Minnesota has historically been known as the gateway to Chicago and the Pacific Northwest for railroads such as the Northern Pacific Railway, Great Northern Railway, and Milwaukee Road as all three's main lines operated through the state. That aside, however, the North Star State is also known for its vast amounts of iron ore to the north and agriculture to the south (such as corn and grain). Due to its wide variety of available freight traffic Minnesota boasted a large and diverse number of now-classic railroads looking to tap these resources. Today, the Minnesota is still home to four Class Is, two regionals (Class IIs), and several shortline railroads. Please note that for your convenience, throughout this article there will be links provided to other pages here at the website (unless otherwise noted) discussing topics related to Minnesota.
Minnesota railroads date back to the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, which completed its main line between St. Paul and then-St. Anthony (now Minneapolis) in the summer of 1862, a distance of about 10 miles. The StP&P, however, dated as far back as the Minnesota & Pacific Railroad, created by the state legislature on May 22, 1857 to take advantage of federal land grants being awarded earlier that year. The M&P never actually built any track, although it had surveyed and graded its route prior to being reorganized as the St. Paul & Pacific (mostly due to financial difficulty, it simply ran out of money with the only capital it ever owned being ties). The railroad eventually became part of the James J. Hill's (the "Empire Builder") Great Northern system.
As the 19th century flowed into the 20th and the now classic "fallen flag" systems all began to take shape, Minnesota boasted nearly all of the Midwest's best known railroads. These included names like:
Today, Minnesota's network is mostly operated by four Class I systems which include BNSF, Union Pacific, Canadian National
and Canadian Pacific. The rest is operated by Class II regionals
Northern Plains Railroad, Red River Valley & Western Railroad and
several shortlines which include the Cloquet Terminal Railroad; Minnesota Commercial Railway; Minnesota,
Dakota & Western Railway; Minnesota Northern Railroad; Minnesota
Prairie Line; Minnesota Southern Railway; Northern Lines Railway; Otter
Tail Valley Railroad; Progressive Rail, Inc.; St. Croix Valley Railroad; and the Twin Cities & Western Railroad.
Today, the state's railroads operate around 4,600 miles of track although during Minnesota's heyday with trains it featured over 9,100 miles. Since the 1920s the state has witnessed a decline of almost exactly 50% of its railroad infrastructure, a number that is comparable to what other states have experienced in that time. Most of Minnesota's important through, main lines remain in place although it has lost much of its secondary and branch lines, notably those serving agricultural interest. For a more in-depth look at Minnesota railroads, in terms of route mileage over the decades please take a look at the chart below.
Even though Minnesota has never seen many famous passenger trains two distinctly stand out, Great Northern's legendary Empire Builder and Northern Pacific's North Coast Limited. While today the Great Northern may no longer operate the legendary Empire Builder it carries on under the Amtrak banner still holding much of the prestige it once did. Today the train makes stops at
Winona, Red Wing, St. Paul, St. Cloud, Staples and Detroit Lakes. Also,
while Minnesota currently operates a short 12-mile section of light
rail between Minneapolis and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International
Airport the state has much bigger plans. In 2009 the highly
anticipated Northstar Commuter Rail service began operations around the Twin Cities
region, and hopes to become a primary means of transportation for
commuters to help in reducing congestion. To learn more about some of
the famous streamliners to operate through Minnesota please click here.
Minnesota is also home to a number of museums and historic railroad
equipment, like the famous Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 #261, whose home base is
in Minneapolis. For 16 years it was operated by the Friends of the 261
participating in annual excursions until 2009 when it need a major
overhaul. After initially being turned back over to then-owner the
National Railroad Museum in Green Bay it was sold to the Friends in
2010. The Northern has since completed its overhaul and has returned to operational status as of 2013. Other interesting places and excursion trains in Minnesota include the Como-Harriet Streetcar Line, End-O-Line Railroad Park and Museum, Jackson
Street Roundhouse, Kandiyohi County Historical Society Depot, Lake
County Historical Society Railroad and Depot Museum, Lake Superior &
Mississippi Railroad, Lake Superior Railroad Museum and North Shore
Scenic Railroad, Minnehaha Depot, and North Shore Scenic Railroad.
All in all, Minnesota railroads offer an interesting mix of railroading not often found in other parts of the country, such as its unique iron ore operations near the Great Lakes. And, if you tire of watching the ore or main line operations, take a ride on the popular and picturesque North Shore Scenic Railroad! Lastly, please click here to visit MinnesotaRailroads.com, a website covering the state's railroads.
For more reading about Minnesota's rail history you might want to consider the book Minnesota Logging Railroads
from author Frank King that explores the states history of logging
operations. One other book of note by John Gaertner is entitled The Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railway: A History of the Lake Superior District's Pioneer Iron Ore Hauler
and highlights the relatively unknown ore-hauler line that served the
region for decades. In any event, if you're interested in perhaps
purchasing one, or both, of these books please visit the links below
which will take you to ordering information through Amazon.com, the
trusted online shopping network.
Check out the website's digital book (E-book), An Atlas To Classic Short Lines, which features system maps and a brief background of 46 different historic railroads. To learn more please click on the image below.