Sneak Peek: What was the “Skally Line”?

Recently the Duluth Monitor, which publishes the work of intrepid independent journalist John Ramos, ran a wonderful story titled “Abundant remnants of Duluth’s first railroad overlooked in Jay Cooke Park.” It includes photographs of trestle foundations and views taken from the former Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad (LS&M) line built along and over the St. Louis River from Thomson to Fond du Lac in 1870, and we encourage you to give it a read (and peruse the other important stories Mr. Ramos brings to the Duluth and Superior community, often treading through topics traditional news sources shy away from).

John’s story often employs the term “Skally Line” to refer to the old LS&M line, a nickname that at one point was applied to the entire line of the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad—successor to the LS&M—after its Duluth Short Line first bypassed the route along the St. Louis River in 1888. It seems that few people agree about exactly what was the Skally Line, and we address the issue in our forthcoming book Twin Ports Trains: The Railroad History of Duluth and Superior 1870–1970. Here’s what coauthors Tony Dierckins and Jeff Lemke discovered about the “Skally Line” name during their research, an excerpt from the forthcoming book:

The cover of a 1893 pamphlet advertising the Duluth Short Line railroad, which many also called the Skally Line. (Image: Public Domain)

“Skally Go Hoot!”

During the 1890s the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad, also known as the Duluth Short Line, developed a new nickname: The “Skally Line.” The use of “Skally” in reference to the St.P&D first appears in the Duluth News Tribune in April 1893 when an item about a train delayed by a mudslide began with “The limited, or Skally, over the St. Paul & Duluth…was two hours late in reaching here last night.” The nickname first referred to the stretch of rail line completed between Thomson and Duluth in 1888, which was officially built as the Duluth Short Line Railroad, but its name soon became a substitute for the entire line between Duluth and St. Paul. The new track joined the original LS&M track in West Duluth at Pulaski Street. The 1870 route from Thomson along the St. Louis River through Fond du Lac and on to Pulaski Street in West Duluth thereafter became the railroad’s Fond du Lac Branch. The “Skally” nickname did not refer to that portion of the railroad.

The “Skally” nickname remained popular decades after the line became part of the Northern Pacific in 1900. The Short Line later crossed the St. Louis River by way of the Grassy Point Draw and terminated at a small three-track facility in Superior south of the Great Northern grain terminals called the Skally Yard. While nobody seems to know for certain where the name came from—hypotheses abound, and many have claimed credit for its coinage—the most popular theory was put forth by railroad historian Frank Donovan in 1950.

Donovan explains that “the [railroad] construction and maintenance crews were predominantly Swedish. In those days too the section men’s pay was low.” Because of the low pay, laborers often abruptly quit their railroad construction jobs when better-paying jobs became available, particularly after the spring thaw reopened the harbor. Once they heard the ice had melted, Donovan reports, the Swedish railroad crews “quit work en masse.” When a foreman asked a departing Swedish section man where he was going, “‘Skally go hoot!’ would be the clipped reply, at least that’s how it sounded to American ears. Actually it was, ‘Skall gå till Duluth,’ meaning ‘I’m going to Duluth!’” (The actual translation is “I shall go to Duluth.”) Donovan continued, “Constant repetition of this phrase made an impression on the railroaders until they began calling…the St. Paul & Duluth the Skally. To this day older trainmen still refer to it as the Skally.” Nearly seventy-five years after Donovan’s explanation, many railroad enthusiasts still refer to the entire St.P&D as the Skally Line.

The book, of course, will include the entire history of the LS&M, St.P&D, the Northern Pacific, and at least a down other railroads that served Duluth and Superior. Stayed tuned to our Monday Updates for further peeks at the forthcoming book.

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