Duluth’s Major Railroads

The 1876 Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad. roundhouse on Rice’s Point. (Image: Minnesota Historical Society)

Even before Duluth became a township, speculators had been eyeing the head of the lakes as an ideal spot for a railroad terminus. As early as 1853 Minnesota legislators created a railroad charter for a line to run from Lake Superior to Puget Sound, and in 1864 President Lincoln approved an Act of Congress that essentially created Jay Cooke’s Northern Pacific Railroad (NP) along the planned line. The Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad reached Duluth  in 1871, and by 1926 nine railroads operated out of Duluth: Northern Pacific; Great Northern; Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha (the  Omaha Road); Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie (the Soo Line); Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific; Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic; Duluth, Missabe & Northern; Lake Superior Terminal and Transfer; and the Duluth & Iron Range. Others had come and gone or had been absorbed by other railroads. Their railyards took up considerable space along Duluth’s waterfront, on Rice’s Point, and between downtown Duluth and the wholesaler warehouse district that covered much of today’s Canal Park Business District and the site of the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center and Bayfront Festival Park. Freight and passenger stations could be found along the tracks from Lester Park to Fond du Lac.

Duluth’s first railroad, the Lake Superior & Mississippi (LS&M), began construction in 1863 in St. Paul. It was designed as a portage railway to connect the Twin Cities to the Northern Pacific (NP). Jay Cooke was heavily invested in both concerns. Both Duluth and Superior wanted the railroad, knowing that it would bring success to the city in which it terminated. Because St. Louis County helped Duluth come up with more money than Superior, LS&M’s chief investor—Jay Cooke—chose Duluth. This must have infuriated LS&M president William L. Banning, who in 1867 told Duluth officials that “it is not possible to find room on the North Shore either on the lake or bays, to build a railroad, lay out and build a town, or do any kind of commercial business.”

While the railway began stretching north from St. Paul in 1862, building from Duluth southward did not begin until 1868. Starting in downtown Duluth, laborers laid track essentially alongside the St. Louis River to Fond du Lac and on to Thompson. It was in Thompson on August 1, 1870, that the final spike was driven, completing the road. Passenger service to Duluth began on August 22 of that year, with Banning eating crow as he hosted guests taking a specially-outfitted train to Duluth. By the end of the year, trains ran between Duluth and St. Paul every day.

The LS&M constructed Duluth’s first railroad freight depot at 300 East Michigan Street in 1870 next to grain Elevator A and the breakwater that protected it. The next year the LS&M built a five-stall roundhouse on Rice’s Point east of Garfield Avenue. The first Union Depot, a passenger station serving LS&M and NP, went up along Fifth Avenue West behind Michigan Street during this time. The two-story building had just two rooms on the main floor and was likely built in 1870. Cooke’s continued investment in NP stretched his already drained finances, and the great Philadelphia financier went broke in 1873, the same year the NP reached Bismarck, North Dakota. The LS&M managed to hang on without Jay Cooke’s money, even adding ten stalls to its roundhouse in 1876. But the railroad failed the next year,  reorganizing as the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad (SP&D).

Sometime prior to 1884 the LS&M freight depot was enlarged, perhaps when the railroad became the SP&D. (By 1890 the railroad leased the building to Duluth Iron and Metal, a scrap iron business; the company continued to use the old depot until a fire on August 16, 1963, destroyed the historic building.)

In 1892 a second and much larger Union Depot was built at Fifth Avenue West and Michigan Street to serve six railroads: SP&D, NP, the Duluth South Shore & Atlantic, the Duluth & Iron Range, Wisconsin Central, and Duluth & Winnipeg. Before the century was out, Northern Pacific replaced the 1871 roundhouse with a new roundhouse located west of Garfield Avenue. A massive building, the second roundhouse included stalls for up to thirty-six engines. It was torn down in the 1970s.

Northern Pacific also either built or purchased existing buildings for use as depots, including freight stations at 114 South Fifth Avenue West, and at Hudson Boulevard and Commonwealth Avenue. Passenger stations stood at 220 South Twentieth Avenue West and 5400 West Wadena Street.

From 1886 to 1888 SP&D built new lines from West Duluth to Carlton to reduce the grade and remove some turns, making it much easier on the trains. The original line continued to provide commuter train service to Fond du Lac until the 1930s. The SP&D became part of Northern Pacific at the turn of the twentieth century. Northern Pacific was succeeded by Burlington Northern (BN), today’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF). Because BN already had railways in place, much of the original LS&M line was considered redundant. Most of the track was abandoned, and many segments have since been turned into “rail trails,” including the Willard Munger Trail, named for long-time Minnesota Congressman and conservationist Willard Munger, which begins in West Duluth near the motel he owned for years.

The Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railway (CMO) better known as the Omaha Road, served Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and South Dakota and created a direct link between Chicago and Superior in 1883. Until 1886, when the Great Northern Railroad built the St. Louis Bay Bridge, those who wanted to reach Duluth completed their journey by ferry boat. The CMO built a passenger station at 200 Fifth Avenue West and a freight depot next door at 232 Fifth Avenue West. The Northern Division main line to Duluth was abandoned by 1965, when both structures were demolished to make room for the Interstate 35 expansion. Another CMO depot stood at the foot of Eighth Avenue West; the Chicago & North Western Railway (C&NW) leased the Omaha Road in 1957; in 1972 the C&NW completely absorbed the Omaha Road.

The depots built by CMO were also used by the Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific Railway (DWP), which began in 1901 as the Duluth, Virginia and Rainy Lake Railway and ran from Virginia north to Silver Lake. The Canadian Northern Railway purchased the railway and renamed it the Duluth, Rainy Lake and Winnipeg Railway (DRL&W). In 1908 the line reached north to International Falls. The following year the railway was purchased by Canadian Northern and its name was changed again, this time to Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific. It first connected to Duluth in 1912, using the CMO passenger and freight stations as well as its own freight depot at 5431 Grand Avenue, where Grand intersects with Central Avenue (right), which was demolished in 1965. The DWP also served a passenger depot at Spirit Lake, originally built for access to the Duluth Boat Club’s Spirit Lake branch. The DWP remained a subsidiary of Canadian Northern until CN became known as Canadian National, after which the DWP was completed absorbed by its parent company.

First formed in 1888 from a conglomeration of existing railroads, the Minneapolis, St. Paul, & Sault Ste. Marie Railroad, commonly called the Soo Line, arrived in Duluth in 1910 in grand style. The Soo Line built a large passenger depot designed by Charles E. Bell, William M. Tyrie, and Cecil B. Chapman at 602 West Superior Street. The Neoclassical Revival–style building, faced in red brick with stone and terra cotta trim, stood one-and-a-half-stories tall along Superior Street but dropped two stories in back to reach Michigan Street. The depot’s construction cost $250,000, but that wasn’t the expensive part of bringing the Soo Line to Duluth. The company spent $2.5 million just getting the rail lines the final mile to the depot.

Most of the money went for the construction of a tunnel. By the time the Soo Line made plans to bring service to Duluth, much of the railroad right-of-way was in use and streets were in place, leaving little room for a new rail line. To make the Soo Line fit into Duluth without disrupting street traffic, the railroad had to create some room and found it under Michigan Street. Work on the tunnel was actually begun in 1908 by the Wisconsin Central Railroad (WC). The Soo Line acquired majority interest of the CW that same year and took over the project. A small army of men used dynamite and rock drills to cut through the Point of Rocks. When completed, the tunnel ran sixteen feet below the Superior Street grade and measured sixteen feet high and twenty-seven feet wide.

Including the cost of adding tributary lines to connect existing routes to Duluth, the Soo Line estimated it had spent $18 million. Passenger service began in October, 1910, offering passengers a variety of routes to destinations throughout the Midwest. The Soo Line’s Laker ran an overnight service to and from the Twin Ports to Chicago’s Grand Central Station. Soo Line also maintained two freight stations in Duluth, one at the foot of Ramsey Street and another at the foot of Tenth Avenue West. In 1960 the Soo Line acquired the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railway (DSS&A), a line first formed in 1888 to connect Duluth to Sault Ste. Marie and the eastern seaboard. The purchase made sense: the DSS&A had been using the Soo Line’s track since they first opened, and both railroads were subsidiaries of Canadian Pacific. The relationship was short-lived, however; Duluth service ended in 1961. The Laker was discontinued completely on January 15, 1965.

The Soo Line Depot was demolished in 1972 as part of Duluth’s Gateway Urban Renewal Project. Gateway Towers, an apartment complex for seniors, now occupies the Soo Line Depot’s former site. Redevelopment plans had at first called for the building to be saved and reused as the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center. Unfortunately years of neglect resulted in a completely flooded basement, which undermined the building’s structural strength. The 1892 Duluth Union Depot at 506 West Michigan Street—originally slated for demolition—was instead saved for the Heritage and Arts Center and now includes the Duluth Playhouse, history museums operated by the St. Louis County Historical Society, and the Lake Superior Railroad Museum.

Including the 1892 Union Depot, the Zenith City is fortunate to have three former railroad depots still standing. The D&IR’s Endion Station still exits, albeit not in its original location. The Lake Superior & Mississippi’s Fond du Lac passenger station, built in 1870 when the railroad first reached Duluth, is also with us but in a different location. After the railway line was abandoned, the depot was moved to 13308 West Third Street, where it still stands. It was used as a duplex until 1929, when it became the Olde Depot Inn restaurant. The Inn closed in 1985 and the building is now a private residence.

Other railroad depots that have come and gone from the Zenith City include a Great Northern freight station at 630 West Michigan Street; Duluth & Iron Range Railway (D&IR) depots at 2700 West Railroad Street, 527 East Gary Street, on Forty-Seventh Avenue East near East Superior Street, and at Sixtieth Avenue East and Superior Street.