The Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway: The Missabe Road

The Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway (DM&IR) is a Minnesota institution and unique within the industry.  While several Midwestern carriers carried iron ore in some capacity, only the Missabe Road did so on a grand scale along a compact network of only a few hundred miles.  Its main lines heading north from docks situated at Duluth and Two Harbors to serve the rich iron ore fields in the Mesabi and Vermilion Ranges.  The discovery of this most important resource in the production of steel here predates the Civil War although contemporary mining operations did not begin until the early 1880's.  In time, two railroads came to serve the region, the Duluth & Iron Range and Duluth, Missabe & Northern.  After many years of separate corporate identities the two merged in the late 1930's forming the modern Missabe.  The railroad's system map was constantly in flux over the years as it built, then removed branches or even sections of main line to follow the iron.  As time passed the natural ores were exhausted which gave rise to the taconite pellet, a sort of man-made ore.  In May of 2004 Canadian National purchased Great Lakes Transportation, which owned the Missabe, and its corporate identity disappeared.

The Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range carries one of the most interesting and unique histories of any railroad.  Its existence was tied directly, and almost exclusively, to iron ore.  In many ways, the company varied entirely from all others.  Ironically, its heritage begins with gold.  In his book, "The Missabe Road: The Duluth, Missabe And Iron Range Railway," Frank King details how a gold rush hit the region around Lake Vermilion in 1865 when prospectors claimed they had stumbled upon the precious metal.  The hope turned out to be false and the flurry of activity had ended by 1868.  However, a few stuck around, recognizing the region seemed to contain rich sources of iron.  The most notable is George Stuntz who had heard stories from others that Indians had told tales of finding iron in the region for generations.  While he was convinced there was a vast supply of iron here he failed to convince those with the resources available to begin mining exploration  His efforts, though, did put into motion this endeavor.

The DM&IR has its beginnings dating back to July of 1884 when the Duluth & Iron Range Rail Road was chartered to connect Duluth with Babbit, Minnesota although the railroad’s original line only connected Agate Bay and Soudan. The D&IR would become one leg of the later DM&IR and moved its ore from the Vermillion Iron Range in northern Minnesota to wooden docks at Duluth for awaiting ships. The other half of the DM&IR was the Duluth, Missabe & Northern Railway, which was chartered in June of 1891 and originally connected Mountain Iron (in the Mesabi Range, located to the west of the Vermillion Iron Range) with Stony Brook, just west of Duluth. Eventually the railroad connected directly with Duluth building a large yard at Proctor and constructing its own dock on Lake Superior.  

How the DM&IR came under ownership of steel interests dates all of the back to the aftermath of the 1893 financial panic when the DM&N was taken over by John D. Rockefeller who sold the railroad to the United States Steel Corporation. The D&IR itself was sold to a steel interest, Illinois Steel, which itself eventually became part of United States Steel resulting in both railroads coming under ownership of the same company. The railroads continued to run independently until the DM&N leased the D&IR in 1930 with both eventually merged in March of 1938 as the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway.

Of note, in the early 1960s the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway lost its raw iron ore traffic as the final mine closed in the region. What turned out to save the railroad was a low-grade iron called taconite. This substance has iron mixed in with minerals and is artificially mixed with a clay to make it more easy to transport. Today, the movement of taconite continues to be the primary source of traffic over the former DM&IR.  While the Missabe Road is best remembered for its movement of ore the railroad is also famous for its fleet of large steam locomotives which included the big Yellowstone Type 2-8-8-4, 2-10-4 Texas Type, and 2-8-8-2 Mallets. Moving heavy ore trains these large steamers were a sight to see lugging their product up grade.

After Word War II the Missabe Road began replacing its steam fleet with diesels ranging from EMD SW9 switchers to SD9s, the latter of which was primarily used in ore movements. Today, the former DM&IR (since the railroad is technically still on the books) diesel fleet includes all EMD six-axle units ranging from SD40-3s to SD38-2s.  It is very surprising that a railroad, which at its peak only surpassed the 500-mile mark (by the 2000s the railroad only totaled a little over 200 miles) and had a traffic base made up of almost entirely one product, survived for over 100 years as an independent operation (outside of other railroad control).  

Diesel Locomotive Roster

The American Locomotive Company

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity

Electro-Motive Division 

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity

Steam Locomotive Roster

Class Type Wheel Arrangement
A, PPacific4-6-2
C-3, K (Various)2-8-0
E, E-1Santa Fe2-10-2
E-4 Through E-7Texas2-10-4
J (70)Twelve-Wheeler4-8-0
M Through M-2 (Various)Chesapeake2-8-8-2
M-3, M-4Yellowstone2-8-8-4
N Through N-6Mikado2-8-2

Today, the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway is no more, officially dissolved in 2012.  However, continue to move taconite from the Mesabi and Vermillion iron ranges just as they did over 100 years ago.   For more reading on the DM&IR you might want to consider the book The Missabe Road: The Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Railway by author Frank King. This 224-page publication provides an in-depth look at the Missabe Road from its earliest beginnings in 1884 to present day operations (just prior to the CN takeover).  It has received very good reviews and if you’re after a more detailed, very accurate history of this fascinating ore hauler Mr. King's book covers it all. If you're interested in perhaps purchasing the title please visit the link above which will take you to ordering information through

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