The Fond du Lac Line & Lost Forbay

A Great Northern Power Company gas-powered passenger car followed the old Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad tracks along the St. Louis River between Forbay and Fond du Lac. Forbay was built by the power company in today’s Jay Cooke State Park in 1905. (Photo: Jon Severson)

The Lake Superior & Mississippi (LS&M), Duluth’s first railroad, was designed to connect the Twin Cities to the Northern Pacific Railroad (NP), which eventually ran from Lake Superior to the Puget Sound. Philadelphia financier Jay Cooke invested heavily in both concerns. Construction began in St. Paul in 1863; in 1868 workers began laying track from downtown Duluth alongside the St. Louis River to Fond du Lac, where a depot was built at 122nd Ave. W. in 1870. The LS&M’s final spike was driven at Thomson on August 1, 1870.

Cooke’s investments drained his finances, and he went broke in 1873, setting off an international financial depression. The LS&M failed in 1877, reorganizing as the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad (SP&D). Between 1886 and 1888 SP&D built the Duluth Short Line Railroad from West Duluth to Thomson, reducing traffic through Fond du Lac. Traffic between Fond du Lac and Thomson stopped in 1894 after a trestle burned. The SP&D built a new depot in Fond du Lac at 133rd Ave. W. in 1895. The 1870 depot was moved to 13308 West Third Street in 1896 and operated as the Olde Depot Inn restaurant from 1929 to 1985; it still stands.

Northern Pacific absorbed SP&D in 1900. In 1905 NP revived the Fond du Lac Line, operating a gasoline-powered trolley for workers of the Thomson Dam’s hydro-electric station at Forbay, and renamed the segment between Fond du Lac and 71st Ave. W. in West Duluth as its Fond du Lac Branch. Engines, including gasoline-powered models from 1909–1910 and 1923–1925, used a turntable adjacent to the depot to turn around and return to Duluth. Streetcar service to New Duluth and the increased availability of automobiles ended service to Fond du Lac in 1925. The rest of the original LS&M and Duluth Short Line, known to some as the Skally Line, ceased operation in October, 1949. Burlington Northern succeeded NP in 1970.

Forgotten Forbay

Great Northern Power hired an army of workers to complete the hydro-electric stations project, which included creating a canal almost three miles long. The canal created an artificial lake, under which stands the Fond du Lac power station to this day. Connecting the lake and station are twin 368-foot long pipes, allowing gravity to pull high-pressure water into the turbines to create electricity. The Thomson dam, which also stands, is more conventional, using a concrete wall to create water pressure to run its turbines.

Temporary camps of trailers, shanties, and tents sheltered the Great Northern workers, including many European immigrants, most of whom were recruited for the project from Serbia. When those temporary settlements disappeared in 1907, it was a sign that electricity was flowing, not that work was done. With no community near the power stations and transportation unreliable, especially in the winter months when repairs are typically done, Great Northern started building a small community near the Fond du Lac station to house the families of the men who kept it operating.

“Fore bay” is the technical name for the reservoir that feeds a power station’s turbines. With a slight change in spelling, this was adopted as the moniker for the company town; it would be known as Forbay. The village included only seven houses, a small school, and a boarding house, the last of which provided ample work for local women. In the winter, a clearing was flooded to create a skating rink for the children. To move people and goods to Forbay, a railroad track was laid from the community of Fond du Lac, though no train would ever chug along the route.

Rather, a Mack Rail Car—essentially a gas-powered trolley—was purchased to serve the community. It was thought that this was the only type of vehicle capable of navigating the hills bordering the river, especially in winter. Residents, who described the journey in the Mack as a frightening experience, no doubt celebrated when the first road connected Forbay to West Duluth in 1933. Forbay’s 20 students were ever afterward bussed to Lincoln Park Elementary, leaving Forbay Elementary to be demolished in 1936 after 31 years of service.

Trolley service was halted on October 5, 1949, when the Mack made its last run from Forbay to Fond du Lac. It would later be scrapped for $500. In the 1960s, Minnesota Power, which had taken over the operation of the dam from Great Northern, ceased renting the Forbay houses. Roads had improved in the area, the company reasoned, allowing employees a short commute.

Some of the houses were moved to Fond du Lac, where they stand to this day. At the former town site, almost nothing remains. In some places, the gas trolley rails are visible where they still cross concrete roads. Piles of trash, too—mostly rusty cans and broken bottles—can be found in the woods as well. Most traces of Forbay were erased by the floods of 2012.

The “Forgotten Forbay” portion of this story was written by Dan Turner.