James J. Hill v. the Northern Pacific

The operational heart of the Central Avenue railway complex was the Great Northern’s 2-story interlocking tower (Image: Bob Johnston, Twin Ports Rail History Collection)

Hill’s trains now literally ran over his competitors, and NP didn’t like these new developments at all. Even though there was a contract between the two companies, NP decided it was in its best interest to slow down Hill’s progress—if it could. NP tried to keep the Eastern off of its line by reneging track use at Central Avenue. They even removed the connection there. But legal remedies were quickly sought by Eastern and their briefly-stalled trains were rolling into Duluth once again after NP reinstalled the track. Litigation between the parties continued for some time. But on February 26, 1891, arbitration settled the matter once and for all giving Eastern the right to both cross and use NP tracks to gain competitive access into the Duluth-Superior terminal district.

If this legal struggle between the NP and GN situation seems extreme, consider an incident that occurred between the two rival railroads several years earlier. In 1888, the Eastern had blocked the NP in West Superior, so NP took matters into its own hands on September 23, 1888, and built a crossing through the Eastern’s track without getting any sort of permission to do it. The event was reported the next day in the New York Times:

The announcement that the St. Paul and Duluth [NP] would on Monday begin running short-line trains to West Superior [over the NP’s new bridges] has much more of a meaning than it conveys. For a long time the St. Paul and Duluth has been waiting to start its short-line trains but has been unable to do so because of the course pursued by the Eastern Railway of Minnesota, whose tracks the short line had built [up to] at Superior. The St. Paul and Duluth line was built on both sides of the Eastern tracks, but a force of about 25 men was stationed at the crossing by the Eastern Company, and for weeks the other road has been unable to get across. After several unsuccessful attempts a green-looking watchman was put at the crossing to keep a lookout on the proceedings of the Eastern Company. He watched patiently and finally was rewarded. Thursday night the Eastern crew relaxed its vigilance and left a clear field for the short line. This was an opportunity for the lone watchman. He hauled out from its hiding place a telegraph instrument, tapped the wires, and hustled a message to Duluth. It brought a special locomotive and flatcar in quick order over the bridge and to the crossing. The car was loaded with necessary frogs, rails, etc. for making a crossing, and in 10 minutes the work was done and the triumphant scream of the [NP’s] whistle brought out the Eastern Road’s crowd [just] in time to see the last spike driven.

The crossing was installed along Winter Street near a railroad location called LST&T Junction. It’s still marked that way even today. Eventually things settled down. The Milwaukee Road (Milwaukee) was given trackage rights over the NP from St. Paul through Central Avenue all the way to Duluth on October 1, 1900, an event that must have been quite the thorn in Hill’s side. Unlike the Eastern or GN, the Milwaukee could use the NP’s tracks without building a thing. The Milwaukee ran a daily freight train into the large Rice’s Point yard in Duluth. For decades their locomotives and cabooses could be seen near the NP’s roundhouse there. The Milwaukee trains accessed Duluth via both the 2nd and 3rd Subdivisions, depending on traffic conditions.

On July 1, 1907, the Eastern Railway of Minnesota was sold in its entirety to Great Northern. The old contracts and agreements that allowed their trains to use Central Avenue were reissued giving GN transferred rights to cross and use NP tracks just as the Eastern had done before.

For decades the old High Line on Rice’s Point was easily the most visual reminder of the battle that once raged between these two companies—at least to those who knew about it. This trestle was built with Hill’s fortitude and profits earned some 51 years earlier. Hill passed in 1916. Soon enough, GN’s attitude about the continued need for this structure changed dramatically. The high cost of maintaining the immensely long trestle and some 9,000 feet of associated track was cited in numerous petitions to abandon the route in favor of using ground-level trackage along the Point and into Duluth. When GN began construction of new connections to the NP in August 1943 it was clear that such an arrangement was ostensibly a done deal. Beginning in January 1944, the High Line itself was systematically dismantled but for a small section of steep grade where it connected to the NP near the Minnesota draw-bridge. When this last portion of elevated track was removed in June 1957 the evolution of trackage rights agreements finally eliminated what was by all accounts the most unusual of all railroad routes into the heart of the Zenith City.

Today’s Central Avenue Interlocking

The Central Avenue interlocking complex still exists, although far fewer tracks remain. The complex is run remotely now from a dispatch center in Ft. Worth, Texas. All it takes to line up a train today is a few clicks of a mouse on a computer screen. After the last of the tower operators retired in the 1980s, the tower was dismantled. This place was a stronghold for GN and NP trains, and BN and Amtrak used these same routes for many years as well.

Soo Line trains rolled through the Central Avenue area too, as their tracks and connections with the NP were located just east of Central Avenue Tower, east of Hammond Avenue. Many of these were iron ore trains running between the Cuyuna Iron Range and either Central Avenue yard (which was slightly north) or Hill Avenue ore yard (which was slightly east). Those connections are also things of the past.

The Duluth, Winnipeg and Pacific even managed to operate trains through here in the 1980s after they abandoned and moved their main yards from West Duluth to Pokegama. A new connection was built west of Central Avenue at MJ Tower (about half way between Central Avenue and Saunders) allowing transfer trains to operate between the DW&P’s yard at Pokegama and the BN yards south of 28th Street in Superior.

The gradual downsizing of this facility and abandonment of various parts of the lines was a result of BN line consolidations started in the mid-1970s. When the GN and NP merged into BN in 1970 some lines were considered redundant and subsequently removed. A sign still stands just west of Carlton to commemorate the start of the Northern Pacific Railway that happened on February 15, 1870. But the entire 1881 NP line extending east from there to Central Avenue was removed in 1975–76.

A modern plan of the track arrangement at Central Avenue. Great Northern and Northern Pacific merged on March 2, 1970, to become Burlington Northern. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History Collection)

Today, BNSF Railway uses this vital junction to route millions of tons of low-sulfur western coal into the Superior Midwest Energy Terminal where it is trans-loaded into lake boats. This fossil fuel powers electric-generating plants around the Great Lakes. One significant set of main tracks continues to bring in freight from the Twin Cities, wheat from the Red River Valley, and taconite from the great Mesabi Iron Range.

James J. Hill’s vision of dominating railway transportation at the Head of the Lakes created a battle with the Northern Pacific—and today it sure looks like he won. The vast majority of freight coming into Superior on steel rails rolls down what was once the main line of the old Eastern Railway of Minnesota. It crosses right through the old NP 2nd Subdivision at Central Avenue and rolls into the freight yards that Hill built in West Superior during the 1880s. The men and women who work at BNSF Railway’s Superior Terminal today can thank him for all that he created on this side of the bay—a transportation system that eventually outdid the NP. There was good reason he was called “The Empire Builder.”

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