Nation’s Longest Rip-Track!

Referring to a class-one railroad as a rip-track – a remote, unmaintained siding in a rail yard where obsolete equipment is broken up and parts are salvaged – is anything but complimentary. But that is how one Great Northern official described a historic Midwestern line in its final days. Another rail authority described the line in question as a mountain railroad operating in the prairie serving a traffic vacuum. Then there was the latter-day, unkind nickname: the Chicago Great Weedy. Admittedly, those descriptions came on the eve of a merger of desperation, at the lowest point at the end of its venerable, productive, and independent life.

Incorporated in 1892, the Chicago Great Western – an assemblage of weaker granger railroads – intrigued and frustrated many at different times in its colorful and varied history until it was consumed by the Chicago & North Western in 1968. Imperfect route and system development and miles of mainline with unfavorable characteristics made profitable operations challenging. It faced stiff competition from better-off Midwestern rivals, including the C&NW, Milwaukee Road, Soo Line, and lesser lines too. For those reasons, the CGW employed various creative marketing techniques and developed a spunky attitude for innovation in order to survive.

The seeds for mechanical innovation started when latter-day auto titan Walter P. Chrysler was briefly the CGW chief mechanical officer just after 1900. Chrysler no doubt recognized the line’s limitations and wisely took charge of his mechanical ability and wisely moved on to a new and promising transportation frontier. The concept of internal combustion was nevertheless planted in the minds of workers at Oelwein, IA shops, and in 1910, CGW purchased several self-propelled McKeen motor cars. The cars were not completely successful, but more than a decade later, CGW turned the lemons into lemonade and rebuilt three McKeen cars, powered by an EMC power plant, creating a new train, the “Blue Bird,” regarded by some as the first streamlined train in the Midwest when introduced in 1929.

A hostile takeover in 1929, followed by financial misdeeds in the executive suite, made the harsh 1930s challenging for the struggling CGW. The CGW looked over the fence at the outstanding performance the huge C&O 2-10-4 locomotives were delivering and ordered similar locomotives from the Lima Locomotive Works. The new locomotives enabled CGW to reduce the number of operating divisions, close smaller shops, and move more freight with one locomotive. CGW introduced limited rail-air service with the NYC in 1929 and then, early piggy-back service in 1935-36. But those adventurous innovations could not offset the cost of its operation or lack of traffic.

In the late 1940s, a group of Kansas City investors installed new management that was determined to make the famous “Corn Belt Route” profitable and a solid investment. Maintenance was cut, administration was reduced, and the CGW moved its base from Chicago to Oelwein. What remained of passenger service was greatly reduced, and costly wayside wooden stations and structures were eliminated or replaced with cement block boxes, minimal by today’s standards, and considered crude when introduced in the 1950s. The number of freight trains was cut in number, replaced by huge trains powered by lash-ups of six or eight EMD “F-units” that crept along at 25 MPH. Capital was spent only on projects that would yield the greatest return. CGW became the bane of railroad professionals and a darling among railroad investors.

Still, there was something commanding about the name – Chicago Great Western – that resonated with the expansiveness and promise that motivated our Nation’s pioneers and the westward drive, still in motion in the 1950s-1960s. The corporate image too commanded attention: that bright medium shade of red on locomotives (that replaced the two-tone maroon or solid maroon paint schemes) accented by their famous “Lucky Strike” logo.

Model railroaders can recall the CGW and find lots to replicate that will add interest to your operation. One aspect of the CGW that has never been mass-produced in models is the latter-day fleet of mammoth tank cars they operated that were brightly painted, color-classed by the contents within. Rest assured, when those cars are eventually produced, MTS will offer the full set at competitive prices. No matter how much or how little you wish to incorporate the CGW flavor, MTS has the locomotives, rolling stock, and details for you to create your own model railroad legend.

Frank Wrabel