The Milwaukee Road, Route of the Hiawathas

The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad (CMStP&P), commonly known as simply the Milwaukee Road, is best remembered for its Hiawatha services and electrified Pacific Coast Extension.  The history of this company is quite complicated, filled with struggles and setbacks as it attempted to compete as a wholly independent carrier in a region saturated with railroads.  It not only battled for the highly competitive Midwestern agricultural business but also fought for lucrative transcontinental traffic.  The Milwaukee Road went its own way but in doing so held no allegiances with other railroads or noteworthy moguls.  It did not become Union Pacific's primary Chicago gateway until 1955 and was never led by names like Hill, Harriman, or Budd.  Despite this, the CMStP&P blossomed into an impressive system reaching all major Midwestern markets as well as Seattle/Tacoma/Portland.  It also enjoyed the longest, end-to-end network of any railroad stretching from Louisville, Kentucky to the Puget Sound, via Chicago and the Twin Cities.  Perhaps its most glaring problem was leadership, an issue only magnified in later years.  As such, the fact the great railroad is no longer with us is not as disheartening as how and why its end came about. Its loyal and hardworking employees were sadly cheated by upper management, which made a series of dumbfounding decisions during the 1970's.  They were unwilling to invest capital into much-needed infrastructure improvements to handle growing business off the west coast.  As a result, the company devolved into bankruptcy and was sold to a rival in 1985. Today, what's left of the Milwaukee Road is cut up among 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.   

A scholarly study detailing the Milwaukee Road's complete story has never been published although is desperately needed.  It would not only offer fascinating reading material but also answer so many questions about how and why the company's end came to be.  In all respects, the Milwaukee should have been a historically strong carrier; it's nearly 11,000-mile network served every major Midwestern market, directly, except St. Louis. In addition, its superbly western extension was shorter than its rivals (Great Northern and Northern Pacific).  Even as its long-haul traffic grew exponentially in the post-World War II era the Milwaukee's traffic density lagged behind the GN, NP, and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy.  In his book, "The Milwaukee Road," perhaps Tom Murray put it best: "Today, many followers of the Milwaukee continue to ask why those responsible for the company - its management, its shareholders, and creditors, its bankruptcy trustees, its regulators, and the court responsible for overseeing the company in its final years - made the decisions they did, and whether the Milwaukee might have been able to survive in some form if different decisions had been made.  Those are important questions, and they deserve the best answers that serious scholarship can provide..."  

The Milwaukee Road's Many Passenger Services

Afternoon Hiawatha: (Chicago - Milwaukee - Twin Cities) 

Arrow: (Chicago - Omaha/Sioux Falls) 

Chippewa-Hiawatha: (Chicago - Channing, Michigan) 

Copper Country Limited: (Chicago - Green Bay - Calumet, Michigan) 

Midwest Hiawatha: (Chicago - Omaha/Sioux Falls) 

Morning Hiawatha: (Chicago - Milwaukee - Twin Cities) 

North Woods Hiawatha: (New Lisbon, Wisconsin - Woodruff/Star Lake, Wisconsin) 

Olympian: (Chicago - Twin Cities - Seattle/Tacoma) 

Olympian Hiawatha (Replaced The Olympian): (Chicago - Twin Cities - Seattle/Tacoma) 

Pioneer Limited: (Chicago - Milwaukee - Twin Cities) 

Sioux: (Chicago - Madison - Rapid City, South Dakota) 

Southwest Limited: (Chicago/Milwaukee - Kansas City) 

Tomahawk: (Chicago - Minocqua, Wisconsin) 

Twin Cities Hiawatha: (Chicago - Milwaukee - Twin Cities) 

Varsity/Marquette: (Chicago - Madison, Wisconsin - Mason City, Iowa) 

Demise Of The Milwaukee Road

For further reading on the collapse of the Milwaukee in the 1970s 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 electrified lines: 

Milwaukee Road In The 70's: What Really Happened? 

Case Study: The End Of The Milwaukee Electrification, By Michael Sol 

The Demise Of The Milwaukee Road, A Timeline, By Michael Sol 

Thesis - This Train's Got The Disappearin' Blues: A Study Of The Milwaukee Road, By Sara Levitan 

The Milwaukee Road Archives, A Database Of Historic Records

This article can also not bring closure to such fascinating questions but it is hoped the information here can shed some light on the Milwaukee's plight, particularly in its final years.  For many, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific remains their all-time favorite railroad.  This statement is supported by authors and historians, such as Doug Harrop.  In his article, "The Milwaukee Road's Lines West" (co-authored by Ed Lynch) from the July/August/September, 2009 edition of The Railroad Press (Issue #82), Harrop notes: "In July 1979 I picked up a good friend, the late John Bjorklund at the Salt Lake City airport and we started a long drive north.  We were just two rail nuts heading out to shoot some trains.  But not just any trains.  We would be immersing ourselves in the Milwaukee Road's Lines West.  Was this a big deal?  It was to us.  Back then, just about any railfan you talked to would list the Milwaukee Road as their first, second, or third favorite railroad regardless where they lived.  That included John and I."  For train enthusiasts, the Milwaukee truly did have it all; electrified operations (until 1974), time freights, ore hauling in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Chicago commuter operations, logging in Idaho, a fleet of glamorous streamliners, and an eclectic locomotive roster.

Genesis Of The Milwaukee Road

Like other fabled grangers, the Milwaukee Road carried humble beginnings during a time when the iron horse was only starting to make its debut west of Chicago.  Its earliest corporate predecessor was the Milwaukee & Waukesha Railroad, chartered in 1847 for the purpose of connecting its namesake towns and eventually reach the Mississippi River.  But it had taken more than 10 years to see this company come to pass.  According to the book, "Milwaukee Road West" by authors Charles and Dorothy Wood, after the "Territory of Wiskonsan" was established in 1836, a committee met later that year on September 17th to incorporate a railroad for the purpose of serving the region's one noteworthy settlement, Milwaukee.  However, fighting by various groups regarding exactly what type of transportation entity to build delayed progress.  While many opted for the railroad others wanted a canal, or even a plank road.  The latter initiatives did gain some traction, and the canal (incorporated as the Milwaukee & Rock River Canal Company in January, 1838) was even awarded 500,000 acres in land grants by Congress.  However, as railroads grew in popularity the other proposals slowly faded from the scene and never actually began construction.

On May 19, 1849 the Milwaukee & Waukesha was formally organized but just a year later saw its name changed as the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad (M&M), carrying an authorized capital of $100,000.  The Mayor of Milwaukee, Byron Kilborun, was elected M&M's first president and on September 12, 1850 construction got underway in Milwaukee.  In his book, "Milwaukee Road Remembered," Milwaukee Road historian Jim Scribbins points out that the initial 5 miles west to Wauwatosa were completed just a few months later on November 20th.  This event led to an impromptu excursion over this new trackage, pulled by the company's only locomotive, 4-4-0 #1, named the Bob Ellis (a 1848 product of Philadelphia's Norris Locomotive Works).  As work progressed westwards, rails reached Waukesha (20 miles) on February 25, 1851. There was a great celebration to mark the line's completion although trouble was immediately on the horizon.  While promoters were eager to continue on towards the mighty Mississippi the railroad's earnings proved unable to cover the interest on its debt.  However, it managed to avoid receivership by settling with bondholders in the amount of $14,518.

After sidestepping this financial calamity, the M&M was soon underway once more; it reached the capital at Madison in 1854 via a roundabout line that headed southwesterly through White Water before turning north and passing through Stoughton.  Three years later, the M&M arrived at Prairie du Chien (April 15, 1857), thus completing the dream of its original promoters in reaching the Mississippi River.  The euphoria, though, was short-lived.  Due to the ongoing economic woes brought about 1857's financial panic, the M&M entered receivership in 1860.  It was subsequently sold at foreclosure a year later to New York interests, where it was reorganized as the Milwaukee & Prairie du Chien Railway (M&PdC) in January of 1861.  It was during this time that Andrew Mitchell, then Milwaukee's leading banker, came on to the scene and looked to enter the world of railroad ownership.  On May 5, 1863 he organized the Milwaukee & St. Paul (M&StP) and through a series of complicated corporate maneuverings wound up with the M&PdC and what was formerly known as the La Crosse & Milwaukee by 1867.  After also adding the McGregor Western Railroad his new M&StP contained more than 800 routes and connected the following points:

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 latter goal 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 Hiawathapassenger 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. 

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. 

Alas, 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, made for a prime merger target and in 1985 the Soo Line acquired 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 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. 

Secondly, 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.   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 or improvements. 

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 million). 

These are just a few of the interesting events that took place as the company crumbled away in the 1970s.  Through the evidence and history I have read, along with the vastly superior Puget Sound main line and a 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.   For more information about the railroad please click here to visit the Milwaukee Road Historical Association's website.

Diesel Locomotive Roster

American Locomotive Company

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
DL-10914A, 14B19412
RS1961-963, 1676-16791941-19507
S21657-1669, 1672-1679, 1850-18621940-194933

Baldwin Locomotive Works

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
VO-10001682-1691, 1860-18611940-194512
DS-4-4-10001692-1697, 1901-19041948-194910

Electro-Motive Corporation/Electro-Motive Division

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
E6A15A, 15B19412
E7A16A-20A, 16B-20B194610
SD40-221-30, 171-209, 3000-30401972-197490
E9A36A-38A, 36C-38C, 200A-205A, 200C-205C1956-196118
FTA35A-47A, 35D-47D1941-194526
FTB35B-47B, 35C-47C1941-194526
F3A80A-83A, 80D-83D19498
F3B80B-83B, 80C-83C19498
F7A48A-50A, 48C-50C, 68A-89A, 84D-85D, 68C-79C, 87C-89C, 106A-111A, 109C-111C, 113A-121A, 113C-121C1949-195368
F7B48B-50B, 68B-79B, 84B-85B, 87B-105B, 109B-111B, 113B-121B, 84C-85C1949-195348
F9A81C-86C, 81D-86D1954-195512
FP790A-105A, 90C-105C1950-195232
GP40153-199, 180 (2nd), 2011, 2027, 2037, 2047-2071, 2055 (2nd)1966-196972
GP9280-331, 2368-24431954-1959128
SW12001637-1642, 2020-2061195448
TR22000A-2000B (Cow-Calf)19492
TR42001A-2006A, 2001B-2006B (Cow-Calf)1950-195112

Fairbanks Morse

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
Erie-Built (A)5A-14A, 11B-14B194713
Erie-Built (B)5B-10B19476
CFA16-4 (C-Liner)23A-28A, 23C-28C195112
CFB16-4 (C-Liner)23B-28B19516
H12-441826-1847, 2300-23251950-195548
H16-66 (Baby Train Master)2125-21301954-19566
H16-442450-2469, 2500-25161954-195637

General Electric

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
U28B130-135, 137-140, 380, 393-398196617

Steam Locomotive Roster

Class Type Wheel Arrangement
A Through A4 (Various)Atlantic4-4-2
B1 Through B4Ten-Wheeler4-6-0
C1 Through C5-a (Various), NC1Consolidation2-8-0
F1 Through F5 (Various)Pacific4-6-2
F6, F7Hudson4-6-4
G3 Through G7-s (Various)Ten-Wheeler4-6-0
H3 Through H7-b (Various), NGAmerican4-4-0
I2 Through I6 (Various)Switcher0-6-0/T
J2, J3Switcher0-4-0/T
K1, K1-asPrairie2-6-2
L2 Through L3 (Various)Mikado2-8-2
M2, NM1, NM2Mogul2-6-0
N1/s, N2, N3Articulated2-6-6-2
S1 Through S3Northern4-8-4
X1Shay 0-4-4-0T

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 among 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. 

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