The Forgotten Railways of Chicago: The Chicago Great Western Railway

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 Jct 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 Interurban 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, and as such, competing lines often had an advantage with regard to track location.

CGW Map c. 1897 (Wikipedia Commons)
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.

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 it's name, by 1892, the Minnesota & Northwestern reorganized as the Chicago Great Western Railway, although it was headquartered in Oelwein, IA.

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

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.
The Illinois Prairie Path winding through Elmhurst, IL
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.

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 UP-West line, which traces it's 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.

Bridge built in 2000 over a creek east of Prince Crossing Rd.
The Chicago Great Western crossed the Chicago Aurora & Elgin Railroad 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.

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!

Looking east at the Great Western Trail's western beginning in Sycamore at Old State Rd.
While the trail ends, the right-of-way continues all the way to Galena Junction, IL. Another abandoned 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 today's 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. The railroad actually used a tunnel, called the Winston Tunnel, to traverse near the line's west end.

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. 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.

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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