What is now known as the Milwaukee Road got its start as the Milwaukee and Waukesha Rail Road, chartered in 1947. Even before the first track was laid however, the name was changed to the Milwaukee and Mississippi due to the company’s vision (and amended charter) for the Road to reach the Mississippi River. The newly chartered railroad was christened with a speed test. A wood-burning locomotive moving at 25 mph hauling open freight cars loaded with dignitaries and railroad officials tore through the Wisconsin countryside.
Money was hard to come by in the “Territory of Wiskonsan” at this time due to the sparse population and unsure industry. During much of the initial expansion, the Road accepted food, labor, and parts for stock in order to come up with the capital needed. Unfortunately they ran into a roadblock when trying to come up with the funds for the iron rail as the bartering would not work for the rails. The mayor of Milton and several other farmers offered to help the situation by mortgaging their farms to come up with the capital.
Unfortunately, this move wasn’t enough to finance the rails as Eastern banks weren’t interested in loan security in the form of mortgages on farms in an undeveloped region. The City of Milwaukee had to issue bonds that were used helping finance the expansion. Nearly 10 years later, the mortgage idea came back to haunt the Milwaukee Road when they defaulted on their loans and farms were foreclosed upon. This led to a great anti-railroad bitterness that lasted for decades in the area.
Once the funding came together, construction went ahead. The first rails were laid on September 12, 1850 and by November of that year, 5 miles of track reached out from Milwaukee. The original line to Waukesha was completed in early 1851. This route changed the 20-mile trip from a day-long journey fraught with peril to a simple train ride.
The expansion kept on during the 1850s with the main line extending to Eagle in 1851, Milton in 1852, Stoughton in 1853 and Madison in 1854. In 1957, the Mississippi River was reached as the line was extended through Prarie du Chien.
The competition was not far behind, however. In 1858, the La Crosse & Milwaukee Rail Road was completed between the cities of its name, forming a second route across Wisconsin.
The financial panic of 1857 further hurt the Road and they declared bankruptcy in 1860. The Milwaukee & Mississippi was sold and reorganized as the Milwaukee & Prarie du Chien Railway Company. At this same time, many of the small railroads fell to bankruptcy. After many mergers and acquisitions, the Minneapolis & St. Paul emerged out of more than 200 different corporate entities with 825 miles of track.
The 1870s saw much more expansions, acquisitions, and mergers with the Minneapolis & St. Paul reaching Chicago in 1872. In 1874, the railroad changed its name to the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Company. By 1880, the Milwaukee had 3,775 miles of completed track.
Even with all of the growth experienced by the Milwaukee Road, one thing was still missing, a route to the Pacific. In 1901, the Milwaukee Road dispatched an engineer to estimate the cost of expanding to the Pacific. The engineer quoted $45 million, and in 1905, the board of directors authorized construction of a line west to Tacoma and Seattle, Washington. The last spike on the extension was driven near Garrison, Montana on May 14, 1909 with the final cost more quadrupling the initial estimate, coming to $234 million.
The line was open for full passenger service to Seattle by August, 1909. On May 28, 1911, the Milwaukee began operation of the Columbian and Olympian passenger trains between Chicago and the Northwest.
However, the Road soon learned that steam engines are not the best choice over the mountains and began electrifying their lines in the Northwest. At the end of the electrification, the Milwaukee had 656 miles of electrified operation, the largest such operation in the United States.
Even with the success of the Northwest expansion, dark clouds hung on the horizon for the Milwaukee. In 1914, the Panama Canal opened, reducing much of the rail traffic from the Pacific. In addition, the extra costs incurred in building West led to a much larger debt than anticipated. By the 1920s, the Road was in dire straights, and in 1925, they entered receivership. The company emerged from the reorganization in 1928 as the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad. On June 29, 1935, they declared bankruptcy.
Despite these financial problems, there were some successes during this time. In 1935, the Hiawatha was introduced to enormous fanfare. The Hiawatha was the fastest passenger train in the world at that time, with sustained speeds of 100 mph. Due to the great success of the original Hiawatha, service was doubled and Hiawathas appeared on other Milwaukee routes.
Even the Hiawatha was not enough to keep the public off the new highways and out of the airplanes and passenger service declined throughout the 1940s and 1950s. During the 1950s, railroad industry employment was cut by one third, industry net income fell by 58% and freight revenues dropped significantly.
The Milwaukee cut passenger service, and after several negative years in the 1970s, the Road entered reorganization once again in 1977. The major result of this reorganization was the “Milwaukee II” system linking Chicago, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Duluth, and Louisville, and the loss of everything west of Miles City, Montana.
This did not save the Milwaukee Road, and in February 1985, they were purchased by Soo Line. Soo sold several routes to the Wisconsin Central Ltd, and by the time Wisconsin Central assumed operations, nearly 1,000 miles of main line across Montana, Idaho, and Washington had been abandoned.