The beginnings of what would become the Milwaukee Road can be traced back to the Milwaukee and Waukesha Railroad, which had a goal of linking the city of Milwaukee, located on Lake Michigan; to the Mississippi River. The railroad was incorporated in 1847, but saw a name change to the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad in 1850, prior to beginning construction. A first 5 miles of line was constructed between Milwaukee and Wauwatosa, which opened by November of 1850. By February of 1851, the route opened to Waukesha. From there, the route continued through Watertown towards Madison, and followed the Wisconsin River to Prairie du Chein, where it would meet the Mississippi River. This extension opened in 1857. As a result of a financial panic, the M&M went into receivership in 1859, and was purchased by the Milwaukee and Prairie du Chein Railroad. This route, and several others would be pushed into the Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad.
The M&StP was the first step for the young Milwaukee Road. By 1874, a name change renamed the route to Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway. The railroad continued building lines through the midwest, and by 1887 had lines crossing Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, Illinois and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. At this time, the corporate headquarters were moved from Milwaukee to Chicago.
In the 1890s, the directors of the railroad felt it necessary to extend the railroad to the Pacific Coast to remain competitive with other northern railroads. While plans began, a survey conducted in 1901 estimated the costs to build from Aberdeen, South Dakota to Seattle at 45 million. This route was again resurveyed in 1905 after being approved. Instead of the original cost of 45 million, the price tag grew to 60 million; or approximately 1.6 Billion today. Construction commenced in 1906. Completed in 1909, the route was 18 miles shorter than the nearest competitors route, and had better grades and engineering. However, the route was proven to be expensive. Little land grants were awarded for the construction. While the route seemed logical, getting through the Rocky and Casdcade Mountain ranges proved to be difficult. While 2,300 miles of track through some very tough track is a feat; doing it in 3 years is even more amazing. An extension to Rapid City, South Dakota would also be completed in 1907, further pushing the young railroad west.
Despite the seemingly logical call to build to the Pacific, many people questioned the call later on. Since the route bypassed many large towns and paralleled the Northern Pacific route, it seemed very illogical to carry much more than long haul cargo and passengers. A solution to the difficult conditions was to electrify the route through the mountains, which was one of the largest projects of this type ever undertaken. At the same time, capacity issues the plagued the railroad on the eastern front. Double tracking projects were undertaken between Minneapolis and Aberdeen, as well as across Illinois and Iowa. These mainlines provided the bulk of the local traffic and saw the highest level of upgrades. It was at this time when the Milwaukee Road changed the name Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railway.
The 257 million dollar price tag of the Pacific Extension spelled trouble for the railroad. This cost was over 4 times the original projected cost. After the traffic levels were far below the expected amount on the Pacific Extension, the railroad was in dire condition. Another issue arose when the Milwaukee Road purchased several lines in Indiana to expand the operations. By 1925, the route filed bankruptcy and changed the "railway" title to "railroad" in 1928. To counter the serious financial issues, the railroad upgraded the passenger service.
After filing bankruptcy in 1925, the company had a fresh start and tried to make it work, before the Great Depression hit in 1929. The road again filed bankruptcy in 1935, and was operated under trusteeship until the end of 1945.
Post World War II, the railroad again found success. The Olympian Hiawatha began running to Pugent Sound, and the Milwaukee Road took over handling the eastern traffic from the Union Pacific Overland Route.
Map above credit of the Richard Parks of R2Parks.
After the post-war period, many American railroads saw a serious decline. The Milwaukee Road was no different, with the Hiawatha becoming the first casualty of financial issues of the road. Since 1964, the Milwaukee Road and the Chicago & North Western Railway had been planning a merger. This was blocked in 1969 on the grounds that it would have created too many parallel routes. The author estimates that about 60% of Milwaukee Road lines had parallel C&NW lines. Since 1957, the road was committed to finding a large merger partner, which would allegedly save the road. In 1970, the Burlington Northern Railroad was formed as direct competition of the Milwaukee Road.
The Milwaukee Road took a hard hit with the BN merger. The Pacific Extension was suddenly heavily competed against, with BN having to allow the Milwaukee Road to use tracks to boost competition. In 1974, 80% of outbound Seattle traffic was carried by the Milwaukee Road; despite BN owning two transcontinental lines to the region. After the C&NW again proposed a merger, the MILW president William John Quinn refused. The railroad filed unsuccessfully to be included in the Union Pacific-Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific merger. The Milwaukee Road also saw issues financing new cars, which turned away business. The mainline electrification was discontinued in 1974.
Another failed merger saw the final nail in the coffin for the Milwaukee Road. They attempted to merge with Burlington Northern, which was denied in 1977. By December of 1977, the railroad again entered bankruptcy. With 10,074 miles still in operation at this point, the trustee decided to abandoned or sell unprofitable lines. The Pacific Extension was abandoned west of Miles City in 1980. The route began earning smaller profits in 1982, and the Soo Line Railroad had much interest in buying the now profitable routes of the Milwaukee Road.
Operations ceased on January 1st, 1986 after the purchase by Soo Line. While the Pacific Extension likely spelled doom for an otherwise profitable railroad, many of the post 1982 lines still exist and are still in service. Significant portions of the route were sold to Burlington Northern in 1982, and are now operated by BNSF Railway. The Soo Line was purchased by Canadian Pacific Railway in 1990, and has since become a subsidiary of CP. Many other lines continue to exist as trails, such as portions near Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago and other towns.
Examples of Milwaukee Road Bridges can be seen above.