MILW 30C, an E9A with Train 3, The Afternoon Hiawatha, at Grand Ave. Tower, Milwaukee, WI on August 27, 1966. Click to enlarge.

(Roger Puta, courtesy Marty Bernard, railfan 44, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


Milwaukee Road Herald.


The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (CMStP&P), better known as "Milwaukee Road" (reporting mark MILW), was a Class I railroad that operated in the Midwest and Northwest of the United States from 1847 until 1986.

The company experienced financial difficulty through the 1970s and 1980s, including bankruptcy in 1977 (though it filed for bankruptcy twice in 1925 and 1935, respectively). In 1980, it abandoned its Pacific Extension, which included track in the states of Montana, Idaho, and Washington. The remaining system was merged into the Soo Line Railroad (reporting mark SOO), a subsidiary of Canadian Pacific Railway (reporting mark CP), on January 1, 1986. Much of its historical trackage remains in use by other railroads. The company brand is commemorated by buildings like the historic Milwaukee Road Depot in Minneapolis and preserved locomotives such as Milwaukee Road 261 which operates excursion trains.


Map of the Milwaukee & Mississippi RR. In 1851, 20 miles of track were laid west of Milwaukee and Waukesha. By 1854, the line had reached Madison. On May 23, 1854, about 2,000 people from Madison and the surrounding countryside gathered to watch the arrival of the first passenger train. Click to enlarge.

(Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)



Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Minneapolis Railroad

The railroad that became the Milwaukee Road began as the Milwaukee and Waukesha Railroad in Wisconsin, whose goal was to link the developing Lake Michigan port City of Milwaukee with the Mississippi River. The company incorporated in 1847, but changed its name to the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad in 1850 before construction began. Its first line, 5 miles (8.0 km) long, opened between Milwaukee and Wauwatosa, on November 20, 1850. Extensions followed to Waukesha in February 1851, Madison, and finally the Mississippi River at Prairie du Chien in 1857.

As a result of the financial panic of 1857, the M&M went into receivership in 1859, and was purchased by the Milwaukee and Prairie du Chien Railroad in 1861. In 1867, Alexander Mitchell combined the M&PdC with the Milwaukee and St. Paul (formerly the La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad Company) under the name Milwaukee and St. Paul. Critical to the development and financing of the railroad was the acquisition of significant land grants. Prominent individual investors in the line included Alexander Mitchell, Russell Sage, Jeremiah Milbank, and William Rockefeller.

In 1874, the name was changed to Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul after constructing an extension to Chicago in 1872. The company absorbed the Chicago and Pacific Railroad Company in 1879, the railroad that built the Bloomingdale Line (now The 606) and what became the Milwaukee District / West Line as part of the 36-mile Elgin Subdivision from Halsted Street in Chicago to the suburb of Elgin, Illinois. In 1890, the company purchased the Milwaukee and Northern Railroad; by now, the railroad had lines running through Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

The corporate headquarters were moved from Milwaukee to the Rand McNally Building in Chicago, America's first all-steel framed skyscraper, in 1889 and 1890, with the car and locomotive shops staying in Milwaukee. The company's general offices were later located in Chicago's Railway Exchange building (built 1904) until 1924, at which time they moved to Chicago Union Station.


A Milwaukee Road ES-1 steeplecab electric switcher. (Electric Railway Journal, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


Postcard featuring the Famous Olympian in the Cascade Mountains. (Curt Teich, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

An EF-1 boxcab hauls the Olympian through Montana Canyon in 1925. (Asahel Curtis, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Pacific Extension

In the 1890s, the company's directors felt they had to extend the railroad to the Pacific to remain competitive with other railroads. A survey in 1901 estimated costs to build to the Pacific Northwest as $45 million (equal to $1.58 billion today). In 1905, the board approved the Pacific Extension, now estimated at $60 million, equal to $1.95 billion today. The contract for the western part of the route was awarded to Horace Chapin Henry of Seattle. The subsidiary Chicago, Milwaukee and Puget Sound Railway Company was chartered in 1905 to build from the Missouri River to Seattle and Tacoma.

Construction began in 1906 and was completed three years later. The route chosen was 18 miles (29 km) shorter than the next shortest competitor's, as well as better grades than some, but it was an expensive route, since the Milwaukee Road received few land grants and had to buy most of the land or acquire smaller railroads.

The two main mountain ranges that had to be crossed, the Rockies and the Cascades, required major civil engineering works and additional locomotive power. The completion of 2,300 miles (3,700 km) of railroad through some of the most varied topography in the nation in only three years was a major feat. Original company maps denote five mountain crossings: Belts, Rockies, Bitterroots, Saddles, and Cascades. These are slight misnomers as the Belt mountains and Bitterroots are part of the Rockies. The route did not cross over the Little Belts or Big Belts, but over the Lenep-Loweth Ridge between the Castle Mountains and the Crazy Mountains.

Some historians question the choice of route, since it bypassed some population centers and passed through areas with limited local traffic potential. Much of the line paralleled the Northern Pacific Railway. Trains magazine called the building of the extension, primarily a long-haul route, "egregious" and a "disaster." George H. Drury listed the Pacific Extension as one of several "wrong decisions" made by the Milwaukee Road's management which contributed to the company's eventual failure.

Beginning in 1909, several smaller railroads were acquired and expanded to form branch lines along the Pacific Extension.

The Montana Railroad formed the mainline route through Sixteen Mile Canyon as well as the North Montana Line which extended North from Harlowton to Lewistown. This branch led to the settlement of the Judith Basin and, by the 1970s, accounted for 30% of the Milwaukee Road's total traffic.
The Gallatin Valley Electric Railway, originally built as an interurban line, was extended from Bozeman to the mainline at Three Forks. In 1927, the railroad built the Gallatin Gateway Inn, where passengers traveling to Yellowstone National Park transferred to buses for the remainder of their journey.
The White Sulphur Springs & Yellowstone Park Railway, originally built by Lew Penwell and John Ringling, primarily carried lumber and agricultural products.

Operating conditions in the mountain regions of the Pacific Extension proved difficult. Winter temperatures of −40 °F (−40 °C) in Montana made it challenging for steam locomotives to generate sufficient steam. The line snaked through mountainous areas, resulting in "long steep grades and sharp curves". Electrification provided an answer, especially with abundant hydroelectric power in the mountains, and a ready source of copper in Anaconda, Montana. Between 1914 and 1916, the Milwaukee Road implemented a 3,000 volt direct current (DC) overhead system between Harlowton, Montana, and Avery, Idaho, a distance of 438 miles (705 km). Pleased with the result, the Milwaukee electrified its route in Washington between Othello and Tacoma, a further 207 miles (333 km), between 1917 and 1920. This section traversed the Cascades through the 2+1⁄4-mile (3.6 km) Snoqualmie Tunnel, just south of Snoqualmie Pass and over 400 feet (120 m) lower in elevation. The single-track tunnel's east portal at Hyak included an adjacent company-owned ski area (1937−1950).

Following the 1984 abandonment of the Pacific Extension, Tacoma Rail purchased all of Milwaukee's lines south of Tacoma. Starting in 1990, the Chehalis–Centralia Railroad began operating over the section from Centralia to Curtis. In 2010 the line was sold to the Port of Chehalis and in 2019, The railroad purchased the line from Chehalis to Ruth. In 2021 the section from Highway 6 West to Curtis was leased.

Together, the 645 miles (1,038 km) of main-line electrification represented the largest such project in the world up to that time, and would not be exceeded in the US until the Pennsylvania Railroad's efforts in the 1930s. The two separate electrified districts were never unified, as the 216-mile (348 km) Idaho Division (Avery to Othello) was comparatively flat down the St. Joe River to St. Maries and through eastern Washington, and posed few challenges for steam operation. Electrification cost $27 million, but resulted in savings of over $1 million per year from improved operational efficiency.


Map of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad system. Thick red lines indicate trackage still operated by CP Rail; purple lines indicate former MILW trackage now operated by other railroads; red dashed lines indicate abandoned track. Click to enlarge.

(Elkman, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)



The Chicago, Milwaukee and Puget Sound Railway was absorbed by the parent company on January 1, 1913. The Pacific Extension, including subsequent electrification, cost the Milwaukee Road $257 million, over four times the original estimate of $60 million. To meet this cost, the Milwaukee Road sold bonds, which began coming due in the 1920s. Traffic never met projections, and by the early 1920s, the Milwaukee Road was in serious financial condition. This state was exacerbated by the railroad's purchase of several heavily indebted railroads in Indiana. The company declared bankruptcy in 1925 and reorganized as the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad in 1928. In 1929, its total mileage stood at 11,248 miles (18,102 km). In 1927, the railroad launched its second edition of the Olympian as a premier luxury limited passenger train and opened its first railroad-owned tourist hotel, the Gallatin Gateway Inn in Montana, southwest of Bozeman, via a spur from Three Forks.

The company scarcely had a chance for success before the Great Depression hit. Despite innovations such as the famous Hiawatha high-speed trains that exceeded 100 mph (160 km/h), the railroad again filed for bankruptcy in 1935. The Milwaukee Road operated under trusteeship until December 1, 1945.

During WWII the CMSt.P&P sponsored one of the Army's MRS units the 757th Railroad Shop Battalion.


Two Skytop Lounges in their fourth Milwaukee Road paint scheme, matching Union Pacific colors.

These cars were part of the Twin Cities Hiawatha equipment pool. Click to enlarge.

(Audio Visual Designs, Earlton, NY; photographer: Jim Boyd, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


A Milwaukee Road Gallery. Click to enlarge.


Postcard photo of the Milwaukee Road's "Olympian Hiawatha" in the Cascade Mountains. (Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Dining car on the Olympian, 1927. (Milwaukee Road, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Postcard featuring the Pioneer Limited, 1910. (Milwaukee Road, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Having fun in the Hiawatha's Tip Top Tap Room lounge, ca. 1948. (Milwaukee Road. E. C. Kropp Co, Milwaukee, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Olympian Hiawatha as it began its inaugural run in 1947. (Photographer-Turner Richards Studio, Tacoma., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The afternoon Twin Cities Hiawatha in 1956. (Audio-Visual designs, Earlton, NY/photo: Milwaukee Road, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Postcard photo of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway's "Afternoon Hiawatha" train which traveled from Chicago to Minneapolis. (Audio-Visual designs, Earlton, NY/photo: Milwaukee Road, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Postcard photo of The Olympian, which traveled between Chicago and Seattle on the Milwaukee Road, ca. 1914. (Milwaukee Road, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Postcard photo of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway's "Olympian Hiawatha" which traveled from Chicago to Seattle. (Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Postcard depiction of the Milwaukee Road train, the Pioneer Limited. (Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Postcard promoting an early version of the Milwaukee Road train The Olympian. (Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Photo of the Skytop observation/lounge cars that went into service in 1948, and were painted in the Union Pacific color scheme in 1955. Here is the Priest Rapids car, No.189, at the MILW depot in Milwaukee in 1968. (Audio Visual Designs, Earlton, NY; photographer: Russ Porter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Milwaukee Road EP-2 class Bipolar E-3. (Craig Garver from Tucson, Arizona, United States, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Columbian 1917. (Milwaukee Road, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Postcard promoting the Milwaukee Road train, the Colorado Special. The train traveled from Chicago to Denver via Omaha. (Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


The Milwaukee Road enjoyed temporary success after World War II. Out of bankruptcy and with the wartime ban on new passenger service lifted, the company upgraded its trains. The Olympian Hiawatha began running between Chicago and the Puget Sound over the Pacific Extension in 1947, and the Twin Cities Hiawatha received new equipment in 1948. Dieselization accelerated and was complete by 1957. In 1955, the Milwaukee Road took over from the Chicago and North Western's handling of Union Pacific's streamliner trains between Chicago and Omaha.

The whole railroad industry found itself in decline in the late 1950s and the 1960s, but the Milwaukee Road was hit particularly hard. The Midwest was overbuilt with a plethora of competing railroads, while the competition on the transcontinental routes to the Pacific was tough. The premier transcontinental streamliner, the Olympian Hiawatha, despite innovative scenic observation cars, was mothballed in 1961, becoming the first visible casualty. The resignation of President John P. Kiley in 1957 and his replacement with the fairly inexperienced William John Quinn was a pivotal moment. From that point onward, the road's management was fixated on merger with another railroad as the solution to the Milwaukee's problems.

Railroad mergers had to be approved by the Interstate Commerce Commission, and in 1969 the ICC effectively blocked the merger with the Chicago and North Western Railway (C&NW) that the Milwaukee Road had counted on and had been planning for since 1964. The ICC asked for terms that the C&NW was not willing to agree to. The merger of the "Hill Lines" was approved at around the same time, and the merged Burlington Northern came into being.


Milwaukee Road "Little Joe" E21 at Avery, Idaho. Click to enlarge.

(Drew Jacksich from San Jose, CA, The Republic of California, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)


Early 1970s

The formation of Burlington Northern in 1970 from the merger of Northern Pacific, Great Northern, Burlington Route, and the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway on March 3 created a stronger competitor on most Milwaukee Road routes. To boost competition, the ICC gave the Milwaukee Road the right to connect with new railroads in the West over Burlington Northern tracks. Traffic on its Pacific Extension increased substantially to more than four trains a day each way as it began interchanging cars with Southern Pacific at Portland, Oregon and Canadian railroads at Sumas, Washington. The railroad's foothold on transcontinental traffic leaving the Port of Seattle increased such that the Milwaukee Road held a staggering advantage over BN, carrying nearly 80% of the originating traffic along with 50% of the total container traffic leaving the Puget Sound (prior to severe service declines after roughly 1974).

In 1970, the president of Chicago and North Western offered to sell the railroad to the Milwaukee Road outright. President William John Quinn refused, stating that it now believed only a merger with a larger system, not a slightly smaller one, could save the railroad. Almost immediately, the railroad filed unsuccessfully with the ICC to be included in the Union Pacific merger with the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad.

By the mid-1970s, deferred maintenance on Milwaukee Road's physical plant, which had been increasing throughout the 1960s as it attempted to improve its financial appearance for merger, was beginning to cause problems. The railroad's financial problems were exacerbated by their practice of improving its earnings during that period by selling off its wholly owned cars to financial institutions and leasing them back. The lease charges became greater, and more cars needed to be sold to pay the lease payments. The railroad's fleet of cars was becoming older because more money was being spent on finance payments for the old cars rather than buying new ones. This contributed to car shortages that turned away business.

The Milwaukee Road chose at this time to end its mainline electrification. Its electric locomotive fleet was reaching the end of its service life, and newer diesel locomotives such as the EMD SD40-2 and the GE Universal Series were more than capable of handling the route. The final electric freight arrived at Deer Lodge, Montana on June 15, 1974.

In 1976, the Milwaukee Road exercised its right under the Burlington Northern merger to petition for inclusion based on its weak financial condition. The ICC denied it on March 2, 1977.


A Little Joe at Deer Lodge, Montana, in October 1974 after the end of electrified operation. Click to enlarge. (Jack Boucher, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


MILW 304, 276, 279, and another in the "Dead Line" at Bensenville, Illinois Yards in March 1985, all GP9s. (Roger Puta, courtesy Marty Bernard, railfan 44, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Final bankruptcy

Between 1974 and 1977, the Milwaukee Road lost $100 million, and the company filed for its third bankruptcy in 42 years on December 19, 1977. Judge Thomas R. McMillen presided over the bankruptcy until the Milwaukee Road's sale in 1985. The railroad's primary problem was that it possessed too much physical plant for the revenue it generated. In 1977, it owned 10,074 miles (16,213 km) of track, and 36% of that mileage produced a mere 14% of the company's yearly revenue. The approach taken by the bankruptcy trustees was to sell or abandon unprofitable or marginally profitable lines, leaving a much smaller railroad which could be profitable. Outright liquidation was considered, but not pursued.

Between 1977 and 1984, route distance was reduced to a quarter from its peak and a third from its total in 1977, shrinking to 3,023 miles (4,865 km). The most extensive abandonment eliminated the Milwaukee Road's transcontinental service to the West Coast. While the Burlington Northern merger generated more traffic on this route, it was only enough to wear out the deteriorating track, not enough to pay for rebuilding. This forced trains to slow at many locations due to bad track. A final attempt to devise a plan to rehabilitate the Pacific Extension under the Milwaukee Road Restructuring Act failed. Operations ended west of Miles City, Montana, on February 29, 1980.

The new, smaller railroad began earning small profits in 1982 (that same year, its two commuter rail lines, collectively known as the Milwaukee District West and Milwaukee District North Lines respectively, were turned over to the Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Rail Corporation, a forerunner of commuter rail agency Metra). Still in reorganization, the Milwaukee Road attracted interest from three potential buyers: the Grand Trunk Corporation, the Chicago and North Western Railway, and the Soo Line Railroad. The Interstate Commerce Commission approved the offers by both Soo Line and C&NW. Ultimately, Judge McMillen approved the former's offer on February 19, 1985. The Soo reorganized the property as The Milwaukee Road, Inc., prior to merging the Milwaukee into the company itself effective January 1, 1986.

The successor-in-interest to what remained of the Milwaukee Road after the Soo Line sale was its holding company, the Milwaukee Land Company, reverted to Chicago Milwaukee Corporation ownership (CMC). Without the railroad, CMC's primary function became disposal or redevelopment of Milwaukee Road real estate not sold to the Soo Line, which stretched from Bedford, Indiana, to Washington state. The larger properties were developed into big-box retail or industrial sites. The CMC itself was beset with legal and financial woes, filing for bankruptcy (under numerous versions of CMC/Heartland Partners), as a result of environmental cleanup costs and liabilities at former Milwaukee Road sites. CMC Heartland, and its various reincarnations, were dissolved in a final liquidation process that came to a close in 2010.

Much of the abandoned Milwaukee PCE line has become rail trails. The Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail (formerly the John Wayne Pioneer Trail) in Washington, Milwaukee Road Rail Trail in Idaho, Route of the Hiawatha Trail in Idaho and Montana, Route of the Olympian in Montana, Midtown Greenway in Minnesota, Bugline Trail in Wisconsin, and Milwaukee Road Transportation Trailway in Indiana all run on sections of the right-of-way among others. Today, both the Milwaukee Road and Soo Line Railroad trackage make up the Midwest US routes of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Milwaukee Road Historical Association now owns the Milwaukee Road trademarks/copyrights, except for the AAR reporting marks (MILW) used by the Soo Line Railroad (which does business in the American Midwest as the Canadian Pacific Railway).


Restored MILW 4-8-4 No. 261 rolling southbound somewhere south of Cambridge, MN May 12, 2013.

(Drew Jacksich from San Jose, California Republic, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)


Named trains of the Milwaukee Road

Afternoon Hiawatha, Chippewa-Hiawatha, Hiawatha-North Woods Section, Hiawatha-North Woods Service, Midwest Hiawatha, Morning Hiawatha, North Woods Hiawatha, Olympian Hiawatha, Twin Cities Hiawatha
Overland Route
Challenger, City of Denver, City of Los Angeles, City of Portland, City of San Francisco, Colorado Special, Pacific Limited, Portland Rose, San Francisco Overland Limited
Arrow, Chippewa, Columbian, Copper Country Limited, Fast Mail, Marquette, Minnesota Marquette, Olympian, "On Wisconsin", Pioneer Limited, Sioux, Southwest Limited, St. Paul-Minneapolis Special, Tomahawk, Varsity
Rolling stock
Beaver Tail, Skytop Lounge, Super Dome


A restored Super Dome and Skytop lounge in original Milwaukee colors, October 2010. Click to enlarge.

(Michael Hicks, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)


In popular culture

The 1930 film Danger Lights was filmed in the Milwaukee Road's yard and shop at Miles City, Montana and on the main line. Click the image below to watch the film.



Headquarters: Chicago, Illinois
Reporting mark: MILW
Locale: Midwestern and Western United States
Dates of operation: 1847–1986
Successor: Soo Line Railroad, Most trackage in South Dakota and Montana is now operated by the BNSF Railway, Some trackage in Washington is now operated by the Union Pacific Railroad, Some trackage in the Midwest is now operated by Canadian Pacific Kansas City, Canadian Pacific Railway and Soo Line Railroad's successor. Some trackage in Wisconsin and Illinois is now operated by the Wisconsin and Southern Railroad.
Track gauge: 4 ft 8+1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Length: 11,248 miles (18,102 km) (1929); 3,023 miles (4,865 km) (1984)


The Milwaukee Road in Montana - FULL VIDEO

In this video, C. Vision Productions brings you historic footage of Milwaukee Road trains in Montana and Washington, including the final four days of electric operations between Harlowton and Deer Lodge, Montana in June of 1974.