisconsin but to no avail, ultimately spinning
them off that instantly created a new regional railroad which took the
same name as the long defunct WC. What resulted turned out to be one of
the most successful spinoffs in history. The WC breathed life back
into its route and steadily grew through the 1990s, even taking over
other railroads in the area. At its peak it owned more than 2,000 miles
of track and its success drew the attention of the Class I giants. In
October, 2001 it was purchased by Canadian National.
The WC loved the SD45 model, owning numerous examples; two are seen here heading up a freight through Broadview, Illinois on June 19, 1995.
The history of the original WC begins in the 1870s when the federal government was offering free land grants
in an effort to attract railroad development in Wisconsin and
surrounding states. One such route hoped to be built in the Badger
State would connect central Wisconsin with the Lake Superior region.
This drew the attention of the state legislature which established the
Wisconsin Central Railroad Company on February 4, 1871 to construct a
line from West Menasha (now Neenah) to Ashland. The 260-mile route
headed west to Stevens Point (a distance of 63 miles) and then curved
due north to Ashland, opening in 1877. Throughout the rest of the 19th
century the system continued to expand reaching Chippewa Falls in 1880,
Schleisingerville (Slinger) in 1882, St. Paul/Minneapolis in 1884, the
major rail gateway of Chicago in 1886, and Manitowoc in 1896 (which gave the railroad carfloat connections to the Pere Marquette and Ann Arbor).
During the 1890s, from 1890 until 1893 the Wisconsin Central was leased
by the Northern Pacific, giving it direct access to Chicago. However,
the 1893 financial panic forced
the NP to withdraw and the WC again became an independent line. The
first decade of the 20th century saw the WC again expanding as it
reached Ladysmith in 1906 and Superior in 1908. In all, it constituted a
railroad that stretched some 1,000 miles all across Wisconsin and
northern Illinois, although ironically did not offer service to its home
state's largest city of Milwaukee and also bypassed Green Bay. The
WC's independence after NP ownership was shortlived. A year after
opening its line to Superior it was leased by the Minneapolis, St. Paul
& Sault Ste. Marie Railway (the Soo Line) in 1909.
While now operated by a parent, the WC still remained somewhat
independent for the next 50 years. However, this changed in the early
1960s when the Soo restructured itself by merging several subsidiaries
into a new company, including the WC, Duluth
South Shore & Atlantic, and the original MStP&SStM to form the
Soo Line Railroad effective January 1, 1961. With this, the original WC
was history. The events which led to the creation of the "new"
Wisconsin Central Railway began in the 1980s. With deregulation afoot
after 1980 and railroads merging, the Soo realized in 1984 that to stay
competitive it needed to expand as well. So, in February, 1985 it bid
out the Grand Trunk Western and Chicago & North Western to buy the
greatly slimmed down Milwaukee Road, by then a Midwestern Class I,
despite the fact that the C&NW offered more cash for the railroad.
WC GP35m #4006 and an unpainted SD24 are on point of a freight train heading through North Fond du Lac, Wisconsin on a snowy January 10, 1998.
The Milwaukee acquisition gave the Soo new markets in Minnesota,
Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois. However, it also gained a
heavy debt load and the expected income never materialized as planned
from the takeover. To streamline operations the Soo Line formed the
Lake States Transportation Division (LSTD) in February, 1986 that would
cover some 2,300 miles of track, mostly in Wisconsin but also reaching
into northern Illinois and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Sault Ste.
Marie. It was this network that formed the new WC. After a year of
mediocre results with LSTD, Soo announced
in January 1987 that it was selling the entire network to help pay off
its debt from the Milwaukee Road takeover. After finding a group of
buyers (for $122 million), including Ed Burkhardt (who would become
president and CEO), an old name was brought back, including its famed
shield logo; Wisconsin Central Ltd.
The new WC and its parent Wisconsin Corporation were both
formed in April, 1987. The system set up headquarters near Chicago and
Rosemont while its operations and customer service center
was located at Stevens Point, about the mid-point of the railroad.
Under Burkhardt, the WC thrived, although the first few years proved
very rocky as the new, upstart Class II regional found its footing. In
1988 the railroad earned operating revenues of $93.7 million and a year
later this had ballooned to $101.3 million. When the WC began, its
2,068-mile system was so large that it dwarfed all other Class IIs of
its day including the MidSouth Rail Corporation, Dakota Minnesota &
Eastern, Montana Rail Link, Chicago Central & Pacific, and Wheeling
& Lake Erie. As of 1990, it was also larger than some Class Is at
the time including the Kansas City Southern, Grand Trunk Western (GTW),
and Florida East Coast.
A WC SD40-2 and SDL39 #586 roll westbound with their train at New Brighton, Minnesota on January 30, 2000. The SDL39 was only purchased by the Milwaukee Road, which acquired ten units between 1969 and 1972.
As mentioned above, the new WC utilized most of the former LSTD lines
that included a combination of original's
trackage as well as a few Milwaukee branches and the former Soo in the
UP of Michigan. Major connections for the railroad included Chicago,
Duluth, the Twin Cities, Green Bay, and Milwaukee. During its early
years it was paper that allowed the WC to prosper during the 1990s as it
served 25 of Wisconsin's 52 such plants, and the traffic always derived
a significant amount of its earnings. However, it was also diversified in other freight such as food products, sand/aggregates, coal, chemicals, electric transformers,
and other general merchandise. As profits soared under Burkhardt the
WC expanded; in 1993 it picked up the historic Green Bay
& Western from the Itel Corporation. For more reading about the historic Wisconsin Central please click here.
(A big thanks to Otto P. Dobnick's article "The Wisconsin Central Story Part 1: Acting Like A Class I But Not Always Thinking Like One" from the September, 1990 issue of Trains as a primary reference for this page.)
Two GP40s lead a freight through Green Bay, Wisconsin on August 23, 1991.
The GB&W was about
214-miles in length connecting Winona (Minnesota), Wisconsin Rapids,
Green Bay and Kewaunee and the WC placed it under the direction of a
paper company, the Fox Valley & Western Railroad (a year, however,
it abandoned much of the GB&W's original main line). Then, in 1995
it acquired the Algoma Central Railway from GTW, a 322-mile Canadian
short line that stretched from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst, Ontario. At its peak, WC owned a massive network of 2,850
miles and would have likely continued to grow, possibly into the next
Class I system under Burkhardt's leadership. However, a growing rift
between himself and the directors saw the WC's greatest president fired
in August, 1999 due to disagreements. As a result, with the railroad
humming along it attracted the attention of Class Is, notably the
Canadian National. The growing CN offered a price for the company,
which was accepted by shareholders, and the WC was taken over in