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Chicago  & North Western: Before and After

A Chicago & North Western EMD SD40-2 and GE C40-8 lead a COMX (Commonwealth Edison) eastbound coal load past a grain elevator near Boone, Iowa, along the C&NW east-west main on September 9, 1995. Note C&NW’s left-handed running on this double-track line.

Chicago & North Western: Before and After

December 2023by Carl Graves/photos by the author

I never planned a trip just to photograph the Chicago & North Western lines. In the Kansas City and Chicago metro regions, as well as Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, C&NW was just one of several objectives for photography. The few times I ended up along C&NW rails were during visits to friends living in Ames, Iowa. Nevertheless, I came to appreciate the company’s green and gold locomotives prior to and following Union Pacific’s 1995 takeover, especially on Uncle Pete’s double-track Kansas Subdivision through Lawrence, Kan., where I lived before and after C&NW became a “fallen flag.”

Chicago & North Western, a Class I Midwestern railroad, expanded and later shrank before the Union Pacific merger. As the name suggests, trackage fanned north and west from its eastern terminus in Chicago. At the turn of the 20th century, it operated more than 5,000 miles of track, growing to more than 12,000 miles of track in seven states before retrenchment in the late 1970s. Among its later acquisitions were Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway in 1960 and Chicago Great Western in 1968. These acquisitions gave C&NW access to Peoria, Ill., and Kansas City, Mo., respectively. After the Rock Island was liquidated in early 1980, C&NW acquired the “Spine Line,” Rock’s route from the Twin Cities to Kansas City.

Chicago & North Western

ABOVE: C&NW C40-8 8527 leads a southbound Union Pacific Spine Line train as it approaches the Truman Bridge over the Missouri River just north of Kansas City in December 1997.

Until 1955, Union Pacific partnered with C&NW to handle UP’s passenger traffic east of Omaha, Neb., into Chicago. The last of C&NW’s long-distance passenger service evaporated with the advent of Amtrak in 1971, but its extensive commuter service remained. A 1975 Official Railway Guide advertisement boasted of “approximately 200 modern C&NW commuter streamliners daily” in the Chicago metro area.

In the early 1970s, C&NW became interested in taking advantage of the low-sulfur coal deposits in eastern Wyoming, which suddenly became valuable. Burlington Northern was the other competitor in the race to serve the Powder River Basin and the rich coal seams within. Federal regulators forced the two railroads to work together, the result being the Joint Line. With financing provided by Union Pacific, C&NW constructed a new 56-mile line to connect with UP’s North Platte Valley line, and in August 1984, its unit coal trains started rolling out of the Basin. C&NW also abandoned or sold lines, most of which were lightly trafficked branches in the states of Illinois, Iowa, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, slimming down its total mileage to 5,300.

Chicago & North Western

ABOVE: A C&NW eastbound freight from Winona exercises trackage rights over Soo Line rails at Dakota, Minn., with the Mississippi River in the background on July 7, 1995.

Union Pacific and C&NW had long collaborated on freight connections to the West Coast, forwarding shipments east of Omaha. A 1984 Official Railway Guide listed these connecting high-priority freights, which were identified as “Through Transcontinental Service.” They included WSLAT (Wood Street, Chicago–Los Angeles, Trailers), PRNPT (Chicago Proviso Yard–North Platte, Neb.), and WSOAV (Chicago–Oakland, Calif., autos). Union Pacific solidified the relationship by acquiring part ownership of C&NW. After C&NW became the target of several hostile takeover attempts, UP increased its share of the railroad and purchased it in 1995. Today, C&NW’s key routes carry on under the UP banner, especially its Powder River Basin coal line.

Motive Power
According to historian Paul Schneider, C&NW held a unique distinction as being one of the last railroads to continue operating diesels from all five major manufacturers including Electro-Motive, General Electric, American Locomotive, Baldwin, and Fairbanks-Morse. In later years it became known for maintaining locomotives far beyond their expected service lives. Former CGW covered wagons, for instance, soldiered on in freight service long after C&NW had retired its own F-units. In addition, rebuilt first-generation Geeps could still be found working into the 1990s.

Chicago & North Western

ABOVE: Power for a stopped coal load consists of a C&NW C44-9W plus UP and Norfolk Southern engines. It is at Reno Junction, Wyo., in the Powder River Basin, on June 4, 1995, during the year of Union Pacific’s takeover.

The fallen flag’s locomotives continued to operate in their own paint schemes for several years after the acquisition, although some of them were gradually repainted into UP colors. Initially, many former C&NW units received “patches” with new road numbers and reporting marks to match their new owner’s roster.
Chicago & North Western’s Apple Green and English Stagecoach Yellow paint scheme stood in contrast to Union Pacific’s Armour Yellow and Harbor Mist Gray. In the early 1980s, C&NW diverged from Stagecoach Yellow to a paler yellow known as Pantone 102c, which some railfans incorrectly called “Zito Yellow.” In late 1993 and into 1994, C&NW purchased a fleet of wide-cab C44-9Ws and painted them into a “lightning stripe” scheme, which also adorned its AC4400CWs…

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This article was posted on: November 16, 2023