Like most of America's great railways, the Milwaukee Road was assembled
through the acquisition and combination of smaller lines. Its
earliest predecessor was the Milwaukee & Waukesha which was chartered in 1847,
though construction did not begin until 1850. By then, the name was
changed to the Milwaukee & Mississippi to reflect a more ambitious destination.
It built from the heart of the Menomonee River Valley west to Waukesha, Milton,
Madison, and out to Prairie du Chien.
Another competing road, the Milwaukee & LaCrosse built a line from
the west bank of the Milwaukee River at Chestnut
Street (now Juneau Avenue) by the Milwaukee River to Horicon, on to LaCrosse,
and then St. Paul. This terminal on Chestnut Street would, years later, play an important role in the economic development of
Milwaukee and the Dredgby Division.
The economic boom/bust cycles of America's emerging economy forced many roads into bankruptcy
and small, independent systems were combined. Over the years a number of
roads were absorbed by the Milwaukee & Mississippi and the Milwaukee &
LaCrosse lines and these two lines were merged to form the
Milwaukee & St. Paul.
By the 1870's,
it became obvious that the railroad needed its own link to Chicago; which was
rapidly becoming the railroad center of America. A direct line was built to
connect these two cities. Prior to this, Milwaukee/Chicago freight went an
indirect route via Milton Junction and then
to Chicago on the Chicago & Northwestern Railway.
With this new direct line, the name of the railroad became the Chicago, Milwaukee
& St. Paul and the
road aggressively expanded to become one of America's premier railroad
systems. In the late 1800's, control of the railroad shifted from local
interests and Scottish banks to Rockefeller (Standard Oil) and Armour (meat
Because the Milwaukee Road connected Omaha and St. Paul with
capital, Chicago, it was a prime candidate for take-over by unfriendly
roads. To stay independent and compete with the Great Northern, Northern
Pacific, and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (which were all under the control
of James Hill), the Milwaukee made ambitious plans to expand to the Pacific
Northwest and Puget Sound.
In 1905, the Milwaukee announced it was building across 5 mountain ranges to
the Pacific Coast. The actual construction costs were many times more than expected and
operating costs on the mountain grades were out of control. The railroad decided to
electrify about 600 miles of the toughest mountain routes. Government
takeover of the railroads during World War I did not help matters and completion of
the Panama Canal siphoned anticipated traffic from the line. By 1925, the
Milwaukee was in bankruptcy, the largest such case in US History up to that
The road was reorganized as the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific,
but filed for bankruptcy again in 1935 and did not emerge from receivership until the
postwar optimism of 1945. By then, technology and public transportation
policy had changed and the railroad industry, though given a brief reprise with
the booming economy of the postwar years, was facing increased competition from
trucks, passenger cars, and airlines. The railroad tried to solve its
economic problems by attempting a merger with the Chicago &
Northwestern. These plans fell through and the Milwaukee was in bankruptcy
again in 1977.
To salvage the system; trackage was abandoned, including the transcontinental
line to the coast, and the remaining system (called Milwaukee Road II) was offered for sale to the highest bidder. Grand Trunk
Western, Chicago & Northwestern, and Soo Line Railroad were all
interested. The bidding got too high for Grand Trunk and the property was
awarded to Soo which merged the remains of a once proud railroad in 1986.
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