The Northern Pacific Railway in Duluth

The Northern Pacific’s Wisconsin Draw (closest) was a double track bridge while the Minnesota Draw was single track. Built and rebuilt between 1884 and 1896 both bridges and all of the trestlework between them were removed during the late 1980s. (Image: Library of Congress)

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.

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Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.