Duluth’s Major Railroads

The Northern Pacific roundhouse was built west of Garfield Avenue. (Image: Library of Congress)

From 1886 to 1888 SP&D built new lines from West Duluth to Carlton to reduce the grade and remove some turns, making it much easier on the trains. The original line continued to provide commuter train service to Fond du Lac until the 1930s. The SP&D became part of Northern Pacific at the turn of the twentieth century. Northern Pacific was succeeded by Burlington Northern (BN), today’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF). Because BN already had railways in place, much of the original LS&M line was considered redundant. Most of the track was abandoned, and many segments have since been turned into “rail trails,” including the Willard Munger Trail, named for long-time Minnesota Congressman and conservationist Willard Munger, which begins in West Duluth near the motel he owned for years.

The Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railway (CMO) better known as the Omaha Road, served Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and South Dakota and created a direct link between Chicago and Superior in 1883. Until 1886, when the Great Northern Railroad built the St. Louis Bay Bridge, those who wanted to reach Duluth completed their journey by ferry boat. The CMO built a passenger station at 200 Fifth Avenue West and a freight depot next door at 232 Fifth Avenue West. The Northern Division main line to Duluth was abandoned by 1965, when both structures were demolished to make room for the Interstate 35 expansion. Another CMO depot stood at the foot of Eighth Avenue West; the Chicago & North Western Railway (C&NW) leased the Omaha Road in 1957; in 1972 the C&NW completely absorbed the Omaha Road.

The depots built by CMO were also used by the Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific Railway (DWP), which began in 1901 as the Duluth, Virginia and Rainy Lake Railway and ran from Virginia north to Silver Lake. The Canadian Northern Railway purchased the railway and renamed it the Duluth, Rainy Lake and Winnipeg Railway (DRL&W). In 1908 the line reached north to International Falls. The following year the railway was purchased by Canadian Northern and its name was changed again, this time to Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific. It first connected to Duluth in 1912, using the CMO passenger and freight stations as well as its own freight depot at 5431 Grand Avenue, where Grand intersects with Central Avenue, which was demolished in 1965. The DWP also served a passenger depot at Spirit Lake, originally built for access to the Duluth Boat Club’s Spirit Lake branch. The DWP remained a subsidiary of Canadian Northern until CN became known as Canadian National, after which the DWP was completed absorbed by its parent company.

First formed in 1888 from a conglomeration of existing railroads, the Minneapolis, St. Paul, & Sault Ste. Marie Railroad, commonly called the Soo Line, arrived in Duluth in 1910 in grand style. The Soo Line built a large passenger depot designed by Charles E. Bell, William M. Tyrie, and Cecil B. Chapman at 602 West Superior Street. The Neoclassical Revival–style building, faced in red brick with stone and terra cotta trim, stood one-and-a-half-stories tall along Superior Street but dropped two stories in back to reach Michigan Street. The depot’s construction cost $250,000, but that wasn’t the expensive part of bringing the Soo Line to Duluth. The company spent $2.5 million just getting the rail lines the final mile to the depot.

Most of the money went for the construction of a tunnel. By the time the Soo Line made plans to bring service to Duluth, much of the railroad right-of-way was in use and streets were in place, leaving little room for a new rail line. To make the Soo Line fit into Duluth without disrupting street traffic, the railroad had to create some room and found it under Michigan Street. Work on the tunnel was actually begun in 1908 by the Wisconsin Central Railroad (WC). The Soo Line acquired majority interest of the CW that same year and took over the project. A small army of men used dynamite and rock drills to cut through the Point of Rocks. When completed, the tunnel ran sixteen feet below the Superior Street grade and measured sixteen feet high and twenty-seven feet wide.

Including the cost of adding tributary lines to connect existing routes to Duluth, the Soo Line estimated it had spent $18 million. Passenger service began in October, 1910, offering passengers a variety of routes to destinations throughout the Midwest. The Soo Line’s Laker ran an overnight service to and from the Twin Ports to Chicago’s Grand Central Station. Soo Line also maintained two freight stations in Duluth, one at the foot of Ramsey Street and another at the foot of Tenth Avenue West. In 1960 the Soo Line acquired the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railway (DSS&A), a line first formed in 1888 to connect Duluth to Sault Ste. Marie and the eastern seaboard. The purchase made sense: the DSS&A had been using the Soo Line’s track since they first opened, and both railroads were subsidiaries of Canadian Pacific. The relationship was short-lived, however; Duluth service ended in 1961. The Laker was discontinued completely on January 15, 1965.

The Soo Line Depot was demolished in 1972 as part of Duluth’s Gateway Urban Renewal Project. Gateway Towers, an apartment complex for seniors, now occupies the Soo Line Depot’s former site. Redevelopment plans had at first called for the building to be saved and reused as the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center. Unfortunately years of neglect resulted in a completely flooded basement, which undermined the building’s structural strength. The 1892 Duluth Union Depot at 506 West Michigan Street—originally slated for demolition—was instead saved for the Heritage and Arts Center and now includes the Duluth Playhouse, history museums operated by the St. Louis County Historical Society, and the Lake Superior Railroad Museum.

Including the 1892 Union Depot, the Zenith City is fortunate to have three former railroad depots still standing. The D&IR’s Endion Station still exits, albeit not in its original location. The Lake Superior & Mississippi’s Fond du Lac passenger station, built in 1870 when the railroad first reached Duluth, is also with us but in a different location. After the railway line was abandoned, the depot was moved to 13308 West Third Street, where it still stands. It was used as a duplex until 1929, when it became the Olde Depot Inn restaurant. The Inn closed in 1985 and the building is now a private residence.

Other railroad depots that have come and gone from the Zenith City include a Great Northern freight station at 630 West Michigan Street; Duluth & Iron Range Railway (D&IR) depots at 2700 West Railroad Street, 527 East Gary Street, on Forty-Seventh Avenue East near East Superior Street, and at Sixtieth Avenue East and Superior Street.

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