Most users of Milwaukee’s Oak Leaf Trail between the lake front and Estabrook Park are aware, or could easily guess, they are using an old railroad right-of-way. Few realize this was once the route of the fastest long-distance passenger train in the world – the Chicago & North Western Ry.’s 400, which routinely covered the 400 miles between St. Paul, Minn., and Chicago in just 400 minutes – and that included all station stops in between.
In the 1930s, Wisconsin was the world leader in high-speed trains. Back in the depths of the Depression, the Milwaukee Road’s steam-powered Hiawatha passenger trains between Milwaukee and Chicago routinely cruised at 103 mph over a 50-mile stretch of the route. You got to Chicago by train in 70 minutes in those days. (Today’s Amtrak Hiawatha service requires 90 minutes to cover the same route.) And in 1935, the Milwaukee Road set a speed record when one of its steam-powered trains was officially clocked at 112.5 mph over a 14-mile stretch between Milwaukee and New Lisbon.
And then there was the 400. In 1935, when the train made its first runs, there was nothing faster on rails averaged over such a long distance.
Powered by steam locomotives – Class E2 Pacifics with 79-inch driving wheels to be precise – the train was governed by a timetable that mandated strict speed limits for junctions and certain curves but, significantly, set no maximum speed limit for the long straightaways across central Wisconsin. Crews understood the meaning of that plainly enough: they were to run as fast as necessary in order to stay on schedule. The railway officially acknowledged bursts of 110 mph on some stretches. Privately, engineers and firemen spoke of touching 113 mph on occasion.
On almost any other railroad, this would have been reckless but the C&NW prided itself on safety. The year before the 400 debuted, the railway had rebuilt much of its mainline north of Milwaukee with heavy rail and new ballast, superelevated the curves for high-speed operation, then inspected every inch of track with a specially fitted rail car able to detect any minute cracks in the rail. As an added safety measure, the railway added a footnote to its employee timetable, “Nos. 400 and 401 are superior to all trains. Freight trains, transfer trains, and switch engines must clear the schedule of Nos. 400 and 401 fifteen (15) minutes.” In other words, everything else on the railroad stepped aside well before the trains were due and remained tucked away until they were safely past.
The new service was a sensation when launched in 1935. Each evening when the train departed the lake front, Shorewood police officers guarded the Capitol Drive railroad crossing where as many as 50 automobiles would be parked alongside the road there to witness the 400 flash past. “Just a black streak,” in the words of one author.
Diesel-powered 400s arrived in 1939. The name had become so famous that C&NW added “400” to the names of most of its other long-distance trains, giving Wisconsin, for example, trains like the Flambeau 400 and Peninsula 400, while the original train was renamed the Twin Cities 400. The name changed but the train itself remained fast and comfortable, with a dining car service famed for excellent meals. Amenities like parlor cars, and lunch counter/tavern cars were also present, as well as more personal touches.
In 1936, Chicago railroads held a beauty competition with each company electing a “queen” to represent its railroad. Miss Dorothy Whitt, an office worker, was named that year’s queen of the C&NW. Soon afterward, Miss Whitt took on a new and much more challenging assignment. She was one of the first two stewardesses assigned to the 400s. That’s her in the postcard above.
Stewardesses helped mothers traveling with small children, assisted passengers in making connections, booked seats for them in the dining car, sent their telegrams, and kept a watchful eye on small children traveling without a parent.
In 1961, the C&NW petitioned the Interstate Commerce Committee seeking to discontinue the Twin Cities 400, which was then losing over a million dollars a year. Times had changed. Airlines were faster and private automobiles were the first choice for most other travelers. In 1963, the train made its last run.
Although it travels a different route, Amtrak’s daily Empire Builder still links Milwaukee and the Twin Cites by rail. It takes just over nine hours to get there. Sixty years ago, the trip took 6 1/2 hours.
The Oak Leaf Trail from Estabrook Park to the lake front is a great place for a bike ride. And if it’s haunted at all, these ghosts are whispering, “Pedal faster.”