We’re off to Trainfest in Milwaukee this week, so what better time to look at some of the classic fallen flags that have called this city home?
When you think Milwaukee, Hiawatha’s and rib-sided boxcars probably come to mind right after that other bubbly industry that made the city famous. The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific, better known simply as the Milwaukee Road, had one of the most unique freight car fleets in the midwest.
Perhaps the most distinctive were its home-built cars which included the unique boxcars and cabooses with horizontal stiffening “ribs” on the exterior. These cars traveled the country from the 1940s to the 1980s.
The Milwaukee’s distinctive look began to fade in 1986 when it was merged into the Soo Line, which today is part of CP Rail. Still, decades after the merger you can still find billboard-lettered covered hoppers and even the occasional boxcar roaming the rails in regular service.
Chicago and North Western
The Milwaukee Road’s biggest competitor in its hometown was the Chicago and Northwestern. The C&NW operated both freight and passenger service into and out of the city.
Like other roads of the region, the CNW served the agricultural industries heavily. From seasonal grain traffic to refrigerated trains serving the brewers, meat packers and markets, the railroad whisked priority freight trains across the upper midwest. Contrasting this traffic was the heavy flow of iron ore, taconite and coal from the region down to the mills on the south shore of Lake Michigan.
The North Western and the Milwaukee Road actually considered a merger in 1970, but the plans never came to be. After divesting many of its western and smaller lines, the remaining property became part of Union Pacific in 1995. The green and yellow freight cars of the railroad can still be found today all over the massive UP system and beyond. A few locomotives even remain in their original paint.
The Soo Line had long been a player in the Milwaukee market, but it also found itself entwined in the history of some of its other carriers. The Soo’s presence in Milwaukee obviously grew greatly in 1985 with its acquisition of the Milwaukee Road. In 1987, it then had a hand in the creation of the “new” Wisconsin Central when it sold off its trackage acquired from the original carrier of the same name in 1960.
Today the Soo is an operating subsidiary of Canadian Pacific, existing on paper only as all operations have been fully integrated into the larger system. Those two roads had a long relationship going back to the Nineteenth Century. Although CP had divested itself of most of its ownership in the Soo following the Milwaukee takeover, it would come back to pick up the line entirely in .
The Wisconsin Central is a classic shortline success story. The railroad began like many, acquiring branchlines spun off by larger carriers in the 1980s, starting with the routes of the original Wisconsin Central from Soo Line in 1987. By the 1990s, the Wisconsin Central was a major regional and international player. The WC acquired the Algoma Central, Fox River Valley and Green Bay and Western routes in its home territory in the United States and Canada.
Management then followed a unique course of actions, acquiring rail lines in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. The plucky little shortline now had operations on three continents! It eventually grew so successful it was acquired by Canadian National in 2001. Like the Soo Line, it exists in paper form only, with all of the operations absorbed into the parent company.
The railroad became a fan-favorite for its fleet of SD45 and F45 locomotives, some of which are preserved today. But also like the Soo, Milwaukee, and C&NW, you’ll still find plenty of maroon Wisconsin Central boxcars roaming the rails. And they’ll probably be a common sight for several more years to come.
Chesapeake and Ohio
Perhaps the most unexpected player in the Milwaukee scene was the Chesapeake and Ohio. While the railroad’s footprint in the city was small, the C&O did maintain a carfloat operation across Lake Michigan and had a small yard in town where it interchanged with the other lines. A C&O, and later Chessie, switcher could usually be found around the Jones Island yard to handle the work.
Little outlying pockets like this can be exciting finds on railroads and a great way to model your favorite line in a different way. No need for Alleghenies or stainless-steel streamliners here, but it’s still the C&O through and through!