It’s been nearly 18 years since Union Pacific absorbed the Chicago & North Western system. I was fortunate to have been in position to photograph C&NW in its final year of independence.
C&NW’s busiest route was its largely double-track Chicago-Council Bluffs mainline. Yet, long before C&NW was formally merged with UP, this route had functioned as an eastward extension of UP’s east-west mainline. In the early 1990s, many trains operated with UP run-through locomotives.
I found C&NW’s surviving secondary lines even more photogenic. Yet, these lines represented just a shadow of C&NW’s once sprawling empire. Many routes had been fragmented or abandoned. Once busy secondary mainlines, served as little more than lightly served freight feeders. Several C&NW operations had been physically isolated from its core network, with the railroad relying on haulage arrangements in place of its own lines.
C&NW held onto its identity into its last days. Its historic herald was still proudly displayed on equipment and infrastructure. Vestiges of its former greatness survived as visual cues to an earlier era. So its final year, C&NW retained these threads of corporate continuity. While the appearance of C&NW continued for a while under Union Pacific operation, once it was part of the UP system, these threads were less meaningful.
I made roughly a thousand C&NW images between June 1994 and May 1995 (UP’s intended merger date in late April 1995 was ultimately postponed a few weeks, despite reports to the contrary). These are just a sampling of those efforts.
In the mid-1990s, I’ve made a variety of similar images along the Chicago & North Western’s Chicago-Council Bluffs mainline that offers a literal depiction of the classic textbook illustration showing railroad tracks to demonstrate perspective.
Why C&NW? The angle of tracks and arrangement offers classic simplicity. This is a largely tangent east-west double-track line that crosses comparatively open landscapes in western Illinois and central Iowa, where installation of advanced signaling combined with burying of code lines and other communications minimized line-side poles and wires.
I’ve exposed for the sky that produces a silhouette of tracks and equipment. C&NW’s highly polished mainline rails nicely reflect the evening sky. For added interest I’ve included a set of interlocking signals in the distance. If I placed them too close, the signals will have become the subject, and that was not the intent of this image.