Sneak Peek: The D&IR Locomotive Three Spot

A “linen” lithographic postcard of the locomotive Three Spot made ca. 1930. (Image: Zenith City Press)

This week‘s sneak peek from our forthcoming book Twin Ports Trains: The Historic Railroads of Duluth & Superior 1870–1970 features another early locomotive, the Duluth & Iron Range Railroad’s Three Spot, which helped build the D&IR’s original line from today’s Two Harbors to Tower on the Vermilion Iron Range after surviving a harrowing crossing of Lake Superior from Duluth to Agate Bay while tied to a raft. Enjoy!

The D&IR Locomotive Three Spot

Like the Northern Pacific’s Minnetonka, the Duluth & Iron Range Railroad’s Three Spot started life hauling materials to build a railroad and later served a logging railroad before being retired, restored, and placed on display. Built in 1883 by Philadelphia-based Baldwin Locomotive Works, the Three Spot is a 2-6-0 Mogul-type steam locomotive, one of thousands that served railroads around the world in the late nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. The Three Spot was originally ordered by Mexico’s Tehuantepec Interoceanic Railway, but the railroad never took delivery. Instead, George C. Stone purchased the locomotive for $9,750 (about $314,000 in 2023) and had it sent to Duluth, where it would be sent to Agate Bay to help build the D&IR railroad. The Three Spot traveled under its own steam from Philadelphia to St. Paul and on to Duluth over the St. Paul & Duluth line.
On September 2, 1883, the Duluth News Tribune announced the Three Spot had arrived at its final destination the previous day, noting that “The Duluth & Iron Range locomotive No. 3 was loaded onto a scow in the slip yesterday afternoon and towed to Agate Bay by the Tug Ella G. Stone in the evening. She will soon be home on the rails.” The Ella G. made several such trips that year, bringing more locomotives and rail cars from Duluth to Two Harbors. Behind her wheel stood twenty-eight-year-old Captain Cornelius O’Flynn, later called Cornelius O. Flynn.

The skipper had recently left a job piloting the Cooley & LaVaque Fishery’s tug Siskiwit to the fishing villages along the north shore between Duluth and Isle Royale, dropping off mail and picking up fish along the way. In 1886 Flynn, a Michigan native, married Gertrude McQuade. Her father, Sam—namesake of McQuade Road just north of Duluth—served as St. Louis County Sheriff from 1878 to 1888. Several times during the D&IR’s construction, O’Flynn brought McQuade to Two Harbors aboard the Siskiwit so the sheriff could apply a little justice among the rowdy railroad workers seeking adult entertainment along the town’s infamous Whiskey Row.

While Duluth newspapers report the <Three Spot’s> arrival in Agate Bay as a matter of fact, a legend would grow of its brief trip from Duluth to Agate Bay. As the oft-told story goes, Lake Superior provided calm sailing until the <Ella G.> reached Knife River between Duluth and Two Harbors. There a Nor’Easter began to blow, and the lake soon became perilous. O’Flynn positioned a man with an ax at the tug’s aft, ready to cut the line if necessary: better to lose one locomotive than a locomotive, a tugboat, and several lives. McGonagle later recalled that “A kind providence and the excellent seamanship of Captain Flynn saved us from the necessity of sending the Three Spot to Davy Jones’ locker, and instead we sailed into the peaceful waters of Agate Bay and delivered our cargo safely on the rails that projected from the timbers at the shore line.”

Not only is this harrowing event not recorded in any Duluth newspaper of the time, but a profile of Flynn in the April 10, 1933, edition of the Duluth Herald described his work as having hauled a total of 14 locomotives and 536 rail cars from Duluth to Two Harbors in 1883 and 1884. But not once does the story mention the Three Spot nor any stormy crossing; neither does his 1936 obituary. Further, McGonagle’s biographers place the date of the crossing as July 18, 1883—nearly two weeks before the News Tribune’s report. The story first appears in print in an interview by Thomas Owens that appeared in U.S. Steel magazine in 1938, eight years after the railroad president’s death. This might suggest that the details of Mr. McGonagle’s tale grew both fuzzier and taller over the years. However, a painting depicting the notorious event was made by Albert Headley, general car foreman for the D&IR and a resident of Agate Bay/Two Harbors since 1883. If the squall did blow during the Three Spot’s crossing, Heardley would likely have experienced it at Agate Bay and been on hand when the Ella G. arrived with the locomotive, the men on board eager to tell their harrowing tale.

The Three Spot not only hauled materials for the construction of the D&IR’s main line to Soudan, it also did the same for the Lake Superior line into Duluth in 1886. It continued to serve the D&IR until 1899. Researcher Robert Balach suggests that during this time the little locomotive was used to haul ore trains from the Soudan Mine to the Two Harbors ore docks, but that is highly unlikely as the Three Spot did not have the tractive effort to pull such heavy trains. According to the Lake County Historical Society, “The Three Spot was simply too light to pull heavy loads of raw ore.”

Indeed, the Three Spot was much more at home on lighter rails, like those used on logging railroads. The D&IR sold the Three Spot to just such a railroad in 1899 when the Alger-Smith Logging Company purchased the locomotive for $3,000 ($108,000 in 2023) to haul logs along its Duluth & Northern Minnesota Railroad. The logging company renamed her No. 2 and she served the D&NM until 1919, when Alger-Smith abandoned the railroad: it had run out of timber to harvest along the North Shore.

Sold for scrap in 1920, the Three Spot awaited its doom until 1922, when the D&IR’s Thirty Year Veterans Club purchased the engine, cleaned her up, and put her on display in Two Harbors the following year. The historic locomotive currently sits next to the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Railway’s preserved Baldwin 2-8-8-4 No. 229 at the depot in Two Harbors.

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