Appendix 8: History of Chicago & North Western Railway

From Wikipedia:

The Chicago and North Western Transportation Company (reporting mark CNW) was a Class I railroad in the Midwest United States. It was also known as the North Western. The railroad operated more than 5,000 miles (8,000 km) of track as of the turn of the 20th century, and over 12,000 miles (1 9,000 km) of track in seven states before retrenchment in the late 1970s. Until 1972, when the company was sold to its employees, it was named the Chicago and North Western Railway. The C&NW became one of the longest railroads in the US as a result of mergers with other railroads, such as the Chicago Great Western Railway, Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway and others. By 1995, track sales and abandonment had reduced the total mileage back to about 5,000. The majority of the abandoned and sold lines were lightly trafficked branches in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Large line sales, such as those that resulted in the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad further helped reduce the railroad to a mainline core with several regional feeders and branches. The company was pur chased by Union Pacific Railroad in April 199 5 and ceased to exist.

The Chicago and North Western Railway was chartered on June 7, 1859. It had purchased the assets of the bankrupt Chicago, St. Paul and Fond du Lac Railroad five days earlier. On February 15, 1865, it officially merged with the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad, which had been chartered on January 16, 1836. Since the Galena & Chicago Union started operating in December 1848, and the Fond du Lac railroad started in March, 1855, the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad is considered to be the origin of the North Western railroad system. The Wi:nona and St. Peter Railroad was added to the network in 1867.

The North Western had owned a majority of the stock of the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha Railway (Omaha Road) since 1882. On January 1, 1957 it leased the company, and merged it into the North Western in 1972. The Omaha Road's main line ran from an interchange with the North Western at Elroy, Wisconsin, to the Twin Cities, down to Sioux City, Iowa, and then finally to Omaha, Nebraska.

The Wood Street "potato yard" in 1959 with boxcars filled with potatoes.

The Wood Street "potato yard" in 1959 with boxcars filled with potatoes.

The CNW was known for running "left-hand main" on double track mainlines. In other words, traffic was routed by default to the track on the left rather than the track on the right. In the United States, most railroads followed the "right-hand main" operating practice, while "left-hand main" running was more common in countries where British companies built the railroads. According to a display in the Lake Forest station, the reason for this was a combination of chance and inertia. When originally built as single-line trackage, the C&NW arbitrarily placed its stations on the left-hand side of the tracks (when headed inbound toward Chicago). Later, when a second track was added, it was placed on the side away from the stations so as not to force them to relocate. Since most passengers waiting at the stations were headed toward Chicago, the inbound track remained the one closest to the station platforms. The expense of reconfiguring signals and switches has prevented a conversion to right-hand operation ever since.

The railroad operated what was once the largest "potato yard" or potato market, at its Chicago Wood Street yards. Potatoes came to the yard from every point in the United States to be bought or traded by produce dealers and brokers. While the facility came to be known as the "potato yard", it was also a site where other vegetables could be bought, sold or traded.

A set of WRRS Center Harp shortie wigwag signals commonly seen on the C&NW during the 20th Century.

A set of WRRS Center Harp shortie wigwag signals commonly seen on the C&NW during the 20th Century.

The Chicago and North Western was known for its installation of Western Railroad Supply Company wigwag signals at many of its crossing in the 1920-1940s. Almost every town on their route had at least the main crossing in town protected by them. The most common style were the Center Harp shorties. They were almost iconic to the CNW. Many of them, which were grandfathered in after the Federal Railroad Administration ruled them inadequate protection in 1949, survived until the 1970s and a few remain on lines in Wisconsin that have been sold off to other railroads. Lack of available parts and upgrades to roads have replaced all but a few of them.

The railroad also purchased a great deal of its equipment second-hand. CNW shop forces economized wherever possible, earning the railroad the nickname "Cheap and Nothing Wasted." Sometimes employees referred to the condition of equipment as "Cardboard and No Wheels."

In 1891, the CNW adopted the famous "ball and bar" logo which survived a few modifications throughout its 104-year existence. This included the changing of text:

  • The North Western Line (1891-1902)
  • Chicago & North Western Line (1902-1944)
  • Chicago & North Western System (1944-1957)
  • Chicago & North Western Railway (1957-1971)
  • North Western: Employee Owned (1971-1982)
  • Chicago & North Western System (1982-1995)

The Cowboy Trail is a rail trail which follows the abandoned CNW line between Chadron, Nebraska and Norfolk, Nebraska. When completed, it will be 321 miles in length.

The Sangamon Valley Trail is another rail trail, currently 5.5-mile (8.9 km) in length, on the west side of Sangamon County in Illinois, which skirts Springfield, Illinois. It is a segment of a former St. Louis, Peoria and North Western Railway 38-mile (61.2 km) right-of-way (which was later folded into the CNW) that has been set aside for rail trail use. The entire right-of-way connects Girard, Illinois, on the south end, to Athens, Illinois, at the north end. The right-of-way spans the western half of Sangamon County in a north-south direction, and also traverses small sections of Macoupin County and Menard County.

Finally, the CNW has a following of more than 3,000 members of the Chicago and North Western Historical Society.

Notable employees:

  • Clarence Darrow, noted attorney and a former Chief Counsel for the C & NW.
  • Fred H. Hildebrandt, U.S. Congressman from South Dakota
  • Charles Ingalls, De Smet, South Dakota (1879- 80); father of Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Carl Ingold Jacobson, Los Angeles, California; City Council member, 1925-33.
  • William B. Ogden, the first mayor of Chicago and the first President of the C & NW.
  • Merritt Clarke Ring, Neillsville, Wisconsin; lawyer and politician.
  • Abe Saperstein, founder of the Harlem Globetrotters.
  • Perry H. Smith, Chicago, Illinois, politician and businessman.
  • George Gilbert Swain, Delton, Wisconsin, politician.