Railroad History
The Milwaukee Road

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Milwaukee HeraldThe Milwaukee Road
America's Resourceful Railroad

by Jackson Peters

The Milwaukee Road had very early beginnings.  Byron Kilbourn obtained a charter for the Milwaukee & Waukesha Railroad in 1847. With capitalization of $100,000 and the new charter, Kilbourn set out to build his railroad west from Milwaukee to Madison. Grading started in the fall of 1849 and by February 1, 1850, Prairie du Chein, Wisconsin became the western goal. Before even opening its first route, the railroad transformed, by virtue of a name change, to the Milwaukee & Mississippi. Then on November 20, 1850, with five miles of 6 foot wide track in place, the Milwaukee & Mississippi held its first "Director's Special".

Three months after its inaugural run, the Milwaukee & Mississippi with glorious fanfare, christened its first passenger run; the date, February 25, 1851. The railroad held a gala, with keynote speakers, bands, fireworks and dinner. The evening's program called for a roundtrip fare of $1.50 per person, free dinner, served precisely at 1 PM in the car house and a 4 PM departure to Waukesha. The event was a great success. By April, the M&M operated two daily passenger runs each way.

It took another six years before the M&M reached Prairie du Chein, but when it did, brand new passenger equipment, built by M&M's own railroad shops dominated the line. The arrival of the first turn on the Mississippi shores signaled another red-letter day for the railroad. With a 200-gun salute, a throng of thousands, many of them local and regional merchants, met the train. By 1859, the railroad put into service a ferry known as the, "Lady Franklin". It was designed to operate on water in the summer and on ice in the winter. The car shops had been very busy. The M&M boasted a fleet of 43 locomotives (mostly wood fired), 46 passenger coaches, 411 boxcars, 107 flatcars, 40 gravel cars, 25 ditching cars and 37 handcars. By the end of the decade, the line stretched along 238 miles of single track and 28 miles of passing track. In that year's annual report, the company boasted a net worth in excess of $8.1 million.

Due to personal problems, Kilbourn agreed to place the M&M in receivership. By January of 1861, the railroad emerged from receivership as the Milwaukee & Prairie du Chein Railway Company. It operated successfully under this name for six years before being sold to the Milwaukee & St. Paul on December 31, 1867. The Milwaukee & St. Paul was owned by Alexander Mitchell. Mitchell had been President of the Milwaukee & Prairie du Chein and had also been a Director of the Milwaukee & Mississippi. Mitchell saw expansion as the true destiny of the railroad. It was not long after acquiring the M&P, that Mitchell also acquired the McGregor Western Railway. With this purchase, the Milwaukee & St. Paul became the largest railroad in the Midwest, operating 820 miles of trackage and net earnings exceeding $2 million for 1867.

The company continued its torrid rate of expansion. By 1872, the line stretched to Chicago and the railroad was managing a fleet of 125 locomotives, 122 passenger coaches, 398 flatcars, 1,850 boxcars and 53 handcars. By the end of 1874, the Milwaukee & St. Paul became the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul. Along with the name change, the railroad boasted these achievements; it had spiked down 13,513 tons of rail and was rolling on 1,400 miles of mainline trackage. Another of its many innovations was a new type of freight car. To meet the demands of the farming community, specifically the transportation of butter and eggs, CM&St.P employee Gustavus Swift designed and introduced the first refrigerator car.

Yet another first occurred that same year. A Bavarian shipbuilder by the name of Michael Spettel designed the first pontoon bridge. It was put to use along the Mississippi River, giving the CM&St.P line numerous competitive advantages. A side note, due to the fact that Spettel was under the employ of a shipbuilding firm at the time he designed the bridge, the owner of the firm, John Lawler, successfully lobbied the U.S. Patent Office for full patent rights to the pontoon bridge. The rights were granted on August 11, 1874. By the end of 1876, the CM&St.P had its own grain elevators and had stopped naming locomotives, due to their vast number. It was also completely free of debt.

The expansion of the CM&St.P continued with the acquisition of smaller railroads and its own construction. When the 1870's drew to a close, the "Milwaukee Road" was operating on 3,775 miles of track, owned 425 locomotives, over 300 passenger coaches, 13,315 freight cars and net earnings of the company exceeded $5.3 million. This trend continued well into the 1880's, save a brief time in 1884 when the nation was gripped by a monetary panic. This period also brought us the legend of Switch Annie. Annie was the daughter of a CM&St.P switch tender. At the age of 12, while joining her father on a day's work, Annie successfully opened a switch, thereby avoiding a catastrophic train wreck. This action became necessary when her father became suddenly ill and was unable to perform his duties. As the story goes, Annie started working for the CM&St.P when she was 16 and worked for the railroad for 25 years.

The voracious expansion era came to an end on April 19, 1887. It was on this date that Alexander Mitchell passed away. While Roswell Miller succeeded him as President, the larger impact would be the role played by Standard Oil, which bought into the company in the early 1880's. William Rockefeller and Henry Flagler were two of the nine Standard Oil directors that held major shares in the CM&St.P . Their influence was not felt until the financial panic of 1893. It was then that the two men took total control over the voting shares of the railroad.

Now operating in 5 States, the CM&St.P moved its terminus from Milwaukee to Chicago. Among its many possessions, the railroad owned seven bridges that spanned the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. It had purchased and developed its own coal mining properties in Iowa and Illinois and it owned 1,410 grain elevators and associated warehouses. For much of the 1890's the railroad operated in a manner consistent with the other mega railroads of the time. Competition for freight was intense and with players such as J.P. Morgan and James J. Hill in the mix, capital expenditures were substantial. At one point, the Morgan and Hill partnership offered to buy out Rockefeller and Flagler, but the two refused to sell at any price.

With the dawn of the new century, the Milwaukee Road was looking westward. The company was in solid financial condition, some believing it to be the most stable railroad in the Country. The Milwaukee prospered because of its willingness to take risk and to try new innovations. In our next installment, we will chronicle the aggressive expansion westward and many more innovations of America's Resourceful Railroad.

For more information on the Milwaukee Road:

Milwaukee Road Historical Association page has a nice list of books, etc..

Or write to the Milwaukee Road Historical Society at: Milwaukee Road Assoc., PO Box 44576, Madison, WI 53744

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