Team Tracks of the Twin Ports

This Month's Twin Ports Rail History

Originally posted August, 2014
Looking east at Duluth Union Depot during the early 1960s. To the left of the Northern Pacific rail diesel car is a Western Fruit Express ice bunker refrigerator car spotted on one of Duluth’s many team tracks for unloading by a local food supplier. The white building to the left and uphill of that car is the Great Northern’s freight house with its own team track next to it. While every freight car that rolls on the rails has a point of origin and a destination, many companies do not have rail access directly to their place of business. When a company without rail access would consign a freight car to ship or receive goods, the railroad would deliver their car to a place called the team track. The team track was a short track with public access along one or both sides so that shippers and receivers could load and unload the railcar into their own wagon or truck. In larger cities the railroads often furnished drayage contractors (at an extra charge) to move loads from the team tracks directly to the business that bought the transportation for the load. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)

The sheer number of businesses and industrial properties located—or once located—in the Twin Ports is extraordinary, particularly when you consider the logistics of shipping and receiving raw materials and finished goods. Many of these facilities were served by railroad tracks installed either alongside or inside of buildings for loading and unloading. The largest businesses in the region could handle well over 1,000 rail cars each month. Typically these were the coal, grain, iron ore and taconite docks that operated on a grand scale compared to everything else. Mid-range businesses handled dozens to hundreds of cars per month. The smallest companies handled perhaps ten cars or less, but they also required the most creative solutions to connect to the rail system: team tracks.

In the strictest definition of the phrase, a team track is a small railroad siding or spur track intended for the use of area merchants, manufacturers, farmers and other small businesses that personally (or through hire of draymen contractors) load and unload products and merchandise, usually in smaller or less-than-carload quantities. Any number of businesses could use the same team track.

Railroads in Duluth dominated the scene through the 1960s. The long low-level structure in the center of the photograph is the old Northern Pacific freight house where we can see a handful of boxcars spotted. When companies needed temporary warehouse space they could store their goods inside the freight house for a fee. Likewise they could stockpile goods here before ordering a boxcar so that when the car arrived it could be loaded and dispatched quickly. The Omaha Railway’s short one-car stub-track is obscured by the lush, green grass (near center right) but this is where baggage and merchandise was once loaded just across the street from their passenger depot. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)

With the exception of hazardous materials, most any team track could be used to load or unload any imaginable good, product, raw material or equipment. The team track is in effect the rail siding that companies use when they don’t have their own rail siding. Many of these team tracks were just a single track with public road access on one side or the other. Others were larger with property big enough to support loading conveyors or unloading equipment. Some had concrete pads or end-of-track ramps to make it easy to move drive-on-drive-off loads too.

The origin of the term “team track” is clearly illustrated in this turn of the century image. Every wagon was pulled by a team of horses. The wagon would be parked alongside the freight car to be loaded or unloaded. These public access tracks were built by the railroads to enable all types of commerce to access rail transportation. Today, the teams of horses and the wagons are long gone but the team track name remains. If you need to ship or receive a load of goods but don’t have rail access into your business you’ll still need to use the team track to accomplish that task. (Image: Dave Shaw, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)

During what many consider the local railroad industry’s modern consolidation era—1967 through 1979 when area businesses and railroads alike were merging—a total of 500 different companies used the railroads to move goods in and out of Duluth-Superior, 343 businesses on the Duluth side of the harbor and 157 on the Superior side. Of that, 67 (roughly 13 percent) of these “railroad-served” businesses—had to use team tracks.

Thanks to the over-the-road trucking boom of the 1960s, many smaller companies completely eliminated railroads from their transportation plans. Some hung on and took advantage of trailer-on-flat-car (TOFC) loading, which loads semi-truck trailers onto railroad flat cars at team tracks equipped with the proper loading ramps. Every railroad in the Twin Ports had such a ramp at one time; some had more than one. But TOFC didn’t stave off an overall declining need for team tracks. With the consolidation of so many smaller businesses during the last few decades the need for team tracks certainly declined—but they didn’t disappear entirely.

Big towns weren’t the only places where team tracks were used. Most small towns along the mainline had a short siding or single ended stub track where rail cars could be spotted for local merchants to use too. Here, at Wright, Minn., Northern Pacific drayage contractors unload material into their truck from a 40-foot Ontario Northland boxcar that arrived from Canada. It’s going to take several trips to get that boxcar cleaned out. Unloading cars as quickly as possible was important. Customers paid a fee to ship or receive a load. But if they didn’t have the car unloaded quickly enough they might also have to pay extra demurrage charges for every extra day the car sits idle. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)

Today, the most modern of all team tracks in Duluth-Superior loads and unloads all sorts of special cargo. Since its opening in 1959, the Clure Public Marine Terminal has provided ample space for any business to transfer loads of any kind between marine vessels, railroad cars, or trucks. This includes four tracks with direct access to the BNSF, CP, CN and UP railroads as well as 360,000 square feet of warehouse space. Team tracks have come a long way since the days of horse drawn wagons but the basic principal is still the same. There’s always going to be a need to get goods and merchandise from its point of manufacture onto railroad cars. And for companies without rail access, the team track will remain a big part of their transportation plan.

Scroll down for more photos


Each month on Zenith City Online Jeff Lemke traces the ongoing history of railroads that served the Twin Ports from 1870 to today. Catch up with his past installments here, and visit his fascinating site, Twin Port Rail History.


Some team tracks had permanent loading ramps. These were particularly useful in outlying areas where raw materials like pulpwood were harvested. This view was taken at Ironton, Minn. It shows two men busily unloading their truck loads of pulpwood into a pair of Northern Pacific gondolas (gons) for eventual shipment to the lumber mills. It will take 6-7 truck-loads to fill each gon. When the gons are full the local railroad station agent will be notified that the loading process is complete. Paperwork is then prepared and the cars will be picked up by the local switch crew to be forwarded down the line. Many team tracks were located a short distance from an occupied depot or station. That local station agent kept an eye on things and made sure everything was up to snuff with the local shippers. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)
While the most common cars at the team track were boxcars, gondolas, and flat cars, refrigerator cars were also frequent visitors—especially in larger cities like Duluth. The Santa Fe car at right is an ice bunker refrigerator (reefer) car that brought in produce from the west coast. These reefers required ice to keep the load cool. There was nothing modern or mechanical about the refrigeration inside these old cars—it was all done with ice—so ready access to large amounts of ice was important to many Duluth businesses that utilized area team tracks. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)
Railroads earned additional revenues through a variety of extra services they supplied to team track customers such as servicing ice reefers to keep them at the proper temperature. Duluth’s Northern Pacific and Superior’s Great Northern railway each had very large ice houses along their tracks that supplied ice for ice bunker reefers. But when the rail cars couldn’t be filled at one of these facilities then a portable ice truck was called to the team track to provide the necessary cooling the load required during transit. A combination of ice, salt, and saw dust was loaded into each end of each car. Here we see a worker on the lift about to slide large blocks of ice into the open roof hatches on top of this ice reefer car. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)
One of the daily rituals at the old Omaha Railway depot in downtown Duluth was the arrival of the DW&P’s passenger train that brought fresh fish down from the lakes of northern Minnesota. This view shows a truck from Lake Superior Fish Company off–loading today’s catch from the baggage section of the DW&P’s only rail diesel car. This fish will be sold to local restaurants. Sometimes the team track had another more official use—like this track that was part of a local passenger depot. As long as there was ready public access to it then nearly any track could be temporarily used for this purpose. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)
At one time there were more than a dozen team tracks scattered throughout Duluth and Superior. When trailer-on-flat-car (TOFC) shipments began after WWII team tracks were augmented with either temporary or permanent ramps to allow truck trailers to be unloaded by simply driving them off of the flat cars they arrived on. This one, known as Duluth’s “elephant track,” was operated by the Northern Pacific. It had its own catchy name to distinguish it from the regular team track located nearby. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)
While most team tracks were known by the same name some were also known locally as the depot track, freight or house track, public access track, or some other catchy name. Duluth’s elephant track had a name that could be traced right back to actual elephants. When the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus came to town elephants and tractors were used to unload wagons. There was a time when the railroad went out of its way to enable customers to load and unload goods and materials on team tracks in every community that they served. The interstate highway system changed a lot of that after WWII with trucks becoming the preferred shipping method especially when smaller loads were involved. Still, in most large communities the team track endures although these days it goes largely unused compared to earlier times. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)

This Month's Twin Ports Rail History

13 Responses to Team Tracks of the Twin Ports

  1. Hi David –

    Freight went by car load and less-than-carload (LCL) rates. One of the stories that I have in the works is about the LCL. Even through the early 1970s many of the local trains that ran out and back on Burlington Northern (BN) to such places as Ashland, Carlton, Cloquet, Grand Rapids and Staples usually had a swing-door ice reefer just ahead of the caboose or right behind the engine. It wasn’t iced down but it was insulated. And because it had small hinged doors it was easy for one man to open and close those doors by hand. That was the car that carried LCL and small packages between stations. So if you’re ever looking through your pictures and see what appears to be a small ice bunker refrigerator car on a local train that’s likely the LCL car on that train. I have some dandy slides showing this operation on the BN. Hope to share those later on.

    As for dunnage this would include strip lumber, strapping, nails, wrappers, wooden and cardboard coal doors and grain doors too. Just about anything you could think of that would have been used to secure and protect a load inside of or on a freight car. The shipper did everything he could do to help protect the load in transit. Once it left the shipper’s site it was up to the railroad to handle the car gently along the way. Then when the car was unloaded, often, a great deal of the dunnage was left behind in the haste to get the load out of or off of the car. The hope was that the receiving company would clear the car of all the shipping debris. But it didn’t always work that way. Most large railroads had a clean-out track when cars would be spotted after they were “empty” for workmen to fully clean out those cars so they would be ready to accept the next load from the next customer. After the dunnage was finally removed, only then was the car truly empty. Sometimes that process includes washing the insides of the car, repairing holes in the floor, and even fumigating the interior of the car with pesticides to keep bugs out of the next load such as with grain cars.

    Glad to hear that you’re enjoying the pictures and stories. There’s lots more to come so please stay tuned.


  2. Hi Jeff,

    Excellent article. I often wondered how freight cars were loaded and unloaded.

    Were the loads and space in box cars shared by a number of companies in a town (say a hardware store, appliance store, grocery chain, etc. which would not need a full box car of material all by themselves…or was each company required to pay for the whole box car load, even though they may only use a small portion of the space?

    Also the concept of “dunnage”…cleaning box cars after their use, was very interesting; especially if cargo was messy and left debris. Was this work done by railroad employees or contracted companies who did this box car cleaning service after every load?

    I enjoyed the photo and story of the fish truck taking fresh fish off the baggage section of DW&P’s RDC in Duluth. I never heard of fish being shipped in baggage cars…learned something new.

    The RPO section of the DW&P RDC seen in the head-end section behind the engine cab was the RPO my dad worked on as a RPO Clerk in Charge for a few months after the Omaha (CStPM&O) Road, which he worked on since 1945, discontinued its Duluth & Altoona RPO in 1959.

    This was the Warroad & Duluth RPO that ran from Duluth to the Canadian border at Warroad, MN. This used to be a 30’RPO compartment on a 60′ combination RPO/Baggage car when the DW& P ran a large passenger train to Duluth from Canada that connected Canadian passenger and mail traffic from Winnipeg in Duluth with the CStPM&O/C&NW’s “Chicago Limited” train to Chicago. The DW&P train had sleeper coaches and dining cars on it and a much larger RPO crew to handle the large US Canadian mail volume between the US eastern cities via Chicago and Duluth to Winnipeg,Manitoba, and Canadian western provinces on the CP Railroad. The CP sleepers were connected to the CStPM&O’s Chicago Limited in Duluth for a nighttime run to Chicago.

    When the Duluth & Altoona RPO on the Omah Road and its connecting RPO in Altoona, WI (the C&NW’s Chicago & St. Paul RPO) were discontinued, the mail volume on the DW&P’s Warroad & Duluth RPO route dwindled to a trickle, with only local mail being hauled between Duluth and Warroad, requiring just 15′ of USPO leased space and one RPO clerk to handle local mail…it was then DW & P switched to a small all purpose RDC to handle that diminished service route, which you see in the picture.

    “Thanks for the memories” of trains and railroading in the Twin Ports. Keep it coming!

    Dave Thompson

  3. Hi Bob,

    I know it seems odd about the sawdust. In the very early days the insulation inside each car was actually quite poor. Compressed cow hair worked for a while until it rotted. Balsam-Wool made in Cloquet, MN. by the Wood Conversion Company was a good replacement for that in the 1930s. They sold that to railroad car and truck manufacturing companies to insulate reefers and trailer trucks. Up until that time shippers did whatever they could to insulate the load — and the ice — to keep everything as cold as possible for as long as possible. So sawdust wasn’t the only thing that they used back in the day to prolong the cooling capacity of the ice. Straw was used too. The sawdust and straw was generally packed between the ice and the sides or ends of the car. When we think about dunnage (cleaning out the freight cars of left-over debris used to secure the actual load) the image that generally comes to mind is the interior of boxcars; not reefers. But those must have been a huge mess in the early days too. Of course in later years as insulation became better inside the rail cars straight ice was used. In the short space we have here to tell stories it’s difficult to cover every example in each decade as technology evolved. But we’re trying. Thanks for your input.


  4. Regarding the photo showing the PFE refrigerator car being iced, the caption reads in part, “…A combination of ice, salt, and saw dust was loaded into each end of each car. Here we see a worker on the lift about to slide large blocks of ice into the open roof hatches on top of this ice reefer car.”
    I’ve conducted years of research on refrigerator cars, especially those used for produce, such as this PFE car. I’ve never read of saw dust being placed in the bunkers. The sawdust would have blocked the floor drains. And those 300 pound ice blocks were broken into quarters or smaller pieces before being dropped into the bunkers. Whole blocks would have damaged the bunkers and provided less surface area for cooling the load. Additionally, there was no tariff to charge shippers for whole blocks of ice, only quarter pieces or smaller.

  5. Hi Will –

    Glad to hear that you’re enjoying my stories about railroading in Duluth-Superior and thanks for taking the time to drop me a line. If you haven’t been to my website there’s a story in the Where We Started section about my first trip to the Twin Ports that you might find worthwhile too.


    Jeff Lemke

  6. Love your story’s & inputs into one of the greatest locations in America..the “TWIN PORTS OF SUPERIOR & DULUTH”

    Visit the “Twin Ports” every chance I get,had relatives in Superior for years….

    keep up the GREAT WORK…..!

  7. Hi Josh,

    Thanks for your interest and support of our projects. I enjoy hearing from people who enjoy reading the articles and seeing these images from our not-too-distant past. Times have certainly changed in Duluth-Superior and it’s fun to see just how different the industrial landscape is now compared to even just a few decades ago. Please give my regards to everyone at North Shore Scenic for the wonderful work they’re doing too. It’s all good.


    Jeff Lemke
    Twin Ports Rail History

  8. Hi Tim,

    I remember that property and hopefully those maps I provided helped you to some degree to figure out the old lines and ownership. Nice hearing from you again. Take care.


    Jeff Lemke
    Twin Ports Rail History

  9. Hi Craig,

    I like to break the large subject of railroading into small pieces. I think it’s important to show the human side of the business to illustrate how regular folks and businesses interacted with the railroad to move their goods and conduct business. Glad to hear you enjoyed the Team Track story and the photographs.


    Jeff Lemke
    Twin Ports Rail History

  10. With regard to my previous post; the property my great grandfather owned in West Duluth is now owned by the City of Duluth, however there is still a railroad right of way where the tracks once were, the right of way is owned by BNSF.

  11. My great grandfather had spur tracks that went through his property in West Duluth. These tracks were the Northern Pacific and were originally the Duluth Transit Railway tracks laid down in 1888. This spur was also used by the Duluth Beltline (West Duluth Incline). The tracks continued to Central Ave until 1909. The Northern Pacific never used these tracks after 1902. Keep up the good work on ZC

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