Clicking on the Web: History of railroads in Minnesota

by Howard Lestrud

There weren’t too many railroad tracks near the 80-acre farm spot where I was raised.

But as I have grown older, or more elderly should I say, I have missed the sound of the train whistle and also missed the slam-bang of railroad cars being switched.

My closest experiences with the railroad come from my family.

My grandfather (who was killed while working for the M&St.L Railroad), two of my uncles and my father-in-law all worked on the railroad.

I also have some remembrances of hearing the noisy switching of trains from our apartment building in Winona where our family lived while I worked as sports editor of the Winona Daily News.

I learned to value the industrial benefits of the railroad by living only six miles away from very fertile vegetable growing land near Hollandale in southern Minnesota.

This rich vegetable land was located in Freeborn County.

My aunt and uncle and their son were very active in vegetable growing and marketing in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

Rail was a very important component of shipping their products all over the nation.

Today, rail is more related to transit, commuter rail.

There are still some Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad lines in the north metro, but not nearly to the extent of years ago.

Let’s take a look at some railroad history by traveling the Internet.

Historical information about the first railroad in Minnesota can be found in a reprint from Minnesota Historical Society Collections 10:445-448.

Find it at the Living History of Minnesota website:

The First Railroad in Minnesota by Colonel William Crooks

“The Minnesota and Pacific Railroad Company was succeeded by the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Company, and afterward passed under control of the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railroad Company, which in turn became the Great Northern Railway Company.

“The St. Paul and Pacific company also controlled a line from St. Paul to Winona, in the valley of the Mississippi.

“After the Territorial Legislature had given the charter, and Congress a land grant in aid of the construction of this railroad, the company, by ruling of the Interior Department at Washington, under the grant to Minnesota, was declared entitled to one hundred and twenty sections of land, in advance of construction.

“In 1857 the line of railway was located from Stillwater by way of St. Paul and St. Anthony Falls to a point near Big Stone lake, on the western boundary of the State, then about to be admitted to the Union, and was also located from the Falls of St. Anthony to Crow Wing by the way of St. Cloud.

“In 1858, under a contract with Mr. Selah Chamberlain, of Cleveland, Ohio, sixty-two and a half miles of the road from St. Paul north were graded and bridged, and the cross ties for a large portion of the line were delivered.

“The right of way was, in the main, secured by the company.

“This work, however, was suspended, owing to a battle made by interested or badly disposed people against the faith and credit of the State of Minnesota, rendering powerless the grantees of the State’s credit, who held its bonds under the provision of the $5,000,000 Loan Bill, so called.

“Matters remained in a condition of uncertainty as to the prosecution of the work upon this and other lines of railroad in the State, until the people, having lost faith, were turning their faces eastward in abandonment of their instituted settlement.

“It appeared necessary at such a time to make an appeal to the Legislature in order to keep, alive the franchise of the company by providing against forfeiture or merger of its privileges.

“The company took this appeal in the winter of 1861-62, and the Legislature granted to it an extension of time.

“In the meantime, negotiations had been conducted by the Hon. Edmund Rice, who was the head arid front, and the heart and soul, of every effort put forth to rescue the State from a condition which simply meant ruin to all.

“It was to Mr. J. Edgar Thompson, who at that time was president of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, and to the associates of that gentleman, that Mr. Rice presented plans which sought to induce the active support and co-operation of these gentlemen in carrying the projected lines to a successful issue; and, as a result thereof, Mr. Oliver W. Barnes, a distinguished civil engineer, was sent to Minnesota to examine into the condition of the partially constructed railroad, as well as to equip himself with reliable information concerning the value of the enterprise as a whole.

“Mr. Barnes had made a favorable report, and on a Sunday morning, early in May, 1861, Mr. Edmund Rice and myself embarked on the steamer ‘Golden Era’ on our way via La Crosse to Philadelphia for the purpose of conference with the gentlemen there in the hope of consummating an arrangement which would insure the building of the railroad and lay the foundation for the return of some hope to the people of the State.

“At Philadelphia negotiations were resumed and preceded in a very satisfactory manner.

“Gov. Alex Ramsey, then governor of Minnesota, was in Washington and was requested to make the journey to Philadelphia in order to lend his powerful influence in supporting Mr. Rice’s efforts, and also to assure Mr. Thompson and his associates that the laws under which the railroad would be built should receive on his part, as executive, most liberal construction.

“It is needless to say that the governor did in this instance, as in all cases involving the honor and interest of the State of Minnesota, what he deemed best. . .”

Go to Wikipedia to find some more history on railroads in Minnesota:

The Homestead Act in 1862 facilitated land claims by settlers, who regarded the land as being cheap and fertile.

The railroad industry, led by the Northern Pacific Railway and Saint Paul and Pacific Railroad, advertised the many opportunities in the state and worked to get immigrants to settle in Minnesota.

James J. Hill, in particular, was instrumental in reorganizing the Saint Paul and Pacific Railroad and extending lines from the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area into the Red River Valley and to Winnipeg.

Hill was also responsible for building a new passenger depot in Minneapolis, served by the landmark Stone Arch Bridge which was completed in 1883.

During the 1880s, Hill continued building tracks through North Dakota and Montana.

In 1890, the railroad, now known as the Great Northern Railway, started building tracks through the mountains west to Seattle.

Other railroads, such as the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad and the Milwaukee Road, also played an important role in the early days of Minnesota’s statehood.

Later railways, such as the Soo Line and Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway facilitated the sale of Minneapolis flour and other products, although they were not as involved in attracting settlers.

Go to and find many links to railroad history.

Here’s just a few:

• Friends of the BNSF,

•  RAIL links,

• Great Northern History,

• Minnesota Transportation Museum,

Editor’s note: Howard Lestrud is ECM online managing editor.