Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad Stocks & Bonds - Ghosts of Wall Street

Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad

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    The Milwaukee Road--more precisely, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad, or CMSP&P--has an intriguing history, of which the following is only a brief sketch. When it first opened, it was just one of hundreds of the "Granger" railroads that were connecting "the West" to markets in "the East". Keep in mind that this was before the Civil War, and "West" still meant west of the Appalachian Mountains. There was yet no transcontinental railroad, there were no highways, and such "roads" as existed were little more than muddy strips through the woods and prairies.

    For many years the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad (as it was called then) was just a regional railroad connecting the city of Milwaukee (on the shore of Lake Michigan) and the adjoining regions of the state of Wisconsin to Chicago and St. Paul, and thereby to the rest of the country. But at the turn of the century there was such a concentration of economic power--what was euphemistically referred to as "the interests"--that the management of the Milwaukee Road became concerned about their survival. They were particularly concerned that in a battle between James Hill of the Great Northern Railway, backed by banker J. Pierpont Morgan, and E. W. Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad, backed by the Standard Oil Trust and the Rockefellers, they might lose their access to the Pacific coast ports. The Milwaukee Road needed its own line to the West coast, but how to build it without being thwarted by their competitors was a problem.

    As it turned out, the volume of transcontinental rail traffic became more than the existing railways could handle, and "the interests" had no objection when construction of the Pacific Extension began in 1906. Construction from their existing railhead in South Dakota to Puget Sound proceeded quickly, partly because they were able to work on many sections simultaneously, often using the Northern Pacific tracks to bring in heavy equipment and supplies.



    A company poster, circa 1938

    Passenger trains across the entire Milwaukee Road system began running in May of 1911 (and continued running until May of 1961, when passenger service was discontinued.) At first the route was over Snoqualmie Pass, as the Snoqualmie tunnel was not completed until 1915. The 55 mile branch from Cedar Falls to Everett was completed in November of 1911.

    One of the hallmarks of the Milwaukee Road was its use of electrically powered locomotives. While it was not entirely electrified (only where it crossed the Cascade and Bitterroot Mountains), nor the only railroad to do so (the Great Northern electrified a short section over Stevens Pass,) the Milwaukee Road embraced electrification to such an extent that was commonly regarded as an "electric" railroad.



    A company ad, circa 1947

    The Milwaukee Road was built to be the shortest, fastest, and lowest-cost route to the Northwest, with easier grades and curves than the Great Northern and Northern Pacific. Combined with the lower costs of electric operation, it was able to move freight at lower cost than its competition. Given such an advantage at the core of its business, it is not easy to account for why the Milwaukee Road failed. The end may have started in the 1920's when sheer bad luck, some ill-advised acquisitions, and Director disinterest put it under the control of the banks. At the end executive management, and the succeeding bankruptcy trustees, seemed hell-bent on suicide.

    The Milwaukee Road's final slide into ruin started when it began neglecting maintenance in order to keep dividends up. This started a vicious cycle: as the track deteriorated derailments increased, speeds had to be reduced, and operating expenses zoomed, while customers and revenues declined, leading to further cost-cutting.

    lectric operation over the Cascades was terminated in 1971 (and in the rest of the system in 1974.) Management claimed it could not afford the necessary upgrades. But then it spent the money anyway on new diesel locomotives. The justifications claimed are suspect. The diesel locomotives did not perform quite as well as the electrics, and when the last electric run was made in 1974 diesels cost twice as much to operate as the electric locomotives.

    The decline continued. At the end of 1977 the Milwaukee filed for bankruptcy. Three years later came the final act of self-decapitation: the Milwaukee abandoned everything west of Miles City (on the eastern edge of Montana.)
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