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


The Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway is a Minnesota institution and best remembered for its primary source of traffic, iron ore. The railroads that eventually made up the DM&IR had their beginnings dating back to the mid-1880s when high-grade ore was discovered in northern Minnesota. The DM&IR was also somewhat unique in having the ability to move its product directly from the mine to dock without the need of another railroad or transportation source to do so. While the DM&IR would remain under steel interest ownership for much of its life, for over 120 years this chorus of moving ore kept the railroad quite profitable. By the 21st the DM&IR was one of only a small handful of classic lines still around. However, that all changed in May 2004 when Canadian National purchased Great Lakes Transportation, which owned the railroad, thus finally closing the book on the fabled Missabe Road.

The Missabe Road made a business of this for more than a century, moving long trains of ore from mine to market. Seen here are two DM&IR SD9Ms with #320 up front muscling a taconite train through Iron, Minnesota on August 15, 1994.

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.

DM&IR SD18 #189 and an SD9M power another long string of ore jennies through Iron, Minnesota on August 15, 1994.

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
RSD1550-5519596

One of the Missabe's powerful 2-8-8-4 Yellowstones, #227, sits at the yard in Two Harbors on July 24, 1947. In all, the DM&IR owned 18 of these beasts. The Yellowstones, manufactured by Baldwin, were some of the most technologically advanced steamers ever built.


Electro-Motive Division

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
SD9101-1741955-195974
SD18175-19319609
SD38AC201-20819718
SD38-2209-21319755

One of the DM&IR's smaller steamers, Class K 2-8-0 #1203 pulls a freight extra through Duluth on June 18, 1947.

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
S-5Switcher0-8-0
S-6Switcher0-10-0
S-7Union0-10-2



Apparently, the author must have caught a lot of trains through Iron, Minnesota on August 15, 1994! Here is another long train of ore jennies led by SD9Ms #304 and #303 traveling northbound.

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 Amazon.com.

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