The Duluth, Missabe and Northern Railway (through 1922)

The Duluth, Missabe and Northern Railway Company came prominently before the public on October 2, 1891, “determined to start the work of construction at once,” and two days later, “with the assistance of Moses Clapp, the company was put in proper shape to dispose 6f its stock.” The company was what might be termed a Merritt enterprise, for it was owing to the persistence of the Merritt family, in determining that their mines at Mountain Iron should not remain unexploited for want of transportation means, that the DM.&N came into existence. And it was because of the difficulties in which they became enmeshed, beyond possibility of extrication, in gathering the means wherewith to carry the construction of the railway through to completion, that they eventually lost not only their mining property, but the railway as well. The mines now belong to a subsidiary of the United States Steel Corporation; and the D., M. & N. R. R. may almost be looked upon as a subsidiary, although both properties before coming into the possession of present owners were held for many years by John D. Rockefeller, who had a lien on the properties, for money advanced to the Merritts during their period of greatest difficulty in 1893. Rockefeller was made a multi-millionaire by that one transaction and its sequel, the purchase of his holdings seven years later by the United States Steel Corporation, then formed, but, even under the most favorable circumstances, it is very doubtful whether the Merritts would have been able to carry their mines through the profitless and uncertain period in which experiment and adaptation of furnaces to the peculiarities of the Mesabi ore rendered the working of the mines at a profit almost impossible. It taxed the resources even of Rockefeller for a time, and he was forced to hold the properties much longer than he, appar- 285ently, thought would have been necessary. The story is told elsewhere in this work, and need not be restated here.

The Merritt brothers were drawn into the railway enterprise by force of circumstances, and reluctantly, for they knew that the pioneering of railways invariably brought disaster to the pioneers.

But they had unearthed fabulous wealth in the ore of their Mountain Iron mines, in 1890, which wealth could not be realized without means of transportation. Alfred Merritt, in his biography, refers to endeavors he made to convince the Northern Pacific and the St. Paul and Duluth railway companies “of the great traffic which was to originate from the many mines of the Mesabi range.” Failing, he finally approached the Duluth and Winnipeg Railroad, and that company promised “to make a traffic contract” with the Merritts, if they themselves would build a line from their mines to Stony Brook, a distance of forty-five miles, and for this purpose the Duluth, Missabe and Northern Railroad Company was organized on February 11, 1891.

Interested in the incorporation were five members of the Merritt family, with J. T. Hale, K. D. Chase, R. H. Palmer and S. R. Payne.

The name was changed from “Lake Superior and Northwestern to Duluth, Missabe and Northern,” states one account. The authorized capital was $5,000,000, and the officers were: K. D. Chase, president; S. R. Payne, secretary, and C. C. Merritt, treasurer. M. B. Harrison and Donald Grant were also interested in the promotion, and when the former died in February, 1892, he “was entitled to one one-tenth interest in the D., M. & N., not then completed.” In April, 1891, Chase was reported to be “down east to raise money for D., M. & N.,” and it was known that the Duluth and Iron Range Railway would also build “westerly from their main line at Mesaba Junction, to head off D., M. & N., coming easterly.” The eastern trip of Chase was evidently not successful, but in October some stock was sold in Duluth, and on February 26, 1892, it was stated that the company then had bonds outstanding to the amount of $1,300,000. It was stated that Donald Grant and K. D.

Chase undertook to furnish three-fifths of the money needed, Leonidas Merritt having “closed the contract for building the Duluth, Missabe and Northern Railroad with Donald Grant and Company” on January 30, 1892. They subcontracted with Foley Bros. and Guthrie.

It appears that the Merritts had, almost from the outset, resolved to build into Duluth, rather than allow the ore to pass from Stony Brook over the Duluth and Winnipeg to Superior, for there is record that in March, 1892, the D., M. & N. Company was given “right of way over certain city (Duluth) streets, so that the road could reach the new Union Depot, work to begin January, 1893, and to finish in January, 1894.” Albert Merritt states that the Stony Brook to Mountain Iron road was completed in 1892, and that: “The year of 1893 we built into Duluth, because the Duluth and Winnipeg R. R. did not furnish the number of cars they had agreed to when we made the traffic contract with them. Our road, the Duluth, Missabe and Northern, built the winter of 1891 and 1892 a total of 750 cars. The next year we built 750 more ore cars. The Duluth and Winnipeg did not build any” which was a good reason why the Merritts should want to build into Duluth. There were other cogent reasons. One was that St. Louis County had offered the D., M. & N. county bonds, to the amount of $250,000, if they would build into Duluth. Another reason was that the Merritts “insisted 286that theirs should be a Minnesota road throughout.” It was stated that “they had grown up with Duluth from the time when rivalry with Superior was of a fierceness not easily understood by those who have never lived under its spur, and their local patriotism was like a religion.” But their decision to build into Duluth was the “parting of the Merritts with Grant and Chase, and was their undoing.” With the aid of eastern capital, the Merritts acquired the holdings of Grant and Chase for $250,000, and contract for the Duluth extension was placed with Wolff and King, and their work eventually cost “a million dollars more than anyone had expected,” which meant more embarrassment, and forlorn financial arrangements at exhorbitant collateral, in order to “carry on.” This much satisfaction the Merritts had in the end; they carried the railway project through to completion, and made Duluth the shipping port for their Mesabi ore; and about that time the properties passed to John D. Rockefeller, the mines becoming part of the Lake Superior Consolidated Iron Mines THE ORE DOCKS OF D. M. & N. RY. CO.

Company, the railway continuing under the same name, and the American Barge Company eventually becoming the Bessemer Steamship Company.

What the Merritts allege that they lost thereby may be estimated, roughly, from Alfred Merritt’s own statement regarding his personal holdings of railway stock. He said: My interest in the Lake Superior Consolidated Iron Mines Company, which controlled the railroad and the different mining companies, was turned into the steel company, when it was formed, at $7,500,000. The dividends on my share of railroad stock alone has been over $800,000 several different years.

First Passenger Train Over D. M. & N.-The first passengers (other than mining or railway officials) carried over the D. M. & N.

from Stony Brook to Mountain Iron were probably Duluthians who were considering the matter of investing in the enterprise, or had already become stockholders. Trains began to run in August, 1892.

First Ore Train.-The first trainload of ore shipped over the D. M. & N. left Mountain Iron on October 17, 1892, and, there being no ore docks at Duluth, the train went over the Duluth and Winnipeg to Allouez Dock, Superior, 4245 tons, where it was shipped in 287″two cargoes” and sent eastward “to be divided among four or five furnaces.” First Ore Received in Duluth.-The first carload of Mesabi ore received in Duluth seems to have been part of the same trainload.

The carload “arrived at the Union Depot, Duluth, at 11:15 a.m., Tuesday, October 18, 1892,” and caused much excitement among Duluthians, who “began to gather at the Union station long before the car arrived.” The journey from Mountain Iron had taken eighteen hours. The “new standard wooden ore car, No. 342,” contained “twenty tons of dark soft ore,” and remained “on a track end, under the train shed … several days for inspection.” Line to Duluth from Range Completed.-On October 25, 1893, Alfred Merritt presented to the county officials the affidavits of himself, president; D. M. Philbin, general manager; C. H. Martz, chief engineer, and “certificate of State Railroad and Warehouse Commission that the terms had been fulfilled; docks and terminals on the bay front at Duluth, main line to the range, connections with Mountain Iron, Virginia, Biwabik and Hibbing; equipment and regular service had been established.” The county bonds therefore were demanded and duly delivered.

First Ore Dock.-It was announced in January, 1893, presumably by the Merritts, that the ore dock the D. M. & N. was preparing to build at West Duluth would be “the biggest dock on Lake Superior, 2,500 feet long, 522 /feet above water, four tracks, 500 pockets each 180 tons, capacity 90,000, cost over $400,000.” Construction of their docks “at the Erie pier, Oneota,” began on January 28th but it was, apparently, not carried through the full extent of original plans, for one review of the ore docks reads: “The very first one was a small wooden affair, started January 28, 1893, at which the first ore was received in October, 1893.” Another account reads: “The first of the ore docks, at the foot of Thirty-fourth Avenue, West, was built in 1903” (and) “was well enough for the time, but its equipment was primitive compared to the present plant. It has been enlarged and greatly improved.” However, even a generation later, the longest dock was 2,570 feet, and most of the four D. M. & N. ore docks are about that length, although the average length of the ore docks in the Duluth- Superior harbor is 2,111 feet each.

John L. Morrison, who in 1893 was a member of the staff of the Duluth “Herald,” is responsible for the following report: Saturday, July 22, 1893, at about 5 p. m., the first ore from the Mesabi range arrived in Duluth over the own line of the D. M. & N. Railway.

There were ten carloads from the Mountain Iron Mine, and the first car was dumped into the pocket at the ore dock at about 5:19 p. m. Conductor Gallagher brought down the train. … When the first shipment of ten carloads of ore was received, only 30 of the 400 pockets in the dock were finished. Sunday, the next day … twenty more cars arrived. On August 10, fifty-one cars, containing an average of about 24 tons, something like 1,300 tons in all, arrived, drawn by one engine and tailed by a caboose.

Apparently, the ore was accumulated as the dock construction progressed and the first steamer loaded from its pockets in October of that year.

Present Ore Docks.-There has been wonderful progress made in shipping facilities in the Duluth-Superior harbor since the building of the D. M. & N.’s first ore dock in 1893. There are now ten ore docks, in all, four of them being owned and operated by the D. M.

& N. Railway Company. The original wooden docks are gradually being replaced by first-class steel and concrete structures, the D. M.

288& N. Company’s ore dock No. 5, for instance, being completed in 1915. It cost more than $3,000,000 to erect. Some extraordinary shipping records have been made at these modern docks; in one case a steamer, the “William E. Corey,” “took on a load of 10,592 (net) tons in twenty-five minutes” and was outward-bound again within one hour and thirty-five minutes from the time she entered, light. It was not at the D. M. & N. dock, but their records are just as creditable, having similar docks. These steel and concrete docks have about 192 pockets on either side of the dock, and it is possible to load four or five large ore vessels at the same time at one dock.

The system of supply is by trains of seventy to ninety steel hopper cars, each car carrying fifty tons or more of ore. The cars are run onto the docks and the contents dumped into pockets of 100 to 400 tons capacity and manual labor is reduced to the minimum. An ore car of the most modern type can be dumped by one man in fifteen seconds, and the ore is delivered to the ship by gravity. The ship hatches are usually spaced twelve feet apart, between centers, the hatches corresponding with the spacing of the ore pockets, so that shipment may be made simultaneously into all hatches.

The immense volume of traffic demands such facilities for expeditious handling. The D. M. & N. Company alone carries more than twenty million tons of ore from the Mesabi range each year and 200,000 tons is not an extraordinary day’s shipment of ore at its Duluth docks.

No. 3 dock, a wooden structure built in 1899-1900, has gone the way of the older docks; it was razed in 1920, but the new steel and concrete docks, Nos. 4, 5 and 6, of the D. M. & N. Company are capable of handling the present volume of traffic.

Equipment of D. M. & N. Railway.-The D. M. & N. has its storage and repair plant at Proctor, where there are storage tracks for about 4,500 cars. The Proctor payrolls alone, in 1915, totaled to $1,363,944. The railway company owns in addition to the ore docks coal, limestone and log docks, innumerable giant Mallet engines, a type made necessary by the heavy gradients, thousands of ore cars and a proper equipment of passenger rolling stock. The system embraces, in all, 676 miles of track, the main-line being 342 miles in length.

Management.-Under W. A. McGonagle, who has been president for many years, the railway has developed and maintained efficiently an adequate means of transportation for the important region it serves-the “great industrial empire,” from which comes the bulk of America’s supply of iron ore.


  • Van Brunt, Walter, ed. Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota Vols. 1 – 3. The American Historical Society. Chicago: 1922.