Building railroads was never easy. Early railroad construction was always enabled through the work of a diverse group of strong-willed individuals who had access to capital, land and regulatory influence at both the state and federal levels. The first rail link between the Twin Cities and the Head of the Lakes—what would eventually become the Northern Pacific Railroad—was no exception. The story begins in 1857 when Minnesota legislators issued a charter for the Nebraska & Lake Superior Railroad Company, designed to run from St. Paul to Omaha. A lack of funding prevented construction—but that didn’t stop the railroad’s developers from pressing on.
The Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad
In 1861 the state allowed the charter to be changed to create a new line running north to the western-most tip of Lake Superior. The name was changed to The Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad Company (LS&M). This new charter included a grant to 694,000 acres of land along either side of the proposed right-of-way.
Track laying on the old LS&M began at St. Paul early in 1867 but was quickly stopped when the original investors ran out of money. One of the road’s directors, William Banning, contacted Philadelphia banker Jay Cooke, America’s leading financier at that time. It took some convincing but eventually Cooke agreed to finance the building of the rest of the line provided the road’s organizers came up with their own funding to build the first 30 miles of track. With Cooke’s promise in hand it didn’t take long for investors to line up, cash in hand, so the first 30 miles of track quickly reached as far as Wyoming, Minnesota. According to track laying records, actual operations to White Bear began on October 6, 1868, and to Wyoming on December 23, 1868. With Jay Cooke’s backing the line eventually found itself with title to 992,000 acres of federal land in addition to the original 694,000 acres of state land. At the railroad’s inception, the railroad line’s ultimate termination point had not been clearly defined. It was assumed it would be in Superior, Wisconsin, where the Military Road from St. Paul led to. Indeed, when plans for the railroad were first developed, terminating in Duluth was considered by some to be a bad idea. As late as 1866 an engineer tasked with locating a ship canal through Minnesota Point said, “There does not seem to be any demand for a harbor on the part of Duluth, there being no place of that name in existence.” At the time, less than 300 people lived in what is now Duluth, and Superior lobbied hard for the railroad, even suggesting to Cooke that he drop the “Lake” from “Lake Superior & Mississippi.”
Cooke himself visited the Head of the Lakes in 1868 (some accounts say 1866) to have a look for himself. He saw great promise in the region, and with the help of some financial grease provided by St. Louis County, he decided to terminate his railroad line in the Zenith City. By January 1, 1870, 50 additional miles of track pushed as far as Hinckley, Minnesota. The final 75-mile piece of the line from Hinckley to Duluth was completed on August 1, 1870, with the ceremonial last spike driven at Thomson, Minnesota. The first full train to run along the line was pulled by engine No. 8 and traveled from St. Paul to Duluth on August 2. This vital new rail link between St. Paul and Duluth officially opened for all types of traffic on September 15, 1870. In Duluth the railroad terminated along the western shore of Rice’s Point at DeCosta’s Dock (named for the railroad’s chief engineer), and goods were taken to or hauled from the dock on vessels using the natural Superior Entry to access the St. Louis River. But the shallow waters in those days meant that the vessels could not be fully loaded, so in 1869 the LS&M built a freight depot along the lake shore near today’s Third Avenue East, as well as a breakwater extending from Fourth Avenue East to protect vessels tied to docks along the lake shore. Cooke also financed the construction of Duluth’s first grain elevator, Elevator A, between the LS&M station and the breakwater. The idea was to take advantage of the developing grain fields of the Red River Valley and make Duluth a grain-trading center. Cooke was also involved in the building of both the Great Northern Railway (GN) and the Northern Pacific Railway (NP), two competing transcontinental railroad lines that ran from St.Paul to Washington’s Puget Sound. Each would eventually have large terminal facilities in Duluth-Superior. But the breakwater soon proved ineffective, and Duluthians looked again to an idea that had been bandied about since the 1850s: dig a canal through Minnesota Point. The town had no money, so Cooke’s railroad financed the canal dig by issuing $50,000 in bonds.
The St. Paul & Duluth: the NP’s “Third Subdivision”
Cooke’s money did more than bring the railroad to Duluth and finance the canal dig. Nearly every enterprise in Duluth during this period was financed in some way by Cooke—or relied on the benefactors of Cooke’s investments as clients. Duluth boomed—the population jumped to over 3,000 in a matter of months. In March, 1870, Duluth Township, along with several other area townships, became the City of Duluth.
Things were looking bright for the future “Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas,” until Jay Cooke ran out of money on September 18, 1873, ushering in a national depression that historians call the “Panic of ’73.” The entire country was affected, but no where harder than in Duluth. All work halted, and the population dropped dramatically. The LS&M went into receivership in 1875. The railroad was reorganized in 1877 as the St. Paul & Duluth (St.P&D) that went on to construct more modern facilities in Duluth and built the branch line from Carlton to Cloquet, among others. The railroad also built Elevator Q, often referred to as the St.P&D Elevator, adjacent to Elevator A. While the St.P&D persevered to build out their line to Duluth, the NP—also a Cooke influenced entity—was constructing its own tracks within the Head of the Lakes area with a plan to build a line parallel to the St.P&D. Eventually it became clear that a better course of action would be for NP to simply acquire all of the St.P&D property and equipment. Indeed, NP became the dominant railroad within all of Duluth-Superior when the St.P&D was sold to them in its entirety on June 30, 1900.
Although the old St.P&D line, originally the LS&M, was the very first railroad route into Duluth, it would eventually be branded as the Third Subdivision of the NP’s Lake Superior Division, and it had two other nicknames as well. It was originally and officially marketed as the—or just the Duluth Short Line—prior to 1900 to call attention to it being some miles shorter and presumably faster than other railroad lines running between St. Paul and Duluth with part of that name stemming from a line change in 1888. NP continued to market the line with this name through at least 1909. The arguably more popular and utterly unofficial name for the NP’s line between St. Paul and Duluth was the “Skally Line.” Nobody seems to know for certain where the name came from although there are four or five ideas about where it began. The name was in use prior to 1900 and it remains the most popular name for the line today. History experts believe the catchy moniker actually refers to, among other things, just part of the line between Carlton and Duluth and not the entire line. Several individuals are also credited for coming up with the “Skally” nickname and others followed suite. The name caught on. So whether we’re talking about the old LS&M, the St.P&D, or the Third Subdivision of the NP, the Skally Line name perseveres to identify everything between St. Paul and Duluth along that original route.
Between Carlton and Duluth parts of the original LS&M grading followed a rugged course near the St. Louis River. This part of the line had steep grades, sharp curves, high trestle bridges, and unstable ground. In railroad terms, a combination of bad things. In 1888 the St.P&D built a new line to follow a somewhat gentler terrain more north of the river. It was built under the name Duluth Short Line Railway Company. Beginning at Thomson the new line ran to West Duluth Junction to join with the balance of track running into Duluth. The original line, from Thomson to a point close to Fond du Lac, was completely abandoned in 1894. The remaining portion of the old line from Fond du Lac to West Duluth Junction then became known as the Fond du Lac Branch. The Skally passed through West Duluth and from 39th Avenue West this line crossed all streets into Duluth at grade. This route was double tracked from Raleigh Street to Rice’s Point. In modern times, when trains used this line just about everyone in town driving a car knew about it!
By the 1890s the terminating point in Duluth for the Skally line was the Rice’s Point rail yards, roundhouse, and shops along Garfield Avenue. Initially the Point was a very narrow affair so the LS&M built their original stone roundhouse and rail yard north of Garfield Avenue. Later, the NP built a much larger brick roundhouse and yards along the south side of Garfield Avenue after the point itself was widened to accommodate this construction. For a time both roundhouses and yards co-existed. Eventually the old LS&M facilities disappeared completely. Today, even the NP roundhouse and shops are gone. The last small part of the NP roundhouse came down on January 9, 1975, a victim of the BN merger, leveled when it was determined that the GN shops in Superior would be the new joint facility for the combined BN owned ex-GN and ex-NP properties within Duluth-Superior.The merger was a hard pill to swallow and hard feelings between NP and GN personnel remained for decades. Today, only about a third of the original NP yard remains on Rice’s Point. These tracks are used mainly for staging and storage of grain cars destined for the elevators that dot the local landscape and for interchange of cars between modern railroad giants BNSF and CN.
Eastward Expansion: The NP’s First Subdivision
The NP’s First Subdivision, known as the Ashland Branch, ran from Superior to Ashland, Wisconsin. The NP built this stretch in four distinct segments. The first 1.5 miles of track heading east from Superior at Nettleton Avenue was built in 1882. The second segment—23.1 miles of track built in 1883—ran as far as Brule, Wisconsin. The third chunk of 36.5 miles of track, built in 1884, stretched from Brule to Ashland. The fourth and final segment of track traveled just 0.7 miles from Ashland to the end of track. It was built in 1885 and full operations began on June 1st of that year. This single-track line entered the Twin Ports from the east near Allouez on the Wisconsin side and followed the harbor line to Superior’s East End, where it turned abruptly to run southwest to Superior’s Central Avenue area. While the line between Allouez and Ashland is completely gone, the line to Superior’s East End is still in limited use by BNSF, serving the old King Midas grain elevators located there. The two small ex-NP East End yards that remain are known as the Old Yard and the New Yard where railcars are staged and stored.