Green Bay & Western Lines
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Green Bay Route History

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The story of the Green Bay Route, from its earliest conception through its merger into the Fox Valley & Western in 1993.

History of the Green Bay Route

1866-1872 Early History
1873-1897 Completion of the Green Bay Route
1898-1976 Development of a Modern Bridge Line
1977-1993 Decline and Fall

Early History

The first mention of a transportation route linking Green Bay with the Mississippi River was in 1829 when a trans-Wisconsin canal was proposed. It wasn't long before the railroad proved its value as a means of transportation and in 1853 a charter was granted to the Green Bay & Minnesota Railroad to run from "near Green Bay, thence on the most feasible route to some point on Lake Pepin, or opposite the city of Wabasha, in the State of Minnesota..." Sufficient capital was never raised, however, and the railroad never was built.

On April 12, 1866 a charter was granted to the Green Bay & Lake Pepin Railway and construction of a route connecting Green Bay with the Mississippi River actually began in 1869. Progress was slow the first years, but by January of 1872 regular service began between Green Bay and New London, a total route of forty miles.

Completion of the Green Bay Route

Construction of the GB&LP continued westward, finally reaching a terminus on the banks of the Mississippi River in East Winona, Wisconsin in December 1873. There had been hopes to connect the railroad to the Winona & Saint Peter Railroad and expand into Minnesota but that line fell under control of the Chicago & North Western and nothing ever became of it. The GB&LP changed its name to the Green Bay & Minnesota Railroad in 1873 and fell under the control of Eastern railroad interests (mainly the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad), where it remained for a long time.

The early history of the Green Bay Route was not without financial difficulty, and the GB&M fell into receivership and was sold in foreclosure in 1881 to the Green Bay, Winona, & Saint Paul Railroad, which was created for the sole purpose of taking over the old company. Although the fledging line stagnated and only 2.23 additional miles were added in the next fifteen years, the same Eastern railroaders which controlled the GBW&StP developed several subsidiary lines which later became part of the Green Bay Route.  But financial problems continued to plague the railroad and the GB&W&StP went into bankruptcy, emerging as the newly formed Green Bay & Western in May 1896.

The Kewaunee, Green Bay & Western was one such subsidiary, incorporated as a short line on May 19, 1890.  Track laying proceeded east from Green Bay and reached Kewaunee in October 1891.  Freight was originally transferred to steamships for the trip across Lake Michigan, but in January 1892 car ferry service began to haul freight cars directly to a connection in Frankfurt with the Grand Truck Railroad and the Toledo, Ann Arbor, & Northern Michigan Railway. From its start, the KGB&W was controlled by the GB&W, and operations between the two lines were closely coordinated.  In 1906 the GB&W acquired a majority of the stock of the Ahnapee & Western Railway, which linked the KGB&W with Sturgeon Bay.

Development of a Modern Bridge Line

The Green Bay Route operated as sleepy backwoods railroad until the arrival of Homer McGee as President in 1934. His twenty-eight year tenure saw a massive program to improve the line, such as replacing all untreated softwood ties with treated hardwood, smoothing out grades to speed operations, and replacing old lightweight rail with ninety pound sections to enable the railroad to operate at speeds in excess of sixty-five miles per hour. Marginal branch lines were abandoned, the A&W was sold to outside interests, and the KGB&W was fully merged into the GB&W.

Under McGee's guidance the GB&W transformed itself into a high-speed bridge route powered by a modern fleet of Alco diesel locomotives, linking the upper Midwest with the East Coast via the Lake Michigan car ferries. By the 1960's over forty percent of all traffic on the Green Bay Route was overhead traffic, originating and terminating off line. The main commodity was forest and agricultural products shipped east and automobiles and auto parts shipped west. Connections were made to Frankfurt and Ludington via the Ann Arbor and Chesapeake & Ohio, respectively, at the Kewaunee car ferry slips and the Milwaukee Road and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy at Winona, Minnesota.

Decline and Fall

Increasing competition from highways and large-scale railroad mergers began to cut into the Green Bay Route's traffic. In January 1978 the GB&W was purchased by Itel Corporation. By the early 1980's only one ferry per day was operating from Kewaunee after the AA discontinued ferry service across Lake Michigan. A brief reprieve arrived in December 1988 when Itel acquired the nearby Fox River Valley Railroad and cost savings measures were instituted between the two lines. That could not make up for declining traffic, however, and the writing was on the wall when the Kewaunee car ferry ceased operation in 1990. Maintenance was deferred, track speeds fell, and on August 27, 1993 the assets of the GB&W and the FRVR were merged into the Fox Valley & Western Railroad which was a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Central Transportation Corporation.  

Much of the rolling stock had their reporting marks painted over with WC subsidiary Sault Sainte Marie Bridge Company (SSAM).  The remaining assets of the FV&W were merged into the Canadian National Railway along with parent WC on October 9, 2001. The actual Green Bay and Western Railroad Company still survives, though only as a shell.


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 The Green Bay Route is maintained by Mark Mathu.
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Updated July 11, 2015