Team Tracks of the Twin Ports

Looking east at Duluth Union Depot during the early 1960s. To the left of the Northern Pacific rail diesel car is a Western Fruit Express ice bunker refrigerator car spotted on one of Duluth’s many team tracks for unloading by a local food supplier. The white building to the left and uphill of that car is the Great Northern’s freight house with its own team track next to it. While every freight car that rolls on the rails has a point of origin and a destination, many companies do not have rail access directly to their place of business. When a company without rail access would consign a freight car to ship or receive goods, the railroad would deliver their car to a place called the team track. The team track was a short track with public access along one or both sides so that shippers and receivers could load and unload the railcar into their own wagon or truck. In larger cities the railroads often furnished drayage contractors (at an extra charge) to move loads from the team tracks directly to the business that bought the transportation for the load. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)

The sheer number of businesses and industrial properties located—or once located—in the Twin Ports is extraordinary, particularly when you consider the logistics of shipping and receiving raw materials and finished goods. Many of these facilities were served by railroad tracks installed either alongside or inside of buildings for loading and unloading. The largest businesses in the region could handle well over 1,000 rail cars each month. Typically these were the coal, grain, iron ore and taconite docks that operated on a grand scale compared to everything else. Mid-range businesses handled dozens to hundreds of cars per month. The smallest companies handled perhaps ten cars or less, but they also required the most creative solutions to connect to the rail system: team tracks.

In the strictest definition of the phrase, a team track is a small railroad siding or spur track intended for the use of area merchants, manufacturers, farmers and other small businesses that personally (or through hire of draymen contractors) load and unload products and merchandise, usually in smaller or less-than-carload quantities. Any number of businesses could use the same team track.

Railroads in Duluth dominated the scene through the 1960s. The long low-level structure in the center of the photograph is the old Northern Pacific freight house where we can see a handful of boxcars spotted. When companies needed temporary warehouse space they could store their goods inside the freight house for a fee. Likewise they could stockpile goods here before ordering a boxcar so that when the car arrived it could be loaded and dispatched quickly. The Omaha Railway’s short one-car stub-track is obscured by the lush, green grass (near center right) but this is where baggage and merchandise was once loaded just across the street from their passenger depot. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)

With the exception of hazardous materials, most any team track could be used to load or unload any imaginable good, product, raw material or equipment. The team track is in effect the rail siding that companies use when they don’t have their own rail siding. Many of these team tracks were just a single track with public road access on one side or the other. Others were larger with property big enough to support loading conveyors or unloading equipment. Some had concrete pads or end-of-track ramps to make it easy to move drive-on-drive-off loads too.

The origin of the term “team track” is clearly illustrated in this turn of the century image. Every wagon was pulled by a team of horses. The wagon would be parked alongside the freight car to be loaded or unloaded. These public access tracks were built by the railroads to enable all types of commerce to access rail transportation. Today, the teams of horses and the wagons are long gone but the team track name remains. If you need to ship or receive a load of goods but don’t have rail access into your business you’ll still need to use the team track to accomplish that task. (Image: Dave Shaw, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)

During what many consider the local railroad industry’s modern consolidation era—1967 through 1979 when area businesses and railroads alike were merging—a total of 500 different companies used the railroads to move goods in and out of Duluth-Superior, 343 businesses on the Duluth side of the harbor and 157 on the Superior side. Of that, 67 (roughly 13 percent) of these “railroad-served” businesses—had to use team tracks.

Thanks to the over-the-road trucking boom of the 1960s, many smaller companies completely eliminated railroads from their transportation plans. Some hung on and took advantage of trailer-on-flat-car (TOFC) loading, which loads semi-truck trailers onto railroad flat cars at team tracks equipped with the proper loading ramps. Every railroad in the Twin Ports had such a ramp at one time; some had more than one. But TOFC didn’t stave off an overall declining need for team tracks. With the consolidation of so many smaller businesses during the last few decades the need for team tracks certainly declined—but they didn’t disappear entirely.

Big towns weren’t the only places where team tracks were used. Most small towns along the mainline had a short siding or single ended stub track where rail cars could be spotted for local merchants to use too. Here, at Wright, Minn., Northern Pacific drayage contractors unload material into their truck from a 40-foot Ontario Northland boxcar that arrived from Canada. It’s going to take several trips to get that boxcar cleaned out. Unloading cars as quickly as possible was important. Customers paid a fee to ship or receive a load. But if they didn’t have the car unloaded quickly enough they might also have to pay extra demurrage charges for every extra day the car sits idle. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)

Today, the most modern of all team tracks in Duluth-Superior loads and unloads all sorts of special cargo. Since its opening in 1959, the Clure Public Marine Terminal has provided ample space for any business to transfer loads of any kind between marine vessels, railroad cars, or trucks. This includes four tracks with direct access to the BNSF, CP, CN and UP railroads as well as 360,000 square feet of warehouse space. Team tracks have come a long way since the days of horse drawn wagons but the basic principal is still the same. There’s always going to be a need to get goods and merchandise from its point of manufacture onto railroad cars. And for companies without rail access, the team track will remain a big part of their transportation plan.

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Story by Jeff Lemke; originally appeared on Zenith City Online August, 2014.


Some team tracks had permanent loading ramps. These were particularly useful in outlying areas where raw materials like pulpwood were harvested. This view was taken at Ironton, Minn. It shows two men busily unloading their truck loads of pulpwood into a pair of Northern Pacific gondolas (gons) for eventual shipment to the lumber mills. It will take 6-7 truck-loads to fill each gon. When the gons are full the local railroad station agent will be notified that the loading process is complete. Paperwork is then prepared and the cars will be picked up by the local switch crew to be forwarded down the line. Many team tracks were located a short distance from an occupied depot or station. That local station agent kept an eye on things and made sure everything was up to snuff with the local shippers. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)
While the most common cars at the team track were boxcars, gondolas, and flat cars, refrigerator cars were also frequent visitors—especially in larger cities like Duluth. The Santa Fe car at right is an ice bunker refrigerator (reefer) car that brought in produce from the west coast. These reefers required ice to keep the load cool. There was nothing modern or mechanical about the refrigeration inside these old cars—it was all done with ice—so ready access to large amounts of ice was important to many Duluth businesses that utilized area team tracks. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)
Railroads earned additional revenues through a variety of extra services they supplied to team track customers such as servicing ice reefers to keep them at the proper temperature. Duluth’s Northern Pacific and Superior’s Great Northern railway each had very large ice houses along their tracks that supplied ice for ice bunker reefers. But when the rail cars couldn’t be filled at one of these facilities then a portable ice truck was called to the team track to provide the necessary cooling the load required during transit. A combination of ice, salt, and saw dust was loaded into each end of each car. Here we see a worker on the lift about to slide large blocks of ice into the open roof hatches on top of this ice reefer car. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)
One of the daily rituals at the old Omaha Railway depot in downtown Duluth was the arrival of the DW&P’s passenger train that brought fresh fish down from the lakes of northern Minnesota. This view shows a truck from Lake Superior Fish Company off–loading today’s catch from the baggage section of the DW&P’s only rail diesel car. This fish will be sold to local restaurants. Sometimes the team track had another more official use—like this track that was part of a local passenger depot. As long as there was ready public access to it then nearly any track could be temporarily used for this purpose. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)
At one time there were more than a dozen team tracks scattered throughout Duluth and Superior. When trailer-on-flat-car (TOFC) shipments began after WWII team tracks were augmented with either temporary or permanent ramps to allow truck trailers to be unloaded by simply driving them off of the flat cars they arrived on. This one, known as Duluth’s “elephant track,” was operated by the Northern Pacific. It had its own catchy name to distinguish it from the regular team track located nearby. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)
While most team tracks were known by the same name some were also known locally as the depot track, freight or house track, public access track, or some other catchy name. Duluth’s elephant track had a name that could be traced right back to actual elephants. When the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus came to town elephants and tractors were used to unload wagons. There was a time when the railroad went out of its way to enable customers to load and unload goods and materials on team tracks in every community that they served. The interstate highway system changed a lot of that after WWII with trucks becoming the preferred shipping method especially when smaller loads were involved. Still, in most large communities the team track endures although these days it goes largely unused compared to earlier times. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History)


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