Click here for my Soo Line Index Page A Timeline History of
The Wisconsin Central Railway
a Major Predecessor of
The Soo Line Railroad
Click here for my Soo Line Index Page

At the conclusion of the War of Northern Aggression (aka the Civil War), the United States and Great Britain were not on the most cordial terms. Britain had displayed far too much sympathy toward the Confederacy during the war and the Federal Government deemed it prudent to solidify its border with Canada. This could be accomplished by settlement and development, but most areas of the Upper Midwest were still virgin pinelands and wilderness. This was especially true of central and northern Wisconsin.

A railroad link from the population centers of lower Wisconsin to the shores of Lake Superior seemed to be a good method of bringing development to this vast area of the state. To encourage the building of this railroad, the government would grant as a gift the timber stands and land adjoining the proposed right-of-way. It remained for three gentlemen from Wisconsin to promote this enterprise and secure the valuable land-grant; Judge George Reed of Manitowoc and Menasha, his brother Curtiss Reed of Menasha, and Matt Wadleigh of Stevens Point.

Judge Reed hastened to the financial center of the nation, Boston, and quickly gained the support of Gardner Colby, who had found fortune in government contracts for military clothing during the Civil War. And since both Reed and Colby needed a manager for this great project, Elijah B. Phillips of the Lake Shore and Northern Indiana Railroad was chosen. Early in 1870, headquarters were established in Menasha at the new National Hotel and the enterprise was underway.

February 4, 1871
The Wisconsin Central Railway is incorporated by special act of the Wisconsin Legislature and organized as a land grant railroad, to tap the vast forest and lumber reserve of northern Wisconsin. The WC was ultimately assigned 2,387,000 acres of land along the proposed route from Menasha to Ashland and Superior, Wisconsin. The company began as a consolidation of three previously chartered companies: the Winnebago and Lake Superior Railroad, the Portage and Superior Railroad, and the Portage, Stevens Point and Superior Railroad.
The Phillips and Colby Construction Company was given the contract to build the Wisconsin Central. This company, an original affiliate of the WC, was headed by Elijah Phillips and Charles Colby, son of Gardner Colby.
June 15, 1871
First shovel of dirt is turned for construction of the Wisconsin Central Railway, at West Menasha, Wisconsin. The first division of the WC, from Menasha to Stevens Point, would be completed in 120 days, with a road bed 16 feet wide at the crown, and 40 feet between the outside of the drainage ditches at each side.
October, 1871
Train service begins on the WC between Menasha and Waupaca.
November 15, 1871
The first Wisconsin Central Railway train rolled into Stevens Point. City fathers at the point had stipulated in their original grants of money and land that the shops, roundhouse and division point would remain forever in Stevens Point. When Gardner Colby and company drew up this contract, however, they found it expedient to omit this portion of their promises. The omission was not discovered until 16 years later when a proposal was made to move to Waukesha. Over the hue and cry of Stevens Point officials, all operating offices and shops would actually be transferred to Waukesha by 1890.
March 18, 1872
Construction on the WC begins north from Stevens Point,
April 15, 1872
Construction southward begins from Ashland, with six miles of track to the White River completed before winter. A high bridge, 1600 feet long and 110 feet high, is required to span the White River ravine.
September, 1872
Track is completed from Stevens Point to Colby, a distance of 51 miles.
General offices of the Wisconsin Central Railway moved from Menasha to Milwaukee. Operating headquarters moved to Stevens Point, where a new roundhouse was constructed and repair shops expanded.
10.25 miles of track laid from Chippewa Falls to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, by the Chippewa Falls and Western Railway Co., Inc.
October 1873
Road is completed from Ashland to the Penokee Gap, about thirty miles. A second high bridge is required there, this one 860 feet long and 90 feet above the water.
January 6, 1874
Track is completed north from Colby to Worcester, 57 miles from Menasha.
1874 - 1876
A depression in 1873 and a scandal prevent the WC from closing the gap between Worcester and the Penokee Gap. Travelers from Ashland are forced to make their way south on foot or on snowshoes, in wagons or on sleds.
A branch line from Stevens Point to Portage is completed.
July 1876
Construction resumes from Worcester northward.
December 8, 1876
The 32 miles from Worcester to Butternut is completed.
May 19, 1877 (June 2, 1877?)
The north and south ends of the railroad are completed, meeting at what is now Glidden.
June 16, 1877
The first through traffic from Ashland to Milwaukee, requiring no change of cars, is inaugurated. The Milwaukee and Northern is used between Menasha and Milwaukee. Freight and passengers changed to The Milwaukee Road for Chicago delivery.
The Wisconsin Central Railway leased the M. & N. until 1882, after which it was incorporated into The Milwaukee Road
The Chequamegon Hotel is completed in Ashland, soon becoming one of the cities leading tourist attractions.
The Wisconsin and Minnesota Railroad Company is completed from Abbotsford to Chippewa Falls, where it connects with the Chippewa Falls and Western to Eau Claire. At Eau Claire, the WC turns over freight and passenger business to the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha -- the "Omaha Road," for Twin Cities delivery.
March 1882
The Milwaukee and Lake Winnebago Railroad is incorporated.
December 18, 1882
M. & L. W. track from Neenah to Fond du Lac (30 miles), and from there to Slinger (32 miles) is completed. Connection to Milwaukee, 32 miles distant, is made via The Milwaukee Road.
March 15, 1884
The St. Croix and Chippewa Falls Railroad is incorporated.
April 4, 1884
The St. Paul and St. Croix Railroad is incorporated.
June 28, 1884
The St. C. & C. F. RR. and the St. P. & St. C. RR. are consolidated into the Minnesota, St. Croix and Wisconsin Railroad.
December 28, 1884
The M. St. C. & W. RR. line from Chippewa Falls to St. Paul is completed.
Early 1885
Through passenger service from Milwaukee to St. Paul is established, straining relations with The Milwaukee Road.
Under the names Chicago, Wisconsin and Minnesota Railroad Company and Chicago and Wisconsin Railroad Company construction was begun to complete the connection from Slinger to Chicago.
February 1886
The Wisconsin Central Railway line to Chicago is completed, eliminating the reliance on the connection with The Milwaukee Road.
The Northern Pacific leased the Wisconsin Central Railway, an arrangement which was terminated in 1893 due to a business slump.
The Manitowoc and Western Railroad Company is formed to build an eastward extension from Menasha to Manitowoc; it becomes a part of the Wisconsin Central Railway in 1899. Cross-lake ferry service, in conjunction with the Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad in Michigan, provides an important route at the time for eastbound grain and westbound coal.
The Wisconsin Central Railway line extends from Chicago to St. Paul and Minneapolis, with the following branch lines:
  • Rugby Junction to Milwaukee (trackage rights on The Milwaukee Road)
  • Neenah to Manitowac
  • Stevens Point to Portage with a short branch to Montello
  • Marshfield to Greenwood
  • Abbotsford to Ashland with an additional branch from Mellon to Bessemer
Total mileage, including trackage rights, stands at 1148.
May 24, 1904
The Owen and Northern Railroad Company is incorporated to build a line from Owen to Ladysmith, Wisconsin.
October 8, 1904
The Lake Superior and Southeastern Railroad Company is incorporated to construct the line from Ladysmith to Superior, Wisconsin.
1906 - 1908
Merger discussions, coming to nothing, are undertaken with the Northern Pacific.
The Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie Ry. Co. acquires ownership of the majority of the outstanding capitol stock of the Wisconsin Central Railway.
January 14, 1909
The final portion of the Duluth extension of the Wisconsin Central Railway is opened for freight traffic.
April 1, 1909
The Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie Ry. Co. leases the Wisconsin Central Railway, adding over 1,000 miles of track lying between Chicago-Twin Cities-Duluth-Ashland and through the Fox River country of Wisconsin. Even though all Wisconsin Central equipment would carry the "Soo Line" reporting marks and insignia, it would remain for all practical purposes a separate railroad. All Wisconsin Central equipment during the lease was painted Soo Line with the number series and the small initials WC indicating ownership. This lease was more of an operating agreement than anything else. The Soo Line simply operated the Wisconsin Central Railway from 1909 through 1960, at which time the Soo Line, the Wisconsin Central, the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railways were merged into a new company, the Soo Line Railroad Company.
A massive line change on the WC, between New Richmond, Wisconsin and Carnelian Junction, Minnesota eliminated at least 14 curves, some as sharp as 5 degrees, a number of grades as steep as 1.3 percent, and shortened the route by 3-1/2 miles. The high bridge over the St. Croix (2682 feet long, 181 feet above the water) was also constructed.
The Wisconsin Central Railway, because of the great Depression, not only failed to earn its fixed charges but also its operating expense. The Soo Line Railroad made advances to the WC in excess of $2,200,000 in 1932 alone. In 1933 it was unable to do so, and announced its intention to discontinue operating the property unless it was furnished the funds to meet the coming deficits.
1934 - 1938
The question of whether the Soo Line could disolve the lease remained a controversy until the Soo itself went into bankruptcy.
The Wisconsin Central Railway. finally emerges from receivership
January 1, 1961
The Wisconsin Central Railway. (jointly owned by the Canadian Pacific Ry. and the Soo Line Railroad but operated by the latter for over 50 years) was consolidated with the Soo Line, along with the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic (a wholly owned subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific Ry.) and reorganized as the Soo Line Railroad Company.

Click here for my Soo Line Index Page This timeline was, primarily, adapted from chapter two, "Leasing the Wisconsin Central Railway", of the book "The Soo Line", © 1979, by Patrick Dorin. All credit, and my thanks, go to Mr. Dorin and his sources; any inaccuracies or omissions are strictly my own. Additional information was gleaned from the "Special Bicentennial Issue (May-June 1976) of the Soo Liner magazine, a publication of the PR Dept. of the Soo Line Railroad Company, John Bergene, Editor. All appropriate credit, and again my thanks, go to Mr. Bergene and the Company. Click here for my Soo Line Index Page

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