The Proctor Coal Dock Looking back at a lost railroad landmark Originally published May 2015
Many of Duluth-Superior’s railroad landmarks have come and gone over the years. Fortunately we have pictures to share that will enable us to take a brief look back at yet another part of this scene. This month’s tale of trains is a story in pictures about one railroad icon—the large concrete coaling tower that stood in the rail yards at Proctor, Minnesota, between 1916 and 1970. Built for the Duluth, Missabe & Northern Railway by the Roberts & Schaefer Company, this structure was of significant importance to the railroad and local commerce.
Between 1883 and 1961, the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Railway Company and its predecessors operated a total of 352 steam locomotives. This view shows Missabe 0-10-2 number 607 leaving Proctor Yard with loads of iron ore destined for Steelton, Minnesota. The steam locomotive provided sights and sounds that no diesel-electric engine could match including the noisy chuff of the steam exhaust, the shrill wail of the steam whistle, and the deafening clang of the large brass bell. (Image: Frank King)
A bird’s-eye view of the Proctor ore-sorting yards of the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Railway in 1948. Look closely and you’ll see the massive concrete coal dock and its ominous shadow near the left edge of the image. In the steam era each working day began at the coal dock. (Image: Robert Richie, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
While the railroad made most of its money from the transportation of iron ore, there was another commodity that was equally important— coal. As one railroader put it, “Coal is what kept the whole place moving. We made money from the ore. But without the coal nothing would have happened here. Coal powered the railroad and the economy.” (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)
Coal from Ohio and Pennsylvania moved across the Great Lakes inside the holds of lake freighters destined for the ports of Duluth and Superior. After being unloaded the coal was trans-loaded into railroad cars for delivery to every point along each railroad operating here. The coal provided fuel to heat homes and businesses, it powered industrial machinery, and it provided the fuel that moved each and every train down the line. This 1953 view shows a coal train ascending Proctor Hill with a pusher locomotive on the back end while en route from Duluth to Proctor. This coal will be used to fill the Proctor coal dock. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
This 1920s view shows coal cars spotted under the dock for unloading into a hopper buried in the ground. From there the coal was conveyed to the top of the tower where it poured into the large holding bunker suspended over the tracks. It is estimated that this single coal dock dispensed over 2.5 million tons of coal into steam locomotives during its 46-year service life between 1916 and 1962. Considering it had a capacity of 1,000 tons of coal, that means that it was fully loaded 2,500 times during those 46 years—54 times each year it was in operation, about once a week. The railroad used short 24-foot cars for carrying coal to this dock. Given that their average capacity was 50- tons of ore per car, the much-less-dense coal would have likely amounted to just 25 tons per loaded car. It’s safe to say that during its operational lifetime, this dock required a total of about 100,000 car loads of coal. Coupled together those 24-foot cars would have made a train over 450 miles in length. A modern thousand-foot lake freighter can carry roughly 60,000 tons of coal per trip. Coal use at this single dock would have required 41 such cargoes. Now that’s a lot of coal. (Image: McKenzie, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
Roberts & Schaefer Company (R&S) began building hoisting and loading equipment in 1903 and secured its first coaling station job in 1906. R&S claimed the credit of promoting the Holmen or “balanced bucket type” of locomotive coaling station. Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, today the company is a worldwide leader in the design, engineering, procurement, and construction of bulk material handling and processing systems for the power and mining industries. It built the Proctor coal dock for the Duluth, Missabe & Northern in 1916 and that coincided with the construction of the new roundhouse at the north end of the yard. (Image: Railway Age Magazine)
The main body of the coal dock is taking shape in this 1916 view. Wooden forms were built so that the legs and coal bunker body could be cast of concrete. The main body of the dock measured 56-feet long by 32-feet wide by 51-feet, 6-inches high. The coal bin was then surmounted by a roof and head house made of structural steel covered with corrugated iron. This included a bucket tower extending 48.5 feet above the top of the coal bin, making the completed coal dock exactly 100-feet tall above the track. (Image: Railway Age Magazine)
This color view shows the coal dock in August 1962. The spiral staircase on this end of the dock added a delicate flair to what was otherwise a massively industrial-looking structure. One track on either side of the dock was for loading coal into steam tenders. A single track ran underneath the structure for unloading coal cars. A locomotive traction sand facility occupied the concrete structure to the right of the coal dock. Wet sand was unloaded under the dock and then conveyed to the top of the tower where a spout was provided to chute the sand into the sand-drying building. The dried sand was then sent back to the top of the dock by means of compressed air. The ready-to-use sand was stored inside the metal-clad addition overhanging this end of the coal dock. Water columns were stationed at either end of the dock to complete this servicing station. Steamers would fill up with water, coal, and traction sand before they went to work in the yard or on the road. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
This view, taken from the old pedestrian overpass located mid-point in the yards at Proctor, shows an A-B-A set of EMC FTs from neighbor Great Northern. The DM&IR had already retired many of its steam locomotives that can be seen parked in the shadow of the coal dock. During 1958 and 1959 business picked up and the railroad had to lease diesel-electric locomotives from Great Northern to keep up with demands for more ore. (Image: Russ Porter)
View of Mallet locomotive 233 stored near the coal dock on April 28, 1961. As built, all of the coal chutes on the dock were a consistent height above the tracks. That worked fine with the older, smaller locomotives. But when the big Mallet locomotives came along in 1941 their taller coal tenders required one coal spout on each side of the dock to be raised in order to fill it with coal. Each of these enormous tenders carried a whopping 26 tons of coal and 25,000 gallons of water used to produce the steam that powered the locomotive. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
This 1960 view shows the higher coal chute used to fill the big tenders of the Mallets and large 2-10-4 Texas-type engines. The higher chutes were located kitty-corner from one another, one on each side of the dock. The white substance on the roof of the coal dock is traction sand that has leaked onto the roof from the overflow pipe. (Image: Robert C. Anderson)
By the time this picture was taken on June 23, 1970, the old coal dock was scheduled for demolition. Soon after, the DM&IR built its new yard office and communications center in approximately the same spot where the coal tower stood for 54 years. Today, this office building and railroad yard are operated by Canadian National. (Image: Bill Folsom)
The author would like to extend special thanks to Dave Schauer at the Missabe Railway Historical Society and Bill Vantuono, Editor in Chief at Railway Age Magazine for their assistance with this project.