The Milwaukee West and Milwaukee North lines, which date from the 1870s, are Chicago area remnants of the once-mighty Milwaukee Road, which had a long and storied history that ended in bankruptcy in 1980. At that point, the RTA started operating service on the routes. Metra took over and ended up buying the lines in 1987. One historical oddity is that while Metra owns and operates the Milwaukee lines, dispatching duties are performed by Canadian Pacific. That was the arrangement in place with CP’s predecessor at the time. Milwaukee West timetables are “Arrow Yellow” for the Milwaukee Road’s Arrow train, while Milwaukee North timetables are “Hiawatha Orange” for the famed Hiawatha trains.
The Milwaukee North and Milwaukee West lines are so named because they were once part of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad – known as the Milwaukee Road – the historic railroad system whose financial problems in the 1970s contributed to the creation of Metra.
The moniker is more appropriate for the Milwaukee North line, however. When the tracks that make up most of today’s Milwaukee North were laid in 1872, they brought a Wisconsin railroad into Illinois. The railroad that caused those tracks to be laid, the Milwaukee & St. Paul, added Chicago to its name in 1874 after the connection was completed.
By contrast, what is now the Milwaukee West line was built by the Chicago & Pacific Railroad, which fell under the control of the CM&StP in 1879.
The history of the Milwaukee Road starts in 1847, when a charter was issued for the Milwaukee & Waukesha Railroad. By 1850 that name had changed to the Milwaukee & Mississippi to reflect a more ambitious plan. The first rails were laid on Sept. 12, 1850, and they reached Waukesha by the following February and Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi by 1857.
The Panic of 1857, however, caused the M&M and many other railroads to go bankrupt. It was sold in 1861 and reorganized as the Milwaukee & Prairie du Chien, which was soon gathered up with a number of other lines to create the Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad. By 1868, the M&StP had 825 miles of track, 135 locomotives, more than 130 units of passenger equipment and more than 2,400 freight cars.
But it didn’t have a line to Chicago, which had emerged as a major railroad hub with key connections to eastern railroads. So in 1872, it built one, crossing the state line just east of where Interstate 94 now crosses. The newly named CM&StP used a station at Clinton and Carroll until the first Union Station opened in 1881.
There were no large towns along the new line, but the railroad did help several smaller towns grow. It also helped establish Morton Grove’s famous greenhouses and Northbrook’s brick businesses (bricks were in high demand following the 1871 Chicago fire).
In 1881, a three-mile spur to Libertyville was built from the mainline at Rondout. A second track was added to the mainline in 1892 in time for the World’s Columbian Exposition a year later. By 1895, there were about 17 trains running in each direction between Chicago and Morton Grove, Libertyville or Milwaukee.
Extension of the Libertyville spur to Fox Lake and Janesville, Wis., began in 1899. Commuter rail service grew slowly over the years, with the spur to Fox Lake eventually becoming the main commuter route. A 1935 timetable shows seven weekday trains from Chicago to Deerfield, and six more from Chicago to Fox Lake.
In 1960, the Milwaukee Road announced that it would start modernizing its Chicago suburban operations by introducing its first double-deck, air conditioned coaches, something the Burlington and Chicago & North Western had started using a few years earlier. The railroad even put out a pamphlet to riders, telling them that buying 75 new coaches at $175,000 each would result in “more seats, shorter trains and speedier suburban service.” The railroad requested, and received, permission from the Illinois Commerce Commission to raise fares for the purchase of the first cars.
The Milwaukee Road, of course, was more than a commuter railroad. It was a major freight and intercity passenger railroad with more than 10,000 miles of track in the Upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest. In the 1930s it became famous around the globe when it introduced its 100-mph Hiawatha streamliners. In the 1950s it took over operation of the famous “Cities” trains such as the City of Los Angeles.
But the 1950s also marked the start of a slow decline, not only at the Milwaukee Road but at other railroads, due to a variety of factors. Railroads shed their intercity passenger trains after the creation of Amtrak in 1970 and looked to get rid of their unprofitable commuter operations as well. In the Chicago area this led to the creation of the RTA in 1973 to subsidize those operations with purchase-of-service agreements.
But the Milwaukee Road still couldn’t stem the tide and filed for bankruptcy in 1977. That set off a long process that led to the RTA assuming direct control of the two Milwaukee commuter routes in 1982 through a new subsidiary, the Northeast Illinois Railroad Corporation, which had also taken over the Rock Island line. A reorganization of the RTA a year later led to the creation of Metra to operate the commuter rail system, either directly or through purchase-of-service agreements.
Most of this information is taken from official Milwaukee Road histories and from articles in The Milwaukee Railroader, published by the Milwaukee Road Historical Association.