James J. Hill takes on the Northern Pacific

Superior’s Central Avenue Interlocking, Part 1

Originally Published December 2014
In 1963 this was the Northern Pacific’s depot at Central Avenue. It was the general public’s interface with the railroad in South Superior. After it was agreed that the Great Northern could use the NP’s line into Superior the GN abandoned their own depot and both roads used this one for passenger traffic. But it was more than just a depot. This was a train order station on the NP. Those signals on the front of the building were called train-order semaphores. If the dispatcher needed to give instructions to the next passing train his operator working inside this depot would lower the semaphore blades to a horizontal position. This would indicate to the approaching train crew that they needed to slow down or stop to pick up new running orders. The operator would then pass on the dispatcher’s exact written instructions to both the conductor and engineer of that train. (Image: C.F. Sager, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)

The Central Avenue area in South Superior, Wisconsin, was vital in the development of rail transportation throughout the Twin Ports. Largely ignored in history books, it could be argued that this was the most important railway junction in all of Duluth-Superior. While the king-pins of the big railroads contemplated the quickest route to transportation supremacy at the Head of the Lakes, the men who actually worked here were simply responsible for moving trains safely through this part of town. Theirs was an essential transportation job that had to be taken seriously. Because of the congestion and traffic density of this complex the job was a bit more complicated than it might otherwise appear.

The operational heart of the Central Avenue railway complex was the Great Northern’s 2-story interlocking tower. It was installed into the southwest quadrant of the GN’s crossing of the NP’s tracks. This was the GN’s train order station at Central Avenue. Their train order semaphore signals can be seen at left. The stairway led to the top floor where the tower men and operators did most of their work. The main job performed by the tower men was to align track switches and signals to properly route trains through the interlocking. Of course they also delivered the train dispatcher’s written instructions to passing trains. The lower section of the building housed the mechanical interlocker mechanism, a furnace and water heater, a toilet and sink, and a supply and storage room for all of the paperwork that this station generated. (Image: Bob Johnston, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)

Early History
Superior’s first railroad freight and passenger depots were constructed in the late 1880s. More substantial depots replaced them in the 1890s. Once the trains started arriving, a surrounding community quickly developed—homes, a variety of general stores, and fuel suppliers. Large rail-served businesses sprang up as well. In South Superior this included Campbell Lumber, Duplex Manufacturing Company, Duplex Windmill Manufacturing Company, LaBelle Wagon Works, Midland Co-Op, Twin Ports Co-Operative Dairy Association, and the Webster Chair Company. Perhaps the least known of the businesses located here was the stub-track-served stock yard and slaughter house once located in the shadow of Central Avenue tower. Many smaller businesses received freight by rail here as well by using the team tracks located near the depots. (You can read about team tracks here.)

The Northern Pacific Railway (NP) developed the initial routes. Soon after, Great Northern (GN) came into town as the fledgling Eastern Railway Company of Minnesota (ERM, or Eastern for short). The first line to enter the area in 1881 was the NP’s Second Subdivision. This line was built from Carlton, Minnesota, (originally called Northern Pacific Junction) to Nettleton Avenue in Superior’s East End. Operations began on September 1, 1882. This line joined up with the NP’s First Sub-division (or Ashland Branch) at Nettleton Avenue in Superior. This marriage of the NP’s First and Second Subdivisions got it from Carlton all the way to Ashland, Wisconsin, via Central Avenue and Superior’s East End.

The men of the Northern Pacific were the railroad pioneers of Superior, Wisconsin. This 6-man yard switching crew includes the engineer (seated), fireman, conductor (far left), and three yard helpers. The normal flow of work for these men was consistent. The engineer operated the controls of his engine to move it back and forth along the tracks. The fireman kept the firebox loaded with fuel to keep the engine operative. The conductor ran the show and figured out exactly what needed to be done each day. His three helpers did the heavy work of operating track switches, applying hand brakes on cars, and connecting individual cars together to build complete trains for the outbound road crews. In Superior, NP pretty much had the run of the place until the Eastern showed up to grab their share of the business. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History Collection)

A second line was added in 1888 when NP constructed a 4.06–mile line south out of Superior that connected with the Second Subdivision at the heart of Central Avenue. This line was built to be able to take advantage of the crossing of St. Louis Bay made possible when the first Minnesota and Wisconsin draw bridges were built in 1885. Always planning ahead, NP built those bridges across the bay even before they had a line into this part of Superior. Their initial goal was to move traffic between Duluth and Superior and charge other lines for the use of their bridges. But when this new line finally connected to those bridges, a whole new route between Carlton and Duluth had been created—once again via Central Avenue. This quickly became a main route for NP and GN passenger trains to Superior Union Depot, then across the bay to Duluth Union Depot.

Precursor to Territorial Battles
GN entered the picture when James J. Hill’s Eastern Railway showed up to grab its share of business from the region. Incorporated on August 6, 1885, the Eastern’s original line ran from Hinckley, Minnesota, to Superior. But even before it had a direct connection to Superior, the line acquired more than 400 acres of land in West Superior that it developed into large terminal facilities, yards, docks and elevators capable of holding over 3 million bushels of grain. Hill knew that NP already had the advantage in Duluth. It was his intention to thoroughly out-do NP in West Superior.

Simple advertising from 1891 announces the Eastern Railway of Minnesota’s train service between St. Paul and Duluth. One key to this success is what transpired between the Eastern and the Northern Pacific just two years prior at Central Avenue in South Superior. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History Collection)

The NP’s tracks ran east-west through Central Avenue while the Eastern’s ran north-south. An agreement was reached on June 1, 1889 allowing the Eastern to cross the NP’s tracks at Central Avenue. The Eastern needed this agreement in order to gain access to the huge facilities it already built in West Superior, between 28th Street and Winter Street. But there was one caveat. If NP was to agree to this deal, then Hill’s Eastern Railway would have to bear 100 percent of the costs in perpetuity of the new track connections at Central Avenue, including installation of a mechanical interlocker, construction of the interlocking tower that would house it and installation of the required signals and safety devices. The Eastern would also have to pay for the men who would operate the junction 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, as well as ongoing maintenance, emergency repairs, snow removal and construction and maintenance of five roadways adjacent to the tracks.

When Hill agreed to the NP’s demands, the crossing was installed and the interlocking was made operational in February 1889. While the crossing was beneficial to Hill’s company by allowing him to access and fully develop his lands in West Superior, it was access to Duluth that Hill prized even more. Proceeds from the sale of bonds used to expand his Eastern Railway were partially based on the line making it all the way to Duluth, so Hill needed to reach the Zenith City. After more talks between the Eastern and the NP, a new agreement was reached between them on May 15, 1889, allowing the Eastern to install at Central Avenue a new connection track—not just a crossing—so that the Eastern’s passenger trains to and from St. Paul could run along the NP’s 4.06-mile line to reach Superior Union Depot, the NP’s draw bridges across St. Louis Bay and—potentially, at least—downtown Duluth.

The men of the Eastern performed the same jobs as their NP counterparts. It appears that back in those early days of railroading these two groups of men were pitted against each other to slow competitive growth. Eventually things calmed down and the two roads settled into peaceful coexistence. Eastern’s locomotives generally had a classier look compared to the work-a-day appearance of NP’s steamers from this era. It was Eastern’s intention to make everyone take notice of their line. Both the engine and the tender carry the Eastern moniker. Some say the name was chosen to reflect prominent eastern financial backing. The road was created to establish facilities at the Head of the Lakes for parent Great Northern that completely absorbed it in 1907. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History Collection)

Hill’s Line Reaches New Heights
Given the relative ease at which Hill procured this new agreement with NP, surely there had to be a fly in the ointment—and there was. The new agreement simply got the Eastern from Central Avenue across the bay and onto the very tip of Rice’s Point, which was already so congested with railroad tracks and streets that developing it any further would be difficult at best. The NP’s king-pins knew that Hill would have to craft agreements to cross each of these tracks, an expensive challenge that would take perhaps a year to accomplish. But Hill didn’t have years to wait. Never one to do anything on a small scale, he came up with an ingenious if not monumental solution to the problem. Instead of wasting time building more connections and negotiating trackage-rights deals, he quickly built a 7,540-foot-long elevated steel trestle right through the centerline of Rice’s Point. It was nicknamed the High Line although some may have called it Eastern’s eye-sore in Duluth. It ran the entire length of Rice’s Point, from the very tip at the connection with NP and almost all the way to his new freight depot, about where the tracks came back down to ground level, just short of Duluth Union Depot.

A trackage rights agreement that Oakes and Minot carved out in 1889 allowed GN trains to run on NP tracks from Central Avenue to the tip of Rice’s Point. To get from there to Duluth Union Depot the Eastern (later GN) had to come up with a different plan to cross the many other tracks on the point. Never one to do anything on a small scale, James J. Hill came up with this monumental solution to the problem. He built a tall, 7,540-foot long steel trestle to enable his passenger trains to enter downtown Duluth. Records indicate that it cost a small fortune annually just to maintain it. It was abandoned and dismantled beginning in 1944 after a new agreement was reached allowing GN trains to use NP tracks all the way from Central Avenue, through Rice’s Point at ground level, and right into Duluth Union Depot. (Image: Library of Congress)

Hill’s trains now literally ran over his competitors, and NP didn’t like these new developments at all. Even though there was a contract between the two companies, NP decided it was in its best interest to slow down Hill’s progress—if it could. NP tried to keep the Eastern off of its line by reneging track use at Central Avenue. They even removed the connection there. But legal remedies were quickly sought by Eastern and their briefly-stalled trains were rolling into Duluth once again after NP reinstalled the track. Litigation between the parties continued for some time. But on February 26, 1891, arbitration settled the matter once and for all giving Eastern the right to both cross and use NP tracks to gain competitive access into the Duluth-Superior terminal district.

If this legal struggle between the NP and GN situation seems extreme, consider an incident that occurred between the two rival railroads several years earlier. In 1888, the Eastern had blocked the NP in West Superior, so NP took matters into its own hands on September 23, 1888, and built a crossing through the Eastern’s track without getting any sort of permission to do it. The event was reported the next day in the New York Times:

Business development near the railroad crossing and junctions at Central Avenue brought in the kind of companies that were the keys to population growth and healthy living. The Twin Ports Co-Operative Dairy Association was founded here in 1916 by B.N. Stone of South Range, Wisconsin. It was Mr. Stone’s belief that every one of the dairy farmers from Carlton, Douglas and St. Louis Counties should benefit from a dairy association chartered to make the best use their dairy products while keeping prices fair to consumers. Founded as the Twin Ports Dairy Association the buildings shown here are what was known as the South Superior Plant. It was eventually converted to make dry, powered milk that could be fully reconstituted simply by adding it to water. This was an invaluable aid to a variety of war efforts and also to families that needed to save money by purchasing less expensive consumables. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History Collection)

“The announcement that the St. Paul and Duluth (NP) would on Monday begin running short-line trains to West Superior (over the NP’s new bridges) has much more of a meaning than it conveys. For a long time the St. Paul and Duluth has been waiting to start its short-line trains but has been unable to do so because of the course pursued by the Eastern Railway of Minnesota, whose tracks the short line had built (up to) at Superior. The St. Paul and Duluth line was built on both sides of the Eastern tracks, but a force of about 25 men was stationed at the crossing by the Eastern Company, and for weeks the other road has been unable to get across. After several unsuccessful attempts a green-looking watchman was put at the crossing to keep a lookout on the proceedings of the Eastern Company. He watched patiently and finally was rewarded. Thursday night the Eastern crew relaxed its vigilance and left a clear field for the short line. This was an opportunity for the lone watchman. He hauled out from its hiding place a telegraph instrument, tapped the wires, and hustled a message to Duluth. It brought a special locomotive and flatcar in quick order over the bridge and to the crossing. The car was loaded with necessary frogs, rails, etc. for making a crossing, and in 10 minutes the work was done and the triumphant scream of the (NP’s) whistle brought out the Eastern Road’s crowd (just) in time to see the last spike driven.”

Another cornerstone business here was the Duplex Manufacturing Company. Duplex made products important to everyone. This included water pumps and water tanks for drinking water, hot water radiators for heat, and portable engines to drive farm and business machinery. Their main plant was located between the GN and NP main tracks that ran north-south through the area. Their windmill plant was located in the northwest quadrant of the line crossing. Because of the importance of these products both railroads had their own separate rail access into both portions of this company. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History Collection)

The crossing was installed along Winter Street near a railroad location called LST&T Junction. It’s still marked that way even today. Eventually things settled down. The Milwaukee Road (Milwaukee) was given trackage rights over the NP from St. Paul through Central Avenue all the way to Duluth on October 1, 1900, an event that must have been quite the thorn in Hill’s side. Unlike the Eastern or GN, the Milwaukee could use the NP’s tracks without building a thing. The Milwaukee ran a daily freight train into the large Rice’s Point yard in Duluth. For decades their locomotives and cabooses could be seen near the NP’s roundhouse there. The Milwaukee trains accessed Duluth via both the 2nd and 3rd Subdivisions, depending on traffic conditions.

Click on “2” for the rest of the story….

Superior’s Central Avenue Interlocking, Part 1

15 Responses to James J. Hill takes on the Northern Pacific

  1. Hi Jimmy-
    Thanks for taking the time to let us know our efforts are worthwhile. Tony and I really enjoy researching these topics and we’re always happy to hear that these historical efforts are valued in the community. Take care.

  2. Thanks to Zenith City Pres for publiwshing this great story and photos. Brings back old memories.

  3. Hi Martin —
    Thanks for taking the time to write. Sharing what we know helps to keep history alive for future generations to enjoy. So we always enjoy hearing from our readership, especially when they like what we’ve done lately. Take care.

  4. Hi Harry –

    I’m glad that I could help bring back a few of those memories of the good old days in Superior. You know I started out photographing the old railroad buildings on the Superior side of the bay. I have a lot more material from Superior than I do of Duluth. But I sure don’t have everything which is why I’m always asking for help from other people. You know, to take a few moments to dig through the old shoe boxes and photo files to lend a photo here and there. Sometimes that makes all the difference in the world to developing a story. Even after I run a story I’m still looking for material on the subject because when I produce a new digital image disc (or book) that includes this topic I want to be able to include everything I found. Or at least have a better choice about what to include. My Twin Ports Time Machine Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 CDs were quite popular when I had those for sale. When the next edition comes to fruit I’m sure that everyone will enjoy that one even more. But that’s still a work in progress and mums the word for right now.

    Getting back to Central Avenue though, I have plenty of images showing the tower and the NP’s passenger and freight depot but don’t have a single shot of the Great Northern’s passenger and freight depot that was retired in 1941. That was located just north of the tower at Central Avenue. I’d love to find a few shots of that building to include. But until someone digs one out for me to use I’m at a loss in this regard. I remain hopeful. Such is the life of an industrial archaeologist I suppose. We’re always on the hunt for more clues about the past. And I’m always looking for more information and photographs of these topics that I write about so that I can turn around this wonderful old stuff to share with other fine folks—such as you, Harry.

    Thanks for taking the time to enrich Tony’s site with your comments and experiences. I think that I’m safe in saying that comments such as yours are precisely why we do the work we do around here. Hearing from other people about the topics we write about makes our day, and let’s us know that our efforts are valued in the community.

    Take care. Cheers!

  5. Jeff, great article. It was enjoyable for me because I grew up in South Superior. I was very familiar with the Central Ave. Tower. If you look at the BN 1970 map that’s in your article it shows the set of staging tracks between 58th St. and 51st St., well, right where 51st St is and northeast of the staging area is where I grew up. My house was at 52nd. St. and Oakes ave. I was always watching trains and running around the tracks (not a good idea but I was just a kid). I remember the circus train week right by our house.

    Also, now a know where Oakes Ave came from. One of your pictures name two men involved with everything back then, his name is Oakes so I’m pretty sure that’s where Oakes Ave. came from.

    Again, great article.

  6. Hi Eric –

    Glad to hear you’re enjoying the stories. The High Line was a doozie of a way to get passenger and express traffic across Rice’s Point and into downtown Duluth. It does illustrate the extreme measures that railroads would take back in the day to get a leg up on or even level the playing field with competitors. There’s quite a bit of material available on the history of this structure. Coming up with good photographs is the trickier part of writing the story but those photos are out there. We just need to find them and borrow them long enough to scan them for a story. If you know of any willing resources let us know.


  7. Hi Barbara –

    Good points. Those old agreements are still hard to swallow for the newer people on the property. As I understand it when the cabooses went away everyone instantly received what amounts to a daily working bonus called short crew pay. We have one man left on our division who was working when that agreement was crafted. Guess what happens when he retires a year from now? Everyone else loses their daily bonus and that’s more than $30 per day. It disappears for the entire division because no one remains who was a party to that old agreement. That’s hundreds of people who will be affected by that change and it is significant money. Such has always been the case with railroads. The working agreements are long and complicated and it seems like there’s a different deal for everybody or at least the different crafts. Unless you work there it’s pretty difficult to understand or appreciate. Suffice it to say there’s never a shortage of reasons to be grumpy.


  8. Great reading, as always, Jeff! Since other related articles have been talked about, perhaps the GN “high line” trestle could be the subject of its own article! 🙂 I have often wondered about that structure. Thanks again for some enjoyable reading!

  9. Interesting reading. Was just thinking about the continued bit of ‘ire’ between employees of the GN and NP after the 1970 merger. The operating people had guarantees based upon hours worked and money earned during a certain period of time. For some reason they were different and the NP men ended up with more money in their guarantee amount than did the GN guys. There were a lot of hard feelings in this group for a long time after the merger.

  10. Hi Kent –
    Yes, I have read John’s book from cover to cover several times. It’s a very fine work. I hope to be able to leverage some of the things I’ve collected over the years to fill in a few of the blanks. Thanks for your interest in what we all enjoy so much—sharing what we know about the history of Duluth, Superior, and the surrounding communities.

  11. Thanks Jeff. I know little about it other than their recent book, entitled “The Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railway” by John Gaertner/Indiana University Press, 2009. Just west of Marquette, MI, there are, and have been, many r.r. lumber cars on the old line, evidently being stored. It is vague about the Duluth connection; however, there was a Model R.R. club who had built a model of some portions of the line a few years ago–now having moved to some other interest area of railroading..Thanks for all your work!

  12. Hi Kent –
    Great idea. That story is in the planning stages at this point. I want to focus on the Duluth end of the line since that seems to be the part least photographed. If you (or anyone else for that matter) have any photographs to contribute I would accept them with open arms. It generally takes me 7-21 days to copy things digitally and return originals to the contributors. So if you do have something to add I can get your materials back to you pretty quickly. The DSS&A was a colorful little railroad with its own unique story. With just a little more help I might be able to get that onto ZCO as well. Take care.

  13. Would love a story with photos on the, short-lived, Duluth, South-shore and Atlantic Railroad which ran from Sioux St. Marie to Duluth/Superior

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