The Northern Pacific Railway in Duluth

The Grassy Point Draw was originally built in 1887. (Image: Dennis O’Hara, Northern Images)

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 unequaled 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.

Special thanks to Gary Wildung and James Dick of the Northern Pacific Railway Historical Association for their help in locating materials for this article.

*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 Bemidji; and the ninth ran from North Bemidji to International Falls.

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