24.10.06

TWO PYRAMIDS, TWO MASSES FOR THE DEAD. But, to borrow from Keynes, not seven railroads between Chicago and Omaha. In my back yard are the ruins of the Chicago Great Western Railroad, which crossed a number of other lost railroads not far from here. The Chicago Great Western has a bit of a cult following in the Corn Belt, and it is the subject of a book by Clemson historian H. Roger Grant, The Corn Belt Route, recently re-released by Northern Illinois University Press. I didn't know much about this railroad, so I read the book. For Book Review No. 35, an illustrated commentary.

In my earlier post, I suggested the railroad probably shouldn't have been built. I'm following an economic analysis by George W. Hilton that appeared in the January 1967 Trains.
Whatever may have been the attractions of collusion, by the mid-1880s the [temptation to cheat was strong.] The forces for instability were too great for the railroads to master. The experience of the roads between Chicago and Council Bluffs-Omaha was typical. Three lines, Chicago & North Western, Burlington, and Rock Island, were built from Chicago to Council Bluffs between 1867 and 1869 in anticipation of the completion of the Union Pacific. In 1870 they began to combine collusive ratemaking with pooling of traffic. ... The arrangement had the inevitable consequence of attracting other railroads: Wabash built up from its Kansas City line; Illinois Central reached down from its route to Sioux City, and the Milwaukee built a line almost within sight of the North Western. Chicago Great Western made it a total of seven. A new road would enter the field by cutting rates to demonstrate what a potent traffic-getter it was. The result was a rate war, followed by negotiation of a new pooling agreement.
Professor Grant prefers not to enter this debate, observing that at the time, "every mile of track was needed." By definition, that's true of any scarce resource. The problem, which Professor Grant does not address, is that scarce resources have competing uses. For the most part, he limits his book to an ordering of the facts and the actors, leaving most of the interpretation to others. The book was written before the impenetrable cultural-studies wordnoise became a precondition for publication in academic history, and its ratio of text to illustration takes it out of the train-buff category. I would have appreciated a bit more discussion of railroad promoter A. B. Stickney's involvement in thinking about regulatory policy. Mr. Stickney no sooner discovered that his new rate-cutting railroad could not meet its obligations at those rates than he became an advocate for some sort of organized rate regulation. (And unlike those scholars who find ratemaking soporific, the ideas of empty cores, subsidy-free pricing, and Ramsey optimal tariffs in multiproduct firms interest me. Note the shameless plug for my regulated industries class.)

Mr Grant also credits the Chicago Great Western with being inventive (perhaps out of desperation?) But here, too, there is room for disagreement.

In later years, the Chicago Great Western was famous for its six-unit diesel sets pulling impossibly long freight trains. The photo shows the front of one such train somewhere in the Chicago area.



Such trains gave the railroad the industry's lowest(*) gross ton-miles per train hour, a ratio that some observers claim is "the most highly regarded indicator of over-all railroad operating efficiency." To some observers, perhaps, but it's more autistic number crunching. The Chicago Great Western would call a train whenever it anticipated enough cars to almost overload the locomotive. In that way there would be few train-hours (because few trains were called) with lots of ton-miles accumulating behind the diesels. But that's not a good way to meet shippers' delivery expectations, particularly when that monster was also switching the local industries it encountered along the way. (At least when it broke in two, which is more likely with a longer train, it didn't delay any other trains.) Every so often the Union Pacific channels the Chicago Great Western (imagine four SD70s starting hoppers laden with all the corn in Iowa out of the Kishwaukee River valley after a meal stop at a DeKalb beanery) but at the same time it's running some expedited intermodal trains to a schedule (or as close to a schedule as freight railroading permits).

The railroad also achieved economies by standardization of stations. At Sycamore, where the last steam switcher on the Illinois end operated, this Armco Steelbox building, still in use as an office and garage, replaced an earlier wooden station.


West of Sycamore, the railroad lived up to its billing as the Corn Belt Route. The ruins of this bridge are at the Kishwaukee River.


Many of the station buildings were wooden and to a set of plans developed for the Minnesota and Northwestern Railroad. Mr Stickney discovered an unused railroad charter that was registered in the Minnesota Territory, which allowed him to engage in creative financing not permitted under Minnesota state law. The Minnesota and Northwestern era station at Clare, northwest of Sycamore, is a shed. The absence of evidence of former shippers is not accidental.


The idea of a railroad from Chicago to the Twin Cities by way of Oelwein, Iowa, sounds like going the "great way round," but in the late 1870s the Chicago & North Western was still using a routing via Belvidere and Beloit into both the Lake Winnebago territory and via Madison to the Twin Cities, and the Milwaukee had not yet built the Brookfield to Portage section that later became its racetrack.

The machinations of Mr Stickney to assemble a railroad in southeastern Minnesota and much of Iowa make up most of the material in the book. There's a reason a town in southwestern Iowa is called Diagonal. The Chicago line was integral to the railroad's development, but never generated much online traffic. At Stillman Valley, much of the right of way has been redeveloped.


An old less-than-carload ramp offers a vantage point for observing the Tebala Shriners' jets at a fall festival parade.


Railroading legend John W. Barriger, while with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, had little respect for the Chicago Great Western. "The Chicago Great Western is a mountain railroad in a prairie country serving a traffic vacuum." We've seen the prairie country, and there's been precious little evidence of traffic at the Illinois towns. The mountain railroading begins at Stockton. At one time, the railroad had a fleet of Mallet Compounds that turned here. Once the railroad modernized with Lima Super Power and Baldwin 2-10-4 steamers, the terminal was retired. The location behind the camera has a factory and a now-closed landfill over the location of the engine terminal.


At Woodbine, another Minnesota and Northwestern pattern station has been moved about a block from the tracks. The railroad once considered a line relocation beginning at Woodbine and crossing the Mississippi River on a high bridge. The intent was to have a railroad capable of running 150 car freight trains at 80 mph. (Such monsters would still have to stop at a junction near Dubuque to serve that city and interchange with other railroads.)


The right of way emerges near the Apple River Fort in Elizabeth. The access road to the visitor center and the visitor center are on the old grade.


In Elizabeth, another Minnesota and Northwestern station has been preserved as a railroad museum. Of the five railroads in Jo Daviess county, only the Burlington's Mississippi River line and the Illinois Central's Dubuque line remain.


The station has a Milwaukee Road buggy painted for Chicago Great Western on the grounds. There are still a few center-monitor buggies on Union Pacific painted green and lettered CGW. These are original Chicago Great Western buggies.


Inside the station, a reasonable restoration of the operator's desk, complete with candlestick telephone and telegraph sounder.


This HO layout captures the look of downtown Elizabeth, although a detouring Morning Zephyr seems unlikely.


The mountain railroading continues beyond Elizabeth, striking to the southwest as far as North Hanover, then angling northwest through the Winston Tunnel and to a connection with the Illinois Central at Galena Junction. The avoiding line at Woodbine was conceived to eliminate the grades, curves, and the tunnel.


The Chicago and North Western had its own ideas on tunnel elimination. In 1968, the Chicago Great Western became property of the Chicago and North Western. By 1972, the railroad was abandoned west of Byron. The last railroad line to connect Omaha with Chicago was thus the first to go. Milwaukee's is also gone. Canadian National owns the Illinois Central, Union Pacific the North Western, Iowa Interstate the Rock Island, Norfolk Southern the Wabash, and we can still call the Burlington Burlington. Chicago and North Western wanted the Chicago Great Western for its Twin Cities to Kansas City line via Oelwein and Diagonal, but when it had the opportunity to buy the older but better-located Rock Island line, it did. Bye-bye Diagonal Line.

(*)A reader notes this should be "highest." Thanks!

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