The Soo Line Railroad, Ship Soo To And Through The Upper Midwest

Despite a respectable 4,700-mile network linking the Twin Cities with Chicago and Milwaukee the Soo Line was dwarfed across the Upper Midwest by the much larger Chicago & North Western, Milwaukee Road, and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy.  As a result, it is sometimes a forgotten carrier in the region it served.  Its story is somewhat similar to that of the Minneapolis & St. Louis, envisioned to improve transportation services for Twin Cities flour millers.  Unlike the Tootin' Louie, the Soo's early promoters had an innovative concept of bypassing congested Chicago.  Instead, their railroad would connect with the Canadian systems at Sault Ste. Marie.  The idea worked although when financial difficulties arose in the 1880's an expanding Canadian Pacific acquired the Soo to increase its American holdings.  What was known for many years as the Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie Railway officially became the Soo Line Railroad in 1961 when CP merged its Midwestern portfolios into one, unified network.  During its latter years the Soo was quite profitable, so much so that Mike Schafer notes in his book, "Classic American Railroads: Volume III," it often paid for new locomotives with cash.  Today, the railroad still exists as a paper corporation but no longer carries a separate identity.

The Soo Line was created for a singular purpose, to improve the Twin Cities' transportation choices.  This region along the Upper Mississippi River grew into a booming flour producer thanks to the beautiful Falls of St. Anthony, which offered millers a ready-made source of power.  The first U.S. presence here, Fort Snelling, opened in 1825.  Milling had been in production since the fort's early years and commerce expanded in September of 1848 when Franklin Steele opened a sawmill.   In 1849 the town of St. Anthony was incorporated on the east side of the river while directly to the west Minneapolis was formed in 1867.  The area quickly grew to serve these industries, which meant a railroad was needed.  The first was incorporated in 1853 but lack of financing delayed development.  By the time the Minneapolis & St. Louis began building out of Minneapolis in 1871. early predecessors of the Milwaukee Road had already linked the Twin Cities with Milwaukee and Chicago (November, 1867).  Before long, the Chicago & North Western and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy had also arrived. 

Piecing Together The Minneapolis, St. Paul &  Sault Ste. Marie Railway

As Patrick Dorin notes in his book, "The Soo Line," this left millers with a big problem.  All railroads reaching the Twin Cities did so via Chicago.  As the lone eastern gateway this meant freight rates were controlled by that city.  To correct this problem several businessmen came together for the purpose of constructing their own railroad.  On September 29, 1883 William D. Washburn (also involved with the Minneapolis & St. Louis), H.T. Wells, John Martin, Thomas Lowry, George Newell, Anthony Kelly, C.M. Loring, Clinton Morrison, J.K. Sidel, W.W. Eastman, W.D. Hale, Charles Alfred Pillsbury (Co-founder of C. A. Pillsbury & Company in 1872, along with his uncle, John Sargent Pillsbury [who helped established the M&StL].  It remains a leading producer of baking products.), and C.J. Martin incorporated the Minneapolis, Sault Ste. Marie & Atlantic Railway (MSStM&A).  With local millers owning 75% of the company, its purpose was to entirely bypass Chicago.  Instead, it would utilize a Canadian route for moving flour to the east coast at Boston, Massachusetts.  The railroad's target was Sault Ste. Marie with Michigan's Upper Peninsula.  It was based along the south bank of the St. Marys River and from this point traffic could be interchanged with Canadian lines through Ontario and southern Quebec.

It enjoy relatively strong financial support which enabled construction to commence quickly; the project began in April of 1884 building westward from Cameron, Wisconsin.  The railhead had soon reached nearby Turtle Lake (46 miles) with trackage rights from that point established over the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railway ("The Omaha Road") into the Twin Cities.  At the same time work progressed to the east, reaching Rhinelander in 1886 and finally Sault Ste. Marie on December 10, 1887.  In his book, "History Of The Canadian Pacific Railway" author W. Kaye Lamb points out the CP linked up with the MSStM&A via a branch off its main line at Sudbury to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario which opened in late 1888.  Interestingly, this connection proved just as important for the CP.  Canada's first transcontinental railroad was, at the time, in a real battle with the expanding Grand Trunk Railway.  The GTR was well-established in the eastern provinces, especially throughout Ontario.  There was a great fear at CP it would reach Sault Ste. Marie first to establish a valuable connection with U.S. carriers.  After sparring between the two rivals, CP won out.  

After reaching Sault Ste. Marie, the MSStM&A focused on a better connection into Minneapolis/St. Paul.  It had never particularly cared for reliance on another carrier to reach the cities.  To remedy this issue it incorporated the Minneapolis & St. Croix Railway which completed the gap into Minneapolis during January of 1888.  In doing so, it opened a new 501-mile corridor across the Upper Midwest.  As this project was under development, an MSSt&MA subsidiary was pushing agricultural branches to the west.  It was chartered in 1884 as the Minneapolis & Pacific Railway and by 1887 had reached Boynton and Bismarck, Dakota Territory (later North Dakota).  Unfortunately, at about that time the Minneapolis, Sault Ste. Marie & Atlantic, along with its associated properties, ran into financial difficulty.  With an uncertain future Canadian Pacific realized its American connection could fall into unfriendly hands, such as the Vanderbilts or James Hill.  Unfortunately, the company's options were limited since its own monetary situation meant it was unable to take on the moribund MSStM&A.  In the end, Donald Smith and George Stephen, two individuals who were instrumental in CP's initial development and construction, used their very own collateral to acquired the property in April of 1888. 

Perhaps it seems contrite given their wealth but both risked everything to secure Canadian Pacific's U.S. presence.  It needs to be remembered that railroading was a much different industry in the late 19th century.  The largest were controlled by a select few; names like Vanderbilt, Harriman, Gould, and Huntington.  They often battled among themselves for territorial control, sometimes building new railroads simply out of spite.  A good example is New York Central's South Pennsylvania Railroad project in its never-ending war with rival Pennsylvania.  Following their purchase, Smith and Stephen merged all three of their recent acquisitions (Minneapolis & Pacific, Minneapolis & St. Croix, and Minneapolis, Sault Ste. Marie & Atlantic) on June 11, 1888 to form the new, 737-mile Minneapolis, St. Paul &  Sault Ste. Marie Railway (MStP&SStM).  From an early period the company was simply known as the "Soo" or "Soo Line."  It was the phonetic spelling of "Sault" in Sault Ste. Marie, a French word meaning waterfall or rapids.  On June 3, 1889, the first train bound for St. Paul left Boston, Massachusetts.  In 1890 Canadian Pacific's financial situation had greatly improved.  This enabled it to control the Soo by guaranteeing to secure the railroad's funded debt.  It did the same for the nearby Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railway, a struggling ore hauler linking Duluth/Superior with Sault Ste. Marie. 

With the threat of bankruptcy eliminated, Soo's next development involved opening an additional connection with CP, partly as another protective measure.  Throughout the 1880's James Hill had been steadily working to complete his Great Northern Railway to the Puget Sound, which would eliminate Northern Pacific's monopoly to the Pacific Northwest.  In 1893 he completed this endeavor when his railroad opened to Seattle.  Until that time, Hill and CP had mutually carried traffic between the Twin Cities and latter's west coast port of Vancouver. With the Great Norther's completion, Hill obviously no longer needed such a connection.  To keep this traffic flowing, CP financed an extension of the MStP&SStM to Portal, North Dakota along the Saskatchewan border.  The project began in 1891 from Hankinson and was finished in 1893.  At the same time, CP completed a short branch from Portal to its main line at nearby Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.  Ten years after reaching Portal, a third gateway was established to Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1903 over a new line from Glenwood to the Manitoba border at Noyes, Minnesota.

Following these efforts the Soo spent the following decade adding several agricultural branches to put more grain tonnage on its rails.  These routes, predominantly located in North Dakota, reached such small communities as Kenmare (1905), Drake (1906), and even Whitetail, Montana (1913).  In northern Minnesota and Wisconsin the Soo also built extensions to bolster its positioning in an increasingly saturated region.  First, it established two connections to Duluth, one via Brooten (208 miles) which opened in 1909 and another from Frederic, Wisconsin completed in 1912.  Finally, a line from Plummer to Moose Lake was finished in 1910, which would provide a bypass between its Duluth connection and Winnipeg gateway.  The Soo also grew through acquisition.  Many were rather small short lines which added bits of mileage here and there.  However, one noteworthy addition was the 1,000-mile Wisconsin Central Railway (WC).  It actually predated the Soo, incorporated in 1871 for the purpose of linking Menasha, Wisconsin with Superior, via Ashland.  To aid in this project Congress provided nearly 2.4 million acres in land grants.

Ground was broken from West Menasha (now known as Neenah) on June 15th that year and work proceed rapidly; the initial 63 miles to Stevens Point was finished in just 120 days and the first train arrived in the latter town on November 15th.  Beyond Stevens Point the railroad reached Colby, Wisconsin the following September.  The northern component took a great deal longer due to the area's rugged topography.  It began south of Ashland and had reached Penokee Gap (30 miles) by October of 1873.  A few months later rails were extended from Colby to Worcester on January 6, 1874 but further construction was hampered by the financial Panic of 1873 and subsequent economic downturn.  The line was finally opened from Menasha to Ashland on May 19, 1877.  While this completed Wisconsin Central's original charter (service to Superior was over the Northern Pacific) it continued to grow.  A handful of subsidiaries were chartered during the 1880's that eventually provided access directly into the Twin Cities; the Wisconsin & Minnesota Railroad extended from Abbortsford to Chippewa Falls while the St. Croix & Chippewa Falls and St. Paul & St. Croix completed the line into St. Paul on December 28, 1884.

Meanwhile, the railroad began an extension to Chicago when the Milwaukee & Lake Winnebago Railroad was incorporated in March of 1882.  On December 18th the first section from Neenah to Slinger was opened which offered through service into Milwaukee via the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul (Milwaukee Road).  Just four years later the WC completed its Windy City route in February of 1886.   In 1890 it was leased by Northern Pacific, providing it an unparalleled Chicago - Puget Sound corridor.  Had the WC ultimately been incorporated into the NP, competition across the Midwest would have been very different.  Only one railroad managed to secure such a route, the Milwaukee Road.  Unfortunately, the Panic of 1893 resulted in Northern Pacific's bankruptcy and it lost control of the Wisconsin Central.  For more than a decade the railroad remained independent and grew slightly by opening a direct line into Duluth, via Owen, Wisconsin (152 miles), on January 14, 1909. This constituted the bulk of the railroad's network, which at its peak stretched 1,148 miles.  Realizing the WC's importance the Soo snatched up a majority of its stock in 1908 and gained direct control on April 1, 1909.

The Modern "Soo Line"

The modern Minneapolis, St. Paul &  Sault Ste. Marie was generally successful despite its reliance on agriculture and situated within a highly competitive region.  Its most difficult period was the depression era (1930's).  At first, it weathered these lean times and even advanced Wisconsin Central $2.2 million in 1932 to prevent its bankruptcy.  Unfortunately, as its own situation declined the Soo could no longer afford to do so and the WC slipped into receivership in 1933.  This was followed by the MStP&SStM, itself, in 1938.  It was reorganized in 1944 as the Minneapolis, St. Paul &  Sault Ste. Marie Railroad while its subsidiary took much longer.  So long, in fact, that Wisconsin Central set a record for the longest railroad reorganization of all time, finally exiting receivership in 1954.  The postwar years were quite prosperous as the company laid heavier rail, installed centralized traffic control (CTC), and purchased diesels to meet growing demand.  It officially retired steam on February 15, 1955 when 2-8-0 #468 dropped its fire that day. 

Throughout their corporate existence the Minneapolis, St. Paul &  Sault Ste. Marie; Wisconsin Central; and Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic had largely operated independently.  Canadian Pacific, which controlled all three through its 51% stake in the Soo formally merged the trio into the "Soo Line Railroad" on January 1, 1961.  During its final decades, the Soo was quite successful, particularly under the leadership of president Leonard Murray. During Murray’s tenure the railroad also became a lean operation, upgrading its physical plant and buying new equipment.  Mr. Dorin's book points out that while the Soo provide high quality passenger service (albeit never participated in the streamliner movement) its main focus had always been high quality freight service.  Its philosophy was as follows: "1.  A company which believes the service produced must fit the needs of the customer and that most of the effort must be toward filling those needs.  2.  A company which believes in producing a profit for providing a service. 3.  A company which believes in innovation, but innovation simply for the sake of changing.  The company can point to many firsts, such as the unit grain train, consolidated pulpwood yards and direct Chicago interchange with outbound roads."  Following 1980 things began to change. Murray left his post in 1978 and with the 1980's deregulation, Soo found itself needing to expand.  In doing so it attempted to purchase the defunct Rock Island’s "Spine Line," between the Twin Cities and Kansas.  It lost out here to the Chicago & North Western and then turned its attention to the Milwaukee Road.

Diesel Locomotive Roster

The American Locomotive Company

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
FA-1205A-211A, 205B-211B, 2220A-2223A (WC), 2220B-2223B (WC)1948-194922
RS1100-107 (Ex-DSS&A), 350-353, 2360-2368 (WC)1945-195421
RSC3372-374, 2380 (WC)1950-19514
S22103-2110 (WC)1942-19498
S42116 (WC)19521

The Baldwin Locomotive Works

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
DRS-6-6-1500384-387 (Ex-DSS&A)19494
AS616388-395 (Ex-DSS&A)1951-19528

Electro-Motive Division

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
F3A200A-204A, 200B-204B, 2200A-2200B (WC)1947-194812
F7A212A-214A, 212B-214B, 2201A-2203A, 2201C-2203C, 2224A-2230A (WC), 2224B-2230B (WC)1949-195326
NW2300-301, 2108 (WC)1939, 19483
GP7375-378, 381-3831950-19527
GP9400-414, 550-558, 2400-2413 (WC), 2550-2556 (WC)1954-195745
F7B500B-503B, 2101C-2203C (WC), 2204C (WC), 2500B-2501B (WC)1949-195210
FP7500A-503A, 504-505, 2500A-2501A (WC)1949-19528
SD10532, 534, 543Ex-Milwaukee Road3
SDL39582-590Ex-Milwaukee Road9
GP40732-756, 2000-2067 (Ex-Milwaukee Road), 4605-4659 (Ex-Milwaukee Road)1967-1971148
SD40-2757-789, 6600-66231972-198457
GP38-2790-799, 4410-4452, 4500-4515 (Ex-Milwaukee Road)1973-198169
GP20946-981Ex-Milwaukee Road36
NW1A2100-2102 (WC)19383
SW92111-2119 (WC)1952-19539
SW1200321-328, 1200-1204 (Ex-MN&S), 1204-1222 (Ex-Milwaukee Road), 2120-2127 (WC)1954-196540
SW15001400-1401 (Ex-MN&S)19662
F3B2200C (WC)19481
MP15AC1500-1563 (Ex-Milwaukee Road)1975-197664
SD92381 (WC)19541
GP15C4100-4106Ex-Conrail GP9 Rebuilds6
GP9r4200-4204Ex-Conrail GP9 Rebuilds6
GP30C4300-4302Ex-UP Rebuilds6
GP39-24598-4599 (Ex-Kennecott Copper)19782
SD396240-6241 (Ex-MN&S)19682
SD40-26300-6316, 6349-6370, 6375, 6380-6382, 6384-6388 (All Ex-Milwaukee Road)1973-197442
SD406400-6405 (Ex-KCS), 6411 (Ex-B&O)1967, 19707
SD40A6406-6410 (Ex-IC)19705
SD456491 (Ex-Frisco), 6492 (Ex-BN)1969-19702

Fairbanks Morse

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity

General Electric

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity

Steam Locomotive Roster

Class Type Wheel Arrangement
ASaddle Tank0-4-6T
B Through B-4Switcher0-6-0/T
C Through C-5American4-4-0
D Through D-3Mogul2-6-0
E Through E-2Ten-Wheeler4-6-0
F-1 Through F-12Consolidation2-8-0
D Through D-3Mogul2-6-0
H Through H-3Pacific4-6-2
L Through L-4Mikado2-8-2

Notable Passenger Trains

Atlantic Limited: Connected Minneapolis to Boston in conjunction with Canadian Pacific and Boston & Maine.

Copper Country Limited: Connected Chicago to Calumet, Michigan in conjunction with the Milwaukee Road.

Duluth-Superior Limited: (Minneapolis - Duluth)

Laker: (Chicago - Minneapolis/Duluth/Ashland)

Mountaineer: Connected St. Paul to Vancouver, British Columbia in conjunction with Canadian Pacific.

Soo Dominion: Connected St. Paul to Vancouver in conjunction with Canadian Pacific.

Winnipeger: Connected St. Paul to Winnipeg, Manitoba in conjunction with Canadian Pacific.

Around this time one of the competing Pacific Northwestern lines, the Milwaukee Road, made a bizarre decision to abandon almost all of its [profitable] western main lines and unprofitable Midwestern branches to shrink down to a system of just over a 3,000 miles. While this plan worked to cut the railroad’s expenses it also made the Milwaukee a very sought after merger partner. Bidding again with the C&NW the Soo line this time won approval and took over the Milwaukee in 1985.  Unfortunately for the Soo the Milwaukee came at an extremely high cost and it took even more money to upgrade poorly maintained Milwaukee trackage, which put the Soo in serious debt. In another stroke of bad luck the Milwaukee’s remaining lines turned out to be not as profitable as was hoped and the Soo’s profits sank to only marginal status (also during this time the Soo sold off unprofitable trackage of its former WC system, which ironically became Wisconsin Central Ltd., now part of the Canadian National system).  Parent Canadian Pacific was no longer interested in the Soo Line after the buyout of highly debt-laden Milwaukee Road turned out a bad business decision.  As a result, it decided to sell its majority stake in the company in the late 1980s.  Ironically, in a strange twist of fate management soon reversed this decition and not only reacquired its majority stake but also the remaining Soo stock in 1990 (due to a lack of buyers), taking over full ownership of the railroad that year.  Today the railroad is technically still an operating railroad, albeit on paper only as CP has nearly entirely integrated the Soo into its system (gone is the railroad's longtime red and white livery).

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