Thursday, June 28, 2012

On this very day, Minnesota railroads turn 150 years old. And in 2012, they're doing better than ever.

The William Crooks was the first train to run in Minnesota, on June 28, 1862. Today, it lives at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth, MN. Photo credit: Jeff Terry.

Trains Magazine correspondent and longtime railroad photographer

On this day in 2012, the people of Minnesota are driving their cars; heading to airports to catch a flight, or maybe even grabbing a seat on Amtrak’s Empire Builder on its journey between the Midwest and the Pacific Coast.

They will think nothing of making these trips, though these trips would not have been possible if not for the events of June 28, 1862. 150 years ago.

On that long-ago day, a tiny steam locomotive built in New Jersey named the William Crooks pulled a passenger train from St. Paul to St. Anthony, near what is today Minneapolis’ St. Anthony Main area. It was the first run of a train in Minnesota, and marked the beginning of the railroad industry in Minnesota.

It’s hard to imagine Minnesota without railroads, or for that matter much in the way of transportation at all. When Minnesota territory achieved statehood in 1858, fewer than 200,000 people were living within its borders, and transportation was largely by riverboat, horse, or ox cart. For Minnesota to grow, it needed better transportation, and that meant railroads.

So it was that work began in St. Paul in 1861 on the state’s first railroad line. The rail, cars, and locomotives had to be shipped upriver by Mississippi River barge. After fits and starts the first ten miles of track was laid, and the William Crooks, named for the chief engineer of the line, was ready to pull the first train. The St. Paul Daily Press of June 29, 1862, said the invitation-only affair included Minnesota’s governor and lieutenant governor, St. Paul’s mayor and several “aldermen,” directors of the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad (which built the line), and about 100 citizens. It left St. Paul at “about half past two o’clock and returned at six o’clock,” when an evening banquet was held.

From those modest beginnings, Minnesota’s railroads grew and prospered. After the Civil War, the state and its railroads grew up together: when one thrived, so did the other. Unless you lived near a river, the railroad was the only practical way for Minnesotans and their products to travel more than a few miles.

Minnesota railroad leaders became rich, and in some cases, famous. They included James J. Hill, the “Empire Builder” whose Great Northern Railway would reach the West Coast – and included the original St. Paul & Pacific line. Less remembered are Adolphus Stickney, who built the Chicago Great Western that connected the Twin Cities with Omaha and Kansas City, and W.D. Washburn, who had already made a fortune in lumber and milling when he became the first president of the Soo Line in 1883.

Minnesota became a center of railroad activity. Great Northern and Northern Pacific were based in St. Paul, while mid-sized lines such as Minneapolis & St. Louis and Soo Line were based in Minneapolis. Duluth was headquarters for the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range, owned by US Steel. It moved long trains of iron ore from the Mesabi and Vermilion Iron Ranges to huge docks at Duluth and Two Harbors. It could rightly be argued that the Missabe, and neighboring Great Northern, were crucial to victory in World War II, for Minnesota ore fed the steel mills that produced the tanks, ships, and planes that led to victory. Railroads employed thousands of Minnesotans to keep the trains moving.

With the end of the World War II, railroads spent millions to re-equip their passenger trains, thinking the public would not want to drive long distances, especially on substandard roads. Minnesota residents had a choice of speedy streamliners between the Twin Cities and Chicago that reached speeds of 100 mph. To the West Coast, travelers had the choice of Great Northern’s Empire Builder, Northern Pacific’s North Coast Limited, and Milwaukee Road’s Olympian Hiawatha, and could enjoy scenery from bubble-top dome cars.

As the government subsidized highways and airlines took away passengers in the 1950s and 60s, and as steam locomotives were replaced by diesels, Minnesota railroads fell from public consciousness. Today, the only way many people relate to railroads is when a train blocks them at a grade crossing.

Now, Minnesota’s freight railroads are having the last laugh. While airlines pack passengers into airplanes like sardines and lose millions, and as highways crumble and are clogged with congestion, railroads are doing better than ever. The industry was deregulated in 1980, and the renaissance that followed allowed railroads to recapture market share. They now handle 42 percent of all intercity commercial freight.

Railroads made it through the economic downturn that began in 2008-09 almost as though it never happened. While traffic dropped 20 to 30 percent, profits did not, and railroads continued to spend billions of dollars on their physical plant. Union Pacific, the largest publicly held U.S. railroad, spent more than $28 billion on infrastructure between 2000 and 2010, and last year spent a record $3.3 billion on improvements. Even Amtrak, the national passenger railroad, carried a record 30.2 million passengers last year, despite having to beg for funds from a stingy Congress each year.

Today, the William Crooks rests in quiet retirement at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth. You can examine the locomotive up close and imagine what that day 150 years ago must have been like.

It is a great monument to Minnesota railroad history, a history whose ending chapter has yet to be written.


Steve Glischinski began taking photographs of railroads in 1970, at the age of thirteen. Since then, his photographs of railroads in action have been published in many books and magazines. He is a correspondent for Trains Magazine and organizes railroad photography charter trips and the Railfan Weekend at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum. He lives in Shoreview, Minnesota. He is author of several books including Minnesota Railroads: A Photographic History, 1940-2012 (August 2012).

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