Sneak Peek: The NP’s Fond du Lac Branch & Lost Forbay

The Northern Pacific Railway’s gasoline-powered rail-car the Flyer, aka the “Maroon Devil,” shown on the turntable in Fond du Lac, ca. 1909. The Flyer offered passenger seating and pulled one car along the Fond du Lac Branch from July 1909 to March 1910. [Image:: Gary Wildung]

About a month back we shared a story about the old St. Paul & Duluth‘s Short Line, aka the “Skally Line,” which was built so that the St.P&D could stop running trains over the dangerous trestles between Thomson and Fond du Lac. This week‘s sneak peek from our forthcoming book Twin Ports Trains: The Historic Railroads of Duluth & Superior 1870–1970 tells the story of how the original LS&M/St.P&D line from Thomson to West Duluth was utilized after the Short Line was built and the Northern Pacific later took over. Enjoy!

The NP‘s Fond du Lac Branch & Lost Forbay

In 1905 the original LS&M tracks between Fond du Lac and West Duluth Junction became known as the NP’s Fond du Lac Branch. The line was not only a convenience for Fond du Lac residents, but an aid to pleasure-seekers for many years. Since the 1870s Fond du Lac had been a popular destination for weekend picnickers, with excursion steamboats making regular trips between downtown Duluth and Fond du Lac. The train also stopped at a depot at Spirit Lake, a widening of the St. Louis River, where the Duluth Boat Club had built a boathouse.

Beginning in 1908 the Fond du Lac Branch brought employees to their jobs, first building and then working at the Minnesota Steel Plant. This connected steel plant employees living in Morgan Park, Gary, and New Duluth to the rest of Duluth. Gasoline-powered railcars known officially as McKeen Railcars were used from 1909 to 1910 and 1923 to 1925. The first—called the Flyer, aka the “Maroon Devil”—offered passenger seating and pulled one car along the Fond du Lac Branch from July 1909 to March 1910. A turntable was added to the Fond du Lac facility in order for the car to turn around for its return trip to West Duluth. Streetcar service to New Duluth and the increased availability of automobiles ended train service to Fond du Lac in 1925, after which the streetcar company operated a bus line between Fond du Lac and New Duluth. The 1896 Fond du Lac depot and platform were removed by 1935.

Meanwhile, the construction of the Thomson Dam by the Great Northern Power Company beginning in 1905 partially revived the line between Fond du Lac and Thomson, which fell out of use after the St. Paul & Duluth Short Line was built in the late 1880s. Construction included the the creation of a canal and reservoir—technically known as a “fore bay”—between the dam and its power station located a few miles downstream. This provided the water that, with the help of gravity, turned the power station’s turbines which in turn produced electricity. While the plant was under construction, workers and supplies were brought to the job site on the old LS&M tracks from Fond du Lac, abandoned in 1894.

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)

Once the power station was in operation, it required ongoing maintenance, but the facility was difficult for workers to reach. The power company’s solution was to build a small community for hydro-station workers and their families. They named it “Forbay.” According to researcher Dan Turner, 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. The power company used a gasoline-powered trolley car—officially Mack Rail Car No. 195—to carry residents and visitors along the steep route between Forbay and Fond du Lac, a trip they described as a “frightening experience.”

Mack Rail Car No. 195 made its last run from Forbay to Fond du Lac on October 5, 1949. The power company closed Forbay and sold its buildings in the 1960s. Much of what was left of Forbay disappeared during Duluth’s historic 2012 flood.

The latest idea for the cover for Twin Ports Trains (like the book itself, it’s a work in progress…).