Mike's Train House
Green Bay and
The origins of the Green Bay and Western Railroad Company began with an 1866 incorporation of the Green Bay and Lake Pepin Railway Company.
envisioned as a canal some thirty years previously, the GB&LP was re-
proposed as a rail line. It was to begin at the lumber town of Fort Howard,
Wisconsin, on the west bank of the Fox River, just south of the mouth of Green
financiers behind the railroad envisioned a line running west across Wisconsin,
to the shore of Lake Pepin (actually just a wide stretch of the Mississippi
River), opposite the Minnesota town of Wabasha, some 250 miles distant. A river
rail car ferry and marine/rail trans-shipment facility was planned, as there was
rail service to connect with along the opposite shore of Lake Pepin at Wabasha.
The trans-shipment facility would have offered an alternative routing to St.
Paul, at least during the navigation season.
However, local leaders and businessmen of the time raised enough cash to begin a bit of road bed construction, and the first shovel full of dirt was turned over in July, 1869. What little money trickled in from the financial center of New York City was sucked up, both figuratively and literally. Construction costs proved higher than expected. Among the reasons: swampy ground for the first few miles west of the Fox River. Progress sputtered on the project through 1870 and into 1871.
Back in the day, railroads were, like everything else, built by manual labor. Hundreds of sturdy men and beasts of burden were put to work at Fort Howard (now the west side of the city of Green Bay), felling trees, pulling stumps out of the ground, cutting into a rocky hillside here, filling into a soggy marsh there, all without use of any power equipment. What humans, horses and mules alone were able to accomplish then remain outstanding achievements even today!
The first rail was laid at Ft. Howard in 0ctober, 1871. As construction progressed west, dozens of Wisconsin villages, townships and counties ponyed up cash in order to attract the GB&LP into laying track though their communities. This is but one reason why the railroad wound up with the route it did; topography was also responsible for many "mid-course corrections".
The final western terminus for the railroad was never explicitly stated; 1872 documents indicated only a general idea of the geographical location, which was to be somewhere on the eastern shore of Lake Pepin, along the Mississippi River. There was no valuble constituency in western Wisconsin to appeal for financing, though the Wabasha citizens were in favor of the line; at the time, west central Wisconsin had perhaps an average of two or three people per square mile, if even that many. There were few roads, fewer industries, and no cities, or even towns to speak of. Just a few scattered Native Americans and some pioneering farmers, miners and lumbermen of European extraction. So there was not much pressure on the railway to necessarily run the track to Lake Pepin. During 1872, other options arose.
The decision to take the GB&LP down the Trempeleau River Valley was mostly economic. While it would carry the rails thirty miles south of the expected lakeside terminal, it offered numerous natural advantages over a much more expensive, time-consuming cut-and-fill route to Lake Pepin. And there was the established river town of Winona, Minnesota, just across the way from the mouth of the Trempeleau. The tide turned against the Lake Pepin route by early 1873
The people of Winona bought into the little rail line, and the western terminal location was settled. The first Green Bay train reached the shoreline of the Mississippi River in December, 1873. A few weeks earlier, the GB&LP changed it's name to Green Bay and Minnesota Railway, to better reflect it's actual routing.
Almost immediately upon assuming regular operations, the GB&M was hit by one disaster after another. Financial panics on Wall Street caused severe economic dislocations, affecting freight business. Bad weather ruined farm crops, a very important part of railroad business, especially at harvest time. Derailments took human lives, wrecked freight, and destroyed equipment.
Springtime flooding, especially on the west end of the railroad in the Trempeleau River Valley, cost huge amounts of money, time, manpower, and materials in order to restore service. Washouts of long stretches of track were common. This is still the case in the Valley even today, under Wisconsin Central Ltd. ownership!
The GB&M became insolvent, unable to meet it's obligations. In 1881, it was reorganized as the Green Bay, Winona and St. Paul Railway Company. The GBW&SP was in fact a new company with a highly concentrated ownership from New York City. The line was now a part of the Lackawanna Trust, which controlled several Eastern and Midwestern railways, including the famous Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railway. The Trust also held positions in coal mines, iron and steel mills, and railroad equipment manufacturing, among other things.
Through a series of interlocking ownerships of railroads and Great Lakes steamship lines, common control was extended from New York City all the way to Winona, Minnesota. The GBW&SP was now the west end of the Lackawanna Route! But Winona was not envisioned to be the "end of the line" for long
The Lackawanna interests had a scheme to avoid costly construction of new railroads by using existing small and lightly used railroads, combined with steamships to bridge gaps around the Great Lakes
Trains would carry goods from New York City to Buffalo on the Lackawanna Road. The freight would be broken down and loaded into the holds of steamships, for a trip west on Lake Erie to Toledo, Ohio. There, freight would be loaded onto railcars again, for a trip on the Lackawanna-controlled Toledo, Ann Arbor and Northern Michigan Railway to the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. More ships would carry goods to Green Bay. There, once again freight would be loaded into railcars for the final jaunt west on the GBW&SP to Winona (and points beyond). Interestingly however, freight volume was always greater west to east, all the way until the end of ferry service in 1989
The overriding goal behind all of these machinations was to avoid the huge railroading bottleneck of Chicago, while saving total shipping time. This would, in theory, enable the Lackawanna Lines to charge higher rates. The Green Bay line fit nicely into that strategy, as the Lackawanna Trust picked it up for practically nothing, and saw no problems about adding onto it
Numerous small extensions of the railroad were built during the Lackawanna years, mostly rural branch lines. One reached Lacrosse, Wisconsin, which lasted until 1920. Several proposed extensions would have pushed the railroad toward Duluth and St. Paul, Minnesota, and Omaha, Nebraska. A part of the Omaha extension was actually built west from Winona by a Lackawanna affiliate, reaching as far as Osage, Iowa. It was later sold to the Chicago Great Western Railway.
Apparently though, the Lackawanna people really didn't think through this strategic vision of "rail-to-ship-to-rail-to-ship-to-rail"; there were problems. Serious problems.
One major problem with the scheme was the transloading of goods from rail car to ship and vice-versa. This consumed much time and manpower, while resulting in increased damage to customer freight. And it's doubtful much time, if any, was saved by shippers using this routing to or from the Northwest
Eventually, a partial solution was found, in ships which carried strings of loaded freight cars on tracks built into the ship itself. They were called car ferries, and they ruled Lake Michigan for a century, beginning in 1892. That year the first car ferry, Ann Arbor #1, docked at the Kewaunee, Wisconsin slip of the newly constructed Kewaunee, Green Bay and Western Railroad Company.
The KGB&W was constructed mostly with Lackawanna Trust backing, with some local involvement. Initially, it was not under the direct control of the GBW&SP management, though it's operations in Green Bay were closely coordinated with the older road. After completion, the Lake Michigan steamships were completely replaced by car ferries, and the focus of port activities moved to Kewaunee, some 30 miles east of Green Bay. The Lackawanna Trust's Lake Erie ships disappeared soon after, being unable to compete with all-rail routes from New York to the Midwest. Lackawanna interest in the GBW&SP waned.
Soon, the GBW&SP was facing the same sort of troubles the GB&M had faced years earlier: bankruptcy or foreclosure because of not paying bills, due to not having enough money left over after paying dividends to all shareholders.
The truth was (and still is), there's a natural impediment to total growth in true east-west rail freight traffic through Wisconsin: it's called Lake Michigan. The placement of a rail line from Green Bay westward might have seemed like a wonderful idea at the time it was built, but in the long run, it was forever bound to be a marginal operation
In 1896, the bondholders could no longer be persuaded not to act. The road was declared insolvent, and the GBW&SP (along with several associated short lines, including the KGB&W) were put up for sale at a Sheriff's auction
High bidder was a new company, mostly East Coast investors (but not the Lackawanna people), with some local investors as well. The line was renamed Green Bay and Western Railroad Company. It's latest rebirth would prove to be a turning point in the history of the little Wisconsin road