Duluth’s Missabe Junction

Everything came together at 27th Avenue West

A familiar sight from the top of the 27th Avenue West overpass was the passing of freight trains of the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Railway. This one is bringing empty bentonite clay cars from taconite plants on the Iron Range to be interchanged at Rice’s Point in Duluth. Missabe Junction was the railroad’s main connection to the outside world for commercial rail business destined to and coming from the Missabe Division of the DM&IR and its predecessor in this area, DM&N. Canadian National operates this line today. (Image: Jeff Lemke)
A familiar sight from the top of the 27th Avenue West overpass was the passing of freight trains of the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Railway. This one is bringing empty bentonite clay cars from taconite plants on the Iron Range to be interchanged at Rice’s Point in Duluth. Missabe Junction was the railroad’s main connection to the outside world for commercial rail business destined to and coming from the Missabe Division of the DM&IR and its predecessor in this area, DM&N. Canadian National operates this line today. (Image: Jeff Lemke)

Even if they have heard of it, not many Duluthians today would know where to find the place known as Missabe Junction. Much of it was located between the ore docks and Slabtown, which no longer exists. The junction—essentially a rail yard located where four railroad lines came together at 27th Avenue West—was positioned to help get trains where they needed to be in Duluth and Superior.

Predecessors of the Northern Pacific (NP) built the first railroad line into Duluth during 1870. By 1892 at least six railroads served Duluth, including the NP, the Duluth South Shore & Atlantic, the Duluth & Iron Range, Wisconsin Central, and the Duluth & Winnipeg. That same year a harbor-front line called the Duluth Transfer Railway was built to serve the coal docks while the Merritt brothers were forming the Duluth, Missabe & Northern Railroad to bring their iron ore from the Missabe Range to Duluth. The DM&N received its right-of-way in 1893 as it was constructing a massive ore dock at the foot of 33rd Avenue West.

Connecting the original NP line and the DM&N line at a point near 27th Avenue West created a rail yard that the DM&N called Missabe Junction. NP’s connection to that yard was known as West DM&IR Junction. That site was marked by a sentinel interlocking tower that controlled train movements through the area. Missabe Junction was an important interchange location right from the start, serving two major West End businesses: Duluth Brewing & Malting Company, built between 1895 and 1896 at the corner 29th Avenue West and Helm Street, and the Northwest Manufacturing Company complex, which purchased Clyde Iron Works in 1901 and moved that business into a West End facility north of the brewery. Later Pure Oil and Scott Graff Lumber built facilities near the east end of the yard. By 1907 the final major piece of the Missabe Junction puzzle arrived in the form of the Wisconsin Central Railway (part of Soo Line). The Soo Line and Missabe tracks connected via a large loop of track just west of the Missabe Junction yards and to the 29th Avenue freight house of the Soo Line, across 31st, 32nd, Michigan, Helm, and Huron Streets.

Missabe Junction yard shows in this middle of this small portion of a much larger Northern Pacific map dated 1923. Since this was an NP map they used their own naming conventions to show that the location where NP and DM&N rails met was known as DM&N Junction. After the DM&N and D&IR merged in 1937 this location became known as West DM&IR Junction (i.e. the new Missabe's "west" connection with Duluth) while the spot where the former D&IR met NP rails near Fitger's became East DM&IR Junction (i.e. the new Missabe's "east" connection with Duluth). (Click to enlarge | Image: Jeff Lemke)
Missabe Junction yard shows in this middle of this small portion of a much larger Northern Pacific map dated 1923. Since this was an NP map they used their own naming conventions to show that the location where NP and DM&N rails met was known as DM&N Junction. After the DM&N and D&IR merged in 1937 this location became known as West DM&IR Junction (i.e. the new Missabe’s “west” connection with Duluth) while the spot where the former D&IR met NP rails near Fitger’s became East DM&IR Junction (i.e. the new Missabe’s “east” connection with Duluth). (Click to enlarge | Image: Jeff Lemke)

When completed, the Missabe Junction upper yard extended from a passenger station at 27th Avenue West to about 31st Avenue West. It consisted of five tracks with a capacity of roughly 100 forty-foot cars. The yard’s east end connected with just the NP, but the west end had three connections. First was the DM&N’s mainline from Proctor. Second was the line that ran underneath the NP Short Line to connect with the lower yards near the coal docks and the Duluth Transfer Railway. The third track was the long, balloon-like semi-circle of track that crossed Michigan Street at about 31st Avenue West and went to the Soo Line freight house at 29th Avenue West and Superior Street. Missabe Junction’s lower yards held additional storage tracks with a capacity of about 300 cars. During the winter coal movement, these tracks—together with the Missabe’s adjacent log dock and limestone dock tracks (east of the ore docks)—provided room for about 175 additional cars. It was also used to store empty cars used by the St. Louis Bay Coal Dock Company to ship outbound coal used for industrial and home-heating purposes.

Today’s Missabe Junction is a much-simplified array of tracks located adjacent to I-35 that connects the former DM&IR (now Canadian National) with the old Duluth Transfer Railway main line (now BNSF). In this first of three stories on Missabe Junction, we look back at the area around 27th Avenue West to see what it was like before construction of Interstate Highway 35 and prior to the West Michigan Street Redevelopment Project of the 1960s. These two programs combined to change the rail yards and eliminate the vast majority of the surrounding Slabtown neighborhood too, including most of the industry once located there.

The heart of Missabe Junction through the mid-1960s was this humble two-story frame 20 x 60 foot depot and yard office that was owned and operated by the DM&IR. During the years that passenger train service operated through this station the railway maintained a ticket booth and a very small waiting room for passengers on the first floor. The balance of the building was used by a group of yard masters, clerks, and agents to oversee all of the freight traffic that came through this facility. When passenger service was dropped in the early 1960s, all freight operations were moved to the first floor. That’s the old wooden 27th Avenue West overpass is just behind the building. In the distance is the West DM&IR Junction interlocking tower that controlled access to and from Missabe Junction yard. These were the three most-recognizable structures from Missabe Junction’s past. (Image: C.F. Sager, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
The heart of Missabe Junction through the mid-1960s was this humble two-story frame 20 x 60 foot depot and yard office that was owned and operated by the DM&IR. During the years that passenger train service operated through this station the railway maintained a ticket booth and a very small waiting room for passengers on the first floor. The balance of the building was used by a group of yard masters, clerks, and agents to oversee all of the freight traffic that came through this facility. When passenger service was dropped in the early 1960s, all freight operations were moved to the first floor. That’s the old wooden 27th Avenue West overpass just behind the building. In the distance is the West DM&IR Junction interlocking tower that controlled access to and from Missabe Junction yard. These were the three most-recognizable structures from Missabe Junction’s past. (Image: C.F. Sager, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
This 1961 view shows the upper yard at Missabe Junction. The two tracks at left are the eastbound and westbound main tracks of the Northern Pacific’s Short Line while the balance of tracks to the right make up the DM&IR’s yard. NP had access to these tracks and saw occasional deliveries and pickups from them during the day. Look closely and you’ll see an NP Alco switch engine just to the left of the brewery building. The string of pulpwood, box, and chemical cars are destined for the paper mill in Cloquet via Saginaw on the Duluth & Northeastern Railroad. The yard tracks curve around to the right and disappear behind the tall brick and stone buildings of the Duluth Brewing & Malting Company. The Soo Line and DM&IR interchanged cars behind the brewery since the Soo Line also connected to the curve via their Duluth mainline located a few blocks to the north. Part of Duluth’s forgotten Slabtown neighborhood shows in this picture along what used to be Railroad Street. (Image: C.F. Sager, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
This 1961 view shows the upper yard at Missabe Junction. The two tracks at left are the eastbound and westbound main tracks of the Northern Pacific’s Short Line while the balance of tracks to the right make up the DM&IR’s yard. NP had access to these tracks and saw occasional deliveries and pickups from them during the day. Look closely and you’ll see an NP Alco switch engine just to the left of the brewery building. The string of pulpwood, box, and chemical cars are destined for the paper mill in Cloquet via Saginaw on the Duluth & Northeastern Railroad. The yard tracks curve around to the right and disappear behind the tall brick and stone buildings of the Duluth Brewing & Malting Company. The Soo Line and DM&IR interchanged cars behind the brewery since the Soo Line also connected to the curve via their Duluth mainline located a few blocks to the north. Part of Duluth’s forgotten Slabtown neighborhood shows in this picture along what used to be Railroad Street. (Image: C.F. Sager, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
The interlocking tower at West DM&IR Junction was just east of Missabe Junction yard located along the main tracks of the Northern Pacific Railway. Since the Missabe came along after the NP, the burden of building, maintaining, and staffing the tower fell on the Missabe. It controlled the flow of traffic coming into Duluth as well as that going to and from Missabe Junction. (Image: C.F. Sager, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
The interlocking tower at West DM&IR Junction was just east of Missabe Junction yard located along the main tracks of the Northern Pacific Railway. Since the Missabe came along after the NP, the burden of building, maintaining, and staffing the tower fell on the Missabe. It controlled the flow of traffic coming into Duluth as well as that going to and from Missabe Junction. (Image: C.F. Sager, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
This close up view of the tower was taken on August 21, 1961, looking east. The operator’s platform was located on the second floor while the mechanical “guts” of the interlocking machine took up most of the first floor. Prior to the 1937 merger of the DM&N and D&IR the name of this tower was West DM&N Junction. (Image: C.F. Sager, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
This close up view of the tower was taken on August 21, 1961, looking east. The operator’s platform was located on the second floor while the mechanical “guts” of the interlocking machine took up most of the first floor. Prior to the 1937 merger of the DM&N and D&IR the name of this tower was DM&N Junction. (Image: C.F. Sager, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
View looking east at West DM&IR Junction shot from atop the 27th Avenue West overpass. It shows (left to right) the Missabe's yard lead going into Missabe Junction yard and the two main tracks of the Northern Pacific. Industries showing near the left side of the photograph are Pure Oil and Scott Graff Lumber, also switched by the NP. (Image: C.F. Sager, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
View looking east at West DM&IR Junction shot from atop the 27th Avenue West overpass. It shows (left to right) the Missabe’s yard lead going into Missabe Junction yard and the two main tracks of the Northern Pacific. Industries showing near the left side of the photograph are Pure Oil and Scott Graff Lumber, also switched by the NP. (Image: C.F. Sager, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
Here’s a 1963 view looking north on 27th Avenue West from atop the wooden viaduct over the DM&IR and NP tracks. The Missabe Junction yard office is just out of picture to the left. The Red Owl supermarket is in the background left center (note the big eyes of the Red Owl sign just above the Chung King truck trailer). Two years before this photo was taken all of the snow-covered property was filled with Slabtown homes. In another year the rest of them would be gone as well. (Image: C.F. Sager, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
Here’s a 1963 view looking north on 27th Avenue West from atop the wooden viaduct over the DM&IR and NP tracks. The Missabe Junction yard office is just out of picture to the left. The Red Owl supermarket is in the background left center (note the big eyes of the Red Owl sign just above the Chung King truck trailer). Two years before this photo was taken all of the snow-covered property was filled with Slabtown homes. In another year the rest of them would be gone as well. (Image: C.F. Sager, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
Here’s a 1961 view of the Red Owl Super Market located at 2701 W. Superior Street. On the day the photograph was taken, pork chops were on special today for 39 cents a pound, and with each dollar spent you took home more S&H green stamps. (Image: C.F. Sager, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
Here’s a 1961 view of the Red Owl Super Market located at 2701 W. Superior Street. On the day the photograph was taken, pork chops were on special today for 39 cents a pound, and with each dollar spent you took home more S&H green stamps. (Image: C.F. Sager, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
Click on “2” to view more photographs of Missabe Junction

Everything came together at 27th Avenue West

5 Responses to Duluth’s Missabe Junction

  1. Good questions. Here’s what I can tell you. Only the coal docks show in that picture you asked about. If the camera had been turned slightly to the right you’d see them. The coal docks took up quite a bit of real estate along the harbor west of 29th Avenue West. The dock itself was 1,856 feet long and 606 feet wide at the end. The Missabe had two tracks centered on the dock. Unloading of coal from boats was accomplished via five Mead-Morrison movable electric traveling straight-line cranes, each with a 40-foot reach, and a 250 ton per hour unloading capacity. Three of them were 2-ton capacity while the final two were of 4 ton capacity. You can clearly see these five cranes at the water’s edge. The dock also had two traveling bridge cranes each with a 2-ton bucket. You can see those towards the right side of the photograph. These were used to trans-load coal from the stockpile on the ground into ore cars or coal cars for movement by the railroad. The telltale just below the two bridge cranes protects the Duluth Transfer Railway main track as it passes under the roadway viaduct. Today this area serves as the taconite stockpile storage area for Missabe Ore Dock No. 6 now owned and operated by Canadian National. That area also occupies where the old DM&N log dock and limestone dock were located. The St. Louis Bay Dock Company took over operation of the coal docks and the limestone dock but I’m pretty sure that the Missabe retained ownership and operation of the of the limestone dock until the very end. I’d have to check my files to know for sure. I have some great pictures of these operations and when we get to the stories about coal and ore movements you’ll see those. The log dock was located between 32nd and 33rd Avenue West and was 1,364 long and 28 feet wide at the end and was used to ship timber and steel plates. The limestone dock was located at the foot of 33rd Avenue West and was 2,236 feet long and 52 feet wide and used by US Steel Corp. for the unloading of coal, limestone, slag, and pig iron. The Lower Yards (also known as the Hole Yards) were down under Docks 5 and 6 and the switch crews who worked those jobs went on duty in the Lower Yards, not at Missabe Junction yard office. There was a small shack for the yardmaster with crew room and not much else. The Lower Yard is where the Missabe stored ore cars used in limestone service and their “battleship” coal cars used in coal service. So yes, much of that coal ended up at the Gary Works that the Missabe hauled as well as the Zenith Furnace facility in West Duluth that the NP hauled. The Duluth Transfer Railway was the tributary on which most of this coal flowed to those plants. Although that line was controlled and eventually owned outright by Northern Pacific a large portion of it was leased to the Missabe to run these coal trains from the docks in this picture to Steelton and the steel plant located there.

    Hope that helps. Cheers!

  2. As a clerk on the ore docks in 1960, we were always relieved when a DM&IR train was routed to Missabe Junction. It meant we didn’t have to deal with it (unloading and billing) on one of the docks. Very fine and valuable research in these accounts. My father grew up in Slabtown in the early 20th century when the namesake lumber was piled along the bayfront.

  3. Excellent article, Jeff. Thank you. On page 2, first picture, I note the lack of ore docks. Is that trestle on the right Dock 5 being constructed circa 1915? Was the limestone dock constructed later? Also, didn’t the USS Gary Works in Morgan Park use lots of coal for coke making?

  4. Stan, I grew up in St. Paul, and when my next door neighbor Mike Ferderer was a retired railroad worker, not sure whihch outfit he worked for. He told a similar tale of timing their stops at Fitger’s with the brewery workers’ shift change, and all would gather at the base of the brewery near the railroad tracks, grab a pewter mug from the rack, and pour themselves a beer from a spigot sticking right out of the building. Coldest beer he ever tasted, he’d say.

  5. Another clear and informative article with great images.

    I worked 11 years for the DM&IR, with a short time in the Transportation Dept. My uncle John was a trainman with the DM&IR most of his adult life. I’ve heard a number of stories from my uncle, and others in the the Transportation Dept about switching out cars at the brewery. It always took longer there, because they had an open tap that workers (or others, including trainmen) could have a beer.
    Stan R Aug 20

Leave a reply