The Forgotten Railways of Chicago: The Chicago Great Western Railway

The Chicago Great Western Railway linked the Midwestern cities of Chicago, Minneapolis, and Kansas City, with each branch meeting at Oelwein, IA. Originally chartered as the Minnesota and Northwestern Railroad within Minnesota, it eventually grew and merged to become the CGW in 1892. It was built later than many other railroads it competed with, leading to suboptimal routes and its eventual demise. In spite of this, I personally think the Chicago Great Western is an incredible name for a railroad, and it's one of my favorite abandoned train lines. 

Its legacy survives today as part of the Great Western Trail, and today we're going to explore this line, or at least its route from Chicago to Oelwein. 

View from Goldmine Rd, west of Pearl City, IL, along the abandoned CGW right-of-way.

Other than a small Canadian National Railway operation near DuPage Airport, a few industrial customers for Union Pacific between Tyler Rd and Kautz Rd in St. Charles, and a small operation serving the power plant in Byron, the entirety of the 147 mile former Chicago Great Western Railway line between Forest Park and Galena Junction is abandoned, making it the longest abandonment from Chicago by far.

The line extended from Chicago, on trackage which now leads to the Union Pacific Global 1 yard, and then followed a line immediately north of where the current Forest Park CTA station is today, paralleling the Chicago Aurora & Elgin Railroad, which itself is abandoned.

But before we see what the line looks like today, let's examine Chicago Great Western's history.

CGW Westbound at Elmhurst, IL. 1962 Image: Roger Puta

The Chicago Great Western was one of the last Class I railroads to be constructed, and as such, competing lines often had an advantage with regard to track location.

The business was thus modeled with efficiency in mind in an effort to stay afloat, using only one set of crews, and pulling very long freight trains, which is more akin to how modern railroads operate.

Chicago Great Western Railway "Maple Leaf Route" Logo

The line to Chicago began construction in 1886. This right-of-way actually had origins in the 1830's, as the Chicago St. Charles & Mississippi Airline Railroad was chartered, but never built. The rights were transferred to the Minnesota & Northwestern Railroad in the 1850's, who eventually got around to using the rights to build the road in 1884. Wanting to have Chicago in its name, by 1892, the Minnesota & Northwestern reorganized as the Chicago Great Western Railway, although it was headquartered in Oelwein, IA.

Chicago Great Western Railway Map, 1897. Library of Congress. You can zoom into the map from the LOC for greater precision.

As you can see from the map above, the line had relatively few branches, and the divisions of the road would all meet at Oelwein.

Chicago Great Western would merge with the Chicago & Northwestern Railway in 1968, who would begin the process of abandoning the line in piecemeal for. The C&NW was itself merged into Union Pacific in 1995, who would abandon or put out of service much of the rest of the route.

But that isn't the end of the story, as the much of the right of way remains today as rail trails. The Illinois Prairie Path begins west of the parking lot for the Forest Park CTA, using the rights-of-way of the abandoned Chicago Aurora & Elgin and Chicago Great Western lines. 

Looking west at the beginning of the Illinois Prairie Path. Notice cemeteries on either side of the trail.

Despite being abandoned in the 1970's, some rolling stock from the CGW survived into service into the CNW, as this tank car from 1984 demonstrates.

The two railroads diverged in Villa Park. The CGW took a more northwesterly path, through was at one time the headquarters for the Ovaltine company, which made cocoa powder. 

Today, the factory grounds are condominiums. Isn't progress great?

Looking east at the former ROW running through Ovaltine Ct on Villa Av in Villa Park

West of Villa Ave, the Great Western Trail begins. The Great Western Trail continues along the right-of-way until IL-59 in West Chicago.

The Chicago Great Western right-of-way was quite duplicitous for the Chicago & Northwestern, as it passed through the very active Metra UP-West line, which traces its origin to the CNW as well. That the trail passes over this line, it makes for some great railfanning opportunities, and is partly why I love rail trails so much.

You can watch trains all day in Lombard if you want, just like you can on the Prairie Path in Wheaton. 

The path in an early January thaw, the trail was quite busy that day.

Crossing Swift Rd, looking east.

I-355 was constructed after the CGW was abandoned, going under the former ROW.

North Glen Ellyn Station, c.1930. The station was located at Main St north of St Charles Av where the road crossed the CGW. 

Bridge built in 2000 over a creek east of Prince Crossing Rd.

It would meet the CA&E once again, as the Chicago Great Western crossed the Chicago Aurora & Elgin Railroad Elgin Branch just west of Prince Crossing Rd.

Looking west at the CGW/CA&E crossing (December, 2018)

There are many abandoned telegraph poles on the south side of the ROW.

The Great Western Trail then uses surface streets into St. Charles, given that the line is still in service 
here, albeit as an industrial spur instead of the mainline. The Great Western right-of-way ran right through where DuPage Airport currently is today.

Past Tyler Rd, the right-of-way is still owned by Union Pacific, but the rails were torn up in 2011-ish, including the bridge over the Fox River in St. Charles.

Looking east over the right of way from 2nd Ave in St. Charles

The bridge is (currently) not part of the Great Western Trail, and is still owned by Union Pacific. Trail users use a pedestrian bridge right next to the line.

I really like this stretch over the Fox River. It's quite easy to look under the bridge piers from the pedestrian bridge!

It wouldn't be terribly difficult to trespass on the bridge, but I never would do that. 

Another shot of the pedestrian bridge over the Fox.

The Great Western Trail uses the right-of-way again starting at Peck Rd west of the Fox, continuing all the way to Sycamore.

Looking west at Hanson Rd near Lily Lake.
Near Lily Lake, old telegraph poles can be found adjacent to the trail.
Former bridge piers along the ROW at IL-47.
The sun was bright, and the shade was welcome when I walked this trail!
CGW station at Virgil, IL on June 23, 1962. (Roger Puta, photographer)

Looking east at the Great Western Trail's western beginning in Sycamore at Old State Rd.
While the trail ends, the abandoned right-of-way continues all the way to Galena Junction, IL. 

The CGW also had service to DeKalb via a spur from the mainline at Sycamore. This line largely paralleled the CNW tracks also heading south into DeKalb from Beloit, WI (which are also currently abandoned from Roscoe). This line was constructed as the DeKalb & Great Western Railway but it probably never carried that name into service. The service was shown on the official timetable of the CGW from 1896, shown below.

1896 Chicago Great Western Schedule. Alan Follett scan.

CGW Station at Esmond, Illinois on the Chicago, District on April 6, 1963. (Roger Puta photo)

CGW Station at Byron, Illinois on the Chicago District on April 6, 1963. (Roger Puta photo)

Another abandoned stretch of the line begins in Dubuque, IA and extends all the way to Oelwein, completing the former CGW mainline from Chicago to Oelwein. I managed to get some pics in Western Illinois, although I don't have perspectives between west of Sycamore and east of Kent.

Looking west at the right-of-way next to an industrial park in Sycamore.

The right-of-way looking east from IL-73 in Pearl City.

In Stockton, IL, the Great Western Hotel was adjacent to the right-of-way. Today it appears to be simply an apartment complex.

What is now the Chicago Great Western Railway museum in Elizabeth, IL. Image:

Looking east at the museum.
I was hoping to visit the Elizabeth museum, but unfortunately, they are only open on weekends, and I visited on a Friday morning.

A farmer's co-op is located where the right-of-way once was in Elizabeth.

The museum has a Milwaukee Road caboose on display.

This is a mile-marker using distance from Chicago. It didn't come from Elizabeth, as that's about 135 miles from the City.

MILW-2034 sits at the museum.

Well, the sign is pretty at the very least.

West of Stockton, IL, the line traversed some of the most rugged terrain in Illinois, which isn't saying much, but the topography of Jo Daviess County, IL is quite hilly. It was at North Hanover that the line interchanged with the (very) small Hanover Railroad until 1934.

"Chicago Great Western Water Tank at North Hanover, IL."

The railroad actually used a tunnel, called the Winston Tunnel, to traverse near the line's west end.

Winston Tunnel, East Portal, 1904. Illinois Digital Archives.

The tunnel was abandoned in 1972 after the CNW/CGW merger. Plans had the tunnel becoming a rail trail, but this was before the National Trails System Act was passed, and the land was unfortunately unable to be preserved. The tunnel sits dormant and sealed off from visitors today. Its a shame that this is nothing more than an abandoned train tunnel today; it would have made an incredible part of a rail trail!

A group of high-schoolers from Jo Daviess County filmed a YouTube video on the history of the tunnel and the CGW:

The line's western end is at what once was Chicago Burlington & Quincy right-of-way (today's BNSF Railway). The CGW used the same right of way, crossing the Mississippi River into Dubuque, where the lines diverged.

A 26 mile long rail-trail uses this right-of-way between Dubuque and Dyersville, IA as the Heritage Trail.

The Heritage Trail at Deere St in Sageville, IA

Looking northeast from Burton's Furnace Rd in Durango.

Bridge over Little Maquoketa River in Durango.

The abandoned line from Dubuque continued all the way to Oelwein, one of Iowa's many abandoned railroad lines, adding another 73 miles of abandoned right of way.

CGW Station at New Hampton, Iowa on August 13, 1967. (Roger Puta photo)

As always, I hope you enjoyed today's blog, and thanks for reading!


  1. Great stuff, thanks!

  2. Thank you for the kind comment!

  3. Very informative and helpful.
    Thanks for sharing this information.

  4. I REALLY enjoyed the photo tour and comments. I am a big fan of old railroads as I grew up in Elmhurst had have wonderful memories of the CNW and CGW.

  5. Rail Fan,

    Thanks for the kind words, and I'm glad I was able to help with memories of a bygone era, at least in a small way.

  6. My dad worked for the CGW as a freight solicitor from the early 1950's to the merge in 1968, he was so mad that they were merging, he quit. CGW took him from Kansas to Buffalo and last stop Detroit.

  7. The Elmhurst station, shown above in a 1962 photo, still stands. It is surrounded now by full size trees in what looks like a park. Finding the station currently on Google Earth was not easy. I rode that stretch of the existing bike trail a couple of times, and I never noticed the station.


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