Three men come into more prominent view at this time. One is Russell Sage, a New York financier who was to have many fingers in many things during these years, including fingers in many railroads.
Associated with him were Alexander Mitchell, president of the St. Paul, and Sherburn S. Merrill, who, for years, was to be the general manager in charge of operating the Milwaukee & St. Paul.
Mitchell, a Scottish immigrant, had come to the U.S. as a young man, arriving in America in 1838 and in Milwaukee in 1839. He went to Wisconsin as the representative of a Chicago banker, but soon took over the whole business, becoming Milwaukee’s leading banker.
Mitchell was a part of virtually every early day railroad formed in Wisconsin, whether acting openly as a director or banker, or as an informal advisor. He was on the Milwaukee & Mississippi board from 1849 to 1855 and again in 1858, had been a commissioner of the Milwaukee & Watertown, a director of the La Crosse & Milwaukee and trustee of the small Milwaukee & Western railroad.
Mitchell and his associates saw the chance to build a large, unified system from the small railroads that had been broken by the panic, and they moved to gather up a number of these lines.
Eventually there would be more than 200 corporate entities going to make up the corporation that now is the Milwaukee Road. In those early days, many were railroad companies that had systems of no more than 30, 40 or 50 miles of track. Some were shorter; the Ripon and Wolf River Railroad Co., had 9.56 miles, the Pine River Valley & Stevens Point Rail Road Co. had 16.22 miles between Lone Rock and Richland Center, the Stillwater & Hastings Railway had 2.00 miles— in other words, some had corporate names nearly as long as their trackage.
Mitchell’s basic structure came from the La Crosse & Milwaukee. From that, he moved to arrange a working agreement with the Milwaukee & Prairie du Chien (the former Milwaukee & Mississippi) in 1865. Then in 1866 Mitchell became a director of the Prairie du Chien and the next year was elected its president, merging it with the La Crosse.
This also brought the McGregor Western under control of Mitchell and Sage, because this line had been leased in 1865 by the Prairie du Chien.
The McGregor Western was an important addition. It had one end in McGregor, Ia., just across the Mississippi River from Prairie du Chien, where the old M&M ended. The other end of the McGregor reached nearly to Minneapolis-St. Paul, this line being finished under Milwaukee & St. Paul management in 1867. The line from Milwaukee to the Twin Cities went by way of Cresco, Ia., and Owatonna, Minn., crossing the river, of course, at Prairie du Chien.
By 1868, the Milwaukee & St. Paul was a railroad with 825 miles of track, 135 locomotives, more than 130 units of passenger equipment and more than 2,400 freight cars. It was a big railroad for the era, but Mitchell and his associates were just beginning. *
* (As a note of historical interest and curiosity, but not much significance, it was at this time, in 1869, that Mitchell served for a short while as president of both the Milwaukee & St. Paul and of the Chicago & North Western, a railroad growing as fast in Illinois and southern Wisconsin as the M&StP was elsewhere in the Wisconsin area.)