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 RailroadIn 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. T
he 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
Part Two: Bridging the Twin Ports
The NP’s Second Subdivision
The NP’s Second Subdivision is unofficially known by modern local railroaders running out of Duluth-Superior as the Staples Line. When completed, the line ran from Duluth’s Union Depot to Staples, Minnesota, via Superior, Wisconsin. The first portion of this line was actually built from Carlton, Minnesota (then called Northern Pacific Junction), to Nettleton Avenue in Superior’s East End in 1881; operations began on September 1, 1882. This was in fact the very beginning of track laying on the NP. The line joined up with the First Sub Ashland Branch at Nettleton Avenue, thus completing a continuous run from Carlton to Ashland. This marriage of the First and Second Subs got the NP from Carlton to Superior’s East End and on to Ashland, Wisconsin, but it didn’t get the NP into Duluth. That accomplishment required several more construction projects.
In 1885 the NP built a 2.43-mile line from the tip of Rice’s Point across St. Louis Bay to West Superior. It opened for traffic on July 6, 1885, and eventually included two substantial draw bridges called the Minnesota and Wisconsin Draws, each initially built of iron and wood in 1884 and 1885 respectively, and by 1896 completely reconstructed of iron and steel.
While the majority of this line was single-track, double-track was installed from Central Avenue in South Superior all the way to the Minnesota Draw. The Wisconsin Draw was double tracked, as was the stretch of track that sat on pilings between the two bridges. The Minnesota Draw was always a single-track bridge.
In 1888 NP constructed a separate 4.06–mile line to connect the Second Subdivision at Central Avenue with West Superior and the route across St. Louis Bay using the Minnesota and Wisconsin Draws. This line became a main route that brought NP and GN passenger trains to Superior Union Depot then across the bay to Duluth Union Depot. The NP maintained several freight yards along this part of the line, including the Central Avenue Yard, Belknap Yard, Winter Street Yard, and the Skally Yard. Each yard had a specific use predetermined by commodity and seasonality.
The Minnesota and Wisconsin draw bridges became something of a problem in the late 1980s. They were originally designed with a section that swiveled, creating a 175–foot space on either side of the swivel span that allowed lake freighters of the day to pass on either side of the center span when it was in the “open” position. The Duluth Ship Canal, reconstructed in the 1890s, is 315 feet wide; today’s modern thousand-foot ore boats pass through the canal with great ease. As ore boats became larger, the space allowing them to pass the old railroad draw bridges became tighter, and consequently it took longer and longer for the large boats to squeak by. Train traffic also limited the bridges’ operations: Bridges couldn’t be opened for boats if a train was operating across the bay and trains themselves had to be limited in length to about 33 cars to fit the space between the two bridges. By 1988, these operating constraints helped to seal the fate of these two draw bridges.
As both the Midwest Energy coal facility in Superior and Duluth’s ore docks needed to berth more and more of these giant boats, the shipping companies wanted to traverse this portion of the river in an easier, faster fashion than the old bridges allowed. Plus with two bridges and a mile-long mainline to maintain atop pilings high above the water surface, this route over the St. Louis River became far too expensive for the railroad to maintain indefinitely. Union agreements also conceded that when the group of men who operated these bridges retired, they needn’t be replaced, and more savings could be realized by eliminating those jobs when that time came. All of these conditions contributed to the removal of the Minnesota and Wisconsin draws. Train traffic was then forever rerouted over the only remaining railroad bridge over the St. Louis River, the NP’s Grassy Point Draw Bridge, that still links Superior with West Duluth.
West Duluth to West Superior: NP’s Sixth Subdivision
The NP’s Sixth Subdivision*, known as the West Superior Branch or the Grassy Point Line, was a 3.49 mile-long line built in 1888 to connect West Superior with West Duluth Junction. West Duluth Junction was located on the western edge of Grassy Point where several NP-owned or controlled lines connected, including the branch line to Fond du Lac, the Duluth Transfer Railway, and the NP’s Skally Line.
The Grassy Point Line included yet another bridge across the St. Louis River: the St. Louis River Bridge, also known as the Grassy Point Draw, built in 1887–88. Like the Minnesota and Wisconsin draws, the Grassy Point Draw was originally built of iron and wood and later rebuilt of iron and steel. The most modern version, built in 1912, is the same bridge used today. When complete, the line ran from New Duluth to Riverside Junction and then from 72nd Avenue West to West Duluth Junction, where the tracks headed toward the Grassy Point Drawbridge and across the river into Superior. The line opened for traffic in May 1888.
Looking at today’s railroad operating scheme within the Twin Ports it quickly becomes apparent that much of the track is missing from these original NP entry points, so one might wonder how the trains of today get to and from Duluth. Here’s the answer:
NP owned most of the track in Duluth and also controlled a line called the Duluth Transfer Railway, or DT for short, designed to run between Rice’s Point and West Duluth. According to city records, the DT was organized on May 24, 1890, and was partially constructed during 1892. Today the line runs underneath Canadian National’s old Missabe ore docks and is the “mainline” that connects Duluth with Superior—and the rest of the outside world. This is accomplished via a connection between the DT and the old Sixth Subdivision, across Grassy Point Bridge, and into the west side of Superior.
From Superior heading south, the BNSF track used today is mostly of ex-GN origin, as most of the old NP lines leading out of the Twin Ports have been removed in favor of these old GN lines. But within Duluth and West Duluth the old Northern Pacific domination is still in effect with remaining lines being a combination of the NP’s old Second, Third, and Sixth Subs, plus most of the original NP controlled Duluth Transfer Railway too.
Long Live the Northern Pacific!
The old NP constitutes more than 80 percent of the track that ever existed within the City of Duluth. Of all the railroads in the area, NP and its predecessor lines clearly played the most significant role in the early development of the local communities of Duluth, West Duluth, and Superior. It was also instrumental in the development and rise of Ashland, Carlton, Cloquet, and the small communities that connected all of these places to each other.
On March 1, 1967, NP folded the entire Lake Superior Division into its St. Paul Division with all of the former Lake Superior Subdivisions becoming St. Paul Division Subdivisions. NP then became part of Burlington Northern (BN) formed in 1970 by the merging of the NP with GN, Burlington Route (CB&Q), and the Spokane, Portland & Seattle (SP&S). In 1996 BN merged with Santa Fe to become the BNSF Railway. While BNSF operates more than 24,000 miles of track in 27 states, none of it is more important to Duluth than the former NP lines that started the era of modern railroading within the Twin Ports.
Northern Pacific essentially controlled all train traffic coming into Duluth and certainly constrained it on the Superior side. It owned the Grassy Point, Minnesota, and Wisconsin draw bridges. Even the small amount of train traffic coming off the Duluth Winnipeg & Pacific Railway from Canada had to pass over NP rails to run the last few miles between West Duluth and Duluth. Virtually every railcar coming into Duluth had to pass over NP rails to get in or out of town.
This territorial dominance displayed by NP in Duluth was unequalled by any railroad in Superior. From its roots with the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad, NP arrived first and made the most of the best land opportunities. Even the challenging geography of Duluth played a major role in further helping the NP to limit its competition on the Minnesota side of the bay. When the other railroads arrived they grabbed what land was still available and made the best of their situations. In Duluth, no railroad was more important or omnipresent than the NP. Mergers aside, that really hasn’t changed much since 1870. The old Lake Superior & Mississippi, St. Paul and Duluth, and Northern Pacific are still the major underpinnings of today’s BNSF Railway on the Duluth side of the Twin Ports.
[*Editor’s Note: the NP’s Lake Superior Division had nine subdivisions but only the first, second, third, and sixth had anything to do with Duluth-Superior. The fourth ran from Deerwood to Ironton; the fifth from Carlton to Cloquet; the seventh from Funkley to Kelliher; the eighth from Brainerd to North Bemedji; and the ninth ran from North Bemedji to International Falls.]
Story by Jeff Lemke; originally appeared on Zenith City Online June, 2014.