The depot in Grand Rapids in 1910 was an active spot. At one time four passenger trains a day passed through town. Photos courtesy of Itasca County Historical Society.
Easter was past, having happened on Sunday, March 29. April had been a pleasant month, so far. In fact, the week before, temperatures had risen into the 60s in the Northland and up to 75 degrees in the Twin Cities. April 21, 1959, broke cool, but clear. However, a cloud hung over the Great Northern Depot in Grand Rapids. This April day would be the last time a passenger train would leave the station. An era was over.
Itasca Railroad began building further west of Grand Rapids in 1890. Road grading was back breaking work.
Trains had their heyday in the early part of the 20th century when virtually all goods and materials were carried on the rails. Passengers were also vital to the economic stability of the rail services since the only other reliable transportation covering long distances were ships. But, of course, ships required waterways and not everyone in the country had connections to those locations. When it came to moving tonnage or travelers it was trains that did the hauling.
The steam engine William Crooks built in 1861 made an appearance at the Grand Rapids Golden Jubilee in 1941.
Trains are much older than most of us think. The very first steam locomotive in America hit the tracks in 1830! Before that time the railroads power was provided by horses. Horses wouldn’t be sufficient for traveling some of the tough terrain that would be encountered, nor could they travel the distances required to make the rails economically feasible. It would be the steam engine that would make the “iron horse” a commercial success.
Bovey train depot circa 1940.
The Baltimore and Ohio (yes, the very same B&O from the Monopoly board game!) Railroad broke ground in 1828, and by 1830 was ready to try out the new steam locomotive known as “Tom Thumb.” It was small, as the name suggests, and traveled at the breakneck speed of 18 miles per hour. Its first trip ran from Baltimore west to Ellicott’s Mills. The distance was about 13 miles, roughly the same distance between Grand Rapids and Deer River, and took 57 minutes! The “Tom Thumb” was engineered by its creator, Peter Cooper, who would later become famous for inventing Jello! All of this took place 30 years before Minnesota became a state.
Minneapolis & Rainy River Railway shared offices in Deer River with their parent company, Itasca Lumber, circa 1901.
It would be 1890 by the time Grand Rapids and other towns in Itasca County would know the value of trains, especially in hauling timber from the west. These trains would be just as valuable to the mines on the eastern side of the county. The isolated settlements, along with the homesteaders living in the remote regions of Itasca County, would find rail service a welcome mode of transportation which was sorely needed because of poor roads. It was the Duluth & Winnipeg Railroad that would set up first, locating in Grand Rapids in 1890, just one year before Grand Rapids was incorporated as a city and became the county seat.
In the early days of rail service, train wrecks were a common occurrence. In 1922 this wreck occurred near the Bovey depot.
At least seven different railroad companies served Itasca County at one time or another. The Minneapolis and Rainy River Railroad (M&RR), also known as the “Gut the Liver,” served the northern portion of the county, the Great Northern, the Northern Pacific and the Duluth & Iron Range Railroad all ran through the county. The Duluth, Missabe & Northern Railway, the Minnesota & International Railway along with the Duluth, Missabe & Western also served the county. Some of them are now the top players in county lore, including the Itasca Railroad. This particular railroad was crucial to the logging industry in the western part of Itasca County. H .C. Akeley and W.T. Joyce had established the Itasca Lumber Company in 1887. The two realized they needed some way to get timber from the pine forests to landings where logs could be sent down river, so in 1890 they created the Itasca Railroad. At Cohasset the railroad tracks stretched another 18 miles north. The Itasca Railroad continued to operate from Cohasset until 1897 when an unrequited business venture stopped everything “in its tracks” (so to say). J.P. Sims was the general manager of the Itasca Lumber Company at the time and was ready to negotiate the purchase of land the company wanted for expansion. When he couldn’t get the price he was seeking, the Itasca Railroad literally pulled up the tracks and moved them to Deer River, which was only a middling frontier town that sat at the end of the Duluth & Winnipeg Railway. T he Itasca Railroad had just four locomotives in 1901. Three of them were the Mogul style which meant they had two small guide wheels on one axle and six coupled driving wheels on three separate axles. It was the most common steam locomotive for passenger service. That’s a bit different from the American style locomotive.
Itasca Railroad engines were kept busy in the rail yard in Deer River in 1905.
During the early 1900s, depots were open regardless of the weather like this one in Keewatin during a snowstorm.
This style had a 4-4-0 wheel arrangement with four leading wheels on two axles and four coupled driving wheels on two axles. T he Minneapolis and Rainy River (M&RR) shared an office at the Deer River Depot with its parent company, Itasca Lumber. From there they operated their favorite line engine No. 7, built by Dickinson Manufacturing Company. T he Gut & Liver was the nickname given to the M&RR for a variety of reasons. One story claims the nickname came from the food supplies it delivered to logging camps which consisted of sausage and liver. Another version of how the nickname came to be refers to the fact that the trains stopped ONLY for their deliveries and therefore the “cow catchers” were covered in dead animal carcasses. T he Gut & Liver was a true logging railroad and carried logs from as far north as Suomi Hills until that stretch was abandoned in 1904.
A woman waits on the Goodland Depot platform as the train is prepared for departure, circa 1900.
It was big news in small towns like Swan River when a train accident occurred.
In 1918 the M&RR Railway operated two trains daily between Deer River and Alder. Another train ran all the way to Craig (41 miles north) while yet another headed west toward Wirt stopping in Stanley. T he M&RR Railway hauled tons of logs during its run. The railroad had accomplished something no other mode of transportation could do—it offered the lumber companies access and speed of delivery—but not without hazards. An article in the Bigfork Settler newspaper dated March 21, 1907 reported:
Even small towns like Swan River had train depots in the early 1900s.
It was April 1959 when the very last passenger train blew its whistle and left the depot in Grand Rapids.
“A collision on the M&RR took place near Jessie Lake hoist which resulted in the death of two men and wrecking one engine and a number of cars. A logging train, south bound and loaded, was running at a rapid rate when a train of empty flat cars bound north running at full speed came in contact with the loaded train… Engineer John McVeigh and Conductor Norton on the south bound train were both killed….” T he M&RR Railway was not alone in dealing with accidents. Great Northern had a crash near the Bovey depot in August of 1922. It appears a freight train left a number of empty cars on the tracks after unloading at Coleraine. When another fully loaded, 112-car train came around the curve at Bovey there was no stopping the collision. Train crews jumped from the colliding trains and no one was injured. T rains also posed a threat to people in the early days. In 1899 a young Chippewa man tried to climb onto a moving train. He didn’t make it and lost a leg when he slipped under the train. T wo Chippewa chiefs were chatting on a train platform when the engine started up. Both men attempted to board but Chief Mosomo slid beneath the slow moving train. Men standing nearby were able to pull him to safety. O ther accounts made it clear that trains were a magnate for disaster as noted in an 1899 Herald-Review article dated November 4:
Logging railroads met with many obstacles, including other logging railroads. This wreck outside of Deer River claimed the lives of both engineers in 1907.
“There are a lot of small boys that seem to be laboring under the delusion that Jim Hill’s freight trains are run for the express purpose of furnishing them with opportunities to endanger their lives. Lads of all ages from 6 to 20 years congregate on the depot platform [in Grand Rapids] and board the freights that are hourly passing through here, hanging onto the steps, bars or bumpers, and ride until in their judgment if is unsafe to take further chances. This is a practice that should be stopped at once, and Marshal McCormick has appointed himself a committee of one to see that this is done. A few severe lectures and a little persuasion with a limber stick by parents might greatly aid the marshal in preventing funerals and amputations.” T he Gut & Liver had a distinguished run but after the Depression revenues dropped dramatically. That was the main reason that in 1932 the M&RR petitioned the Minnesota Railroad and Warehouse Commission to allow them to cease their daily mixed train service and operate on an “as needed” basis. T he commission ruled: “That the present train service could not be entirely abandoned without substantial injury to the public but that, under the present general period of depression, the present daily service could be curtailed and a properly scheduled tri-weekly service would under present existing conditions, reasonably serve the public, and no substantial injury would result therefrom to the public.” A saresultoftheCommission’sruling,triweekly train service went into effect on March 1, 1932. As the company predicted this reduction in service proved insufficient to curb mounting operating losses. Application for complete abandonment was filed and granted on August 27 of the same year. Very soon the rails were picked up and the remaining three locomotives plus 74 cars were sent to be scrapped in Duluth. T he M&RR had numerous stops in its heyday, but not every stop featured an actual depot. Stops on the Gut & Liver included McVeigh in Deer River Township; Pines, Rosy, Starks and Summit over in Wirt Township; Turtle Junction, Van Camps and Wolf in Bigfork Township; and many others. Even locations that did feature depots didn’t always have buildings we would consider an official depot. Some were as basic as an abandoned railcar on the side of the tracks. A s stated earlier, there were other railroad companies operating in Itasca County around the turn of the 20th century. The Duluth & Winnipeg Railroad began grading for their system west of Grand Rapids around 1890. However, problems arose during their attempt to reach Winnipeg and they were bought out by Great Northern in 1898 which still carries grain and ore to the Head of the Lakes.
Other logging companies had their own lines as well like Wright, Davis & Company’s Duluth, Mississippi River & Northern Railroad which extended north at the mouth of the Swan River. The Swan River Junction, where the Duluth & Winnipeg met up with the Duluth, Mississippi River & Northern, was a busy transfer point for passengers headed to logging camps or the booming mining town of Hibbing. he state census in 1860 showed only 80 people living In Duluth and just 2,564 in Minneapolis, but in just a matter of a couple years, train travel would be all the rage. he first tracks to be laid between St. Croix and Duluth would go down in 1868. The Eastern Railroad of Minnesota continued its line from Duluth to Grand Rapids, on to Bemidji and then to Grand Forks, North Dakota.
By 1906 Great Northern was handling so many tons of ore that it had to be doubletracked and within the next six years it would handle more than 14 million tons of ore each year. he very first train to run in Minnesota though, was the incredible William Crooks, named for the first engineer on the line. The William Crooks was a tiny steam locomotive built in New Jersey in 1862 and it pulled a passenger train from St. Paul to St. Anthony as the first train run in the state. There was great fanfare for this invitation-only occasion. Attendees included the mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota governor Alexander Ramsey, roughly 100 notable citizens and, of course, the directors of the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad—the builders of the line. This assembly left St. Paul for a two-hour excursion. You can still see the magnificent William Crooks with a quick trip to Duluth and a visit to the Lake Superior Railroad Museum. he William Crooks was so famous and revered that it also made an appearance in Grand Rapids at the 1941 Golden Jubilee celebration. Though the town itself was only 50 years old, the William Crooks had been on the rails for 80 years. It was a great way to kick off the town’s next 50 years. M any men made great fortunes as the railroads developed. One such man was James Jerome Hill whom the governor of Minnesota once called the “greatest constructive genius of the Northwest.” H ill had begun life in Canada but settled in St. Paul after moving to the United States at the age of 17. As a steamboat operator he learned bookkeeping as well as freight handling. His entrepreneurial spirit helped him form partnerships with men who would create a company to transform a bankrupt railroad into the St. Paul, Minnesota & Manitoba Railway Company. Later, to counteract the competition of the Union Pacific Railway, Hill joined up with J.P. Morgan and added the Northern Pacific and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroads to his empire.
It was Hill’s strategy to construct small “feeder lines,” which were simply short tracks that branched from the main line to serve specific logging companies or mines. That strategy made an enormous difference for the businesses in Itasca County. T oday passenger trains are sleek and fast. Amtrak still takes a couple of days to cross the country so passengers in a hurry opt for air travel. When they do that they miss the charm and scenery train travel provides. A round these parts you can get a feel for what old passenger trains offered by visiting Duluth and taking a short leisurely trip on the “Pizza Train” from May until September. They also have excursions on the North Shore Scenic Railroad. It’s not exactly the atmosphere of the early 1900s, but you’ll get the basic idea. And you will feel that anticipation of standing on the depot platform and seeing the train pull up. Take a child with you on this adventure and you’ll get even more of the nostalgia of riding the rails. A s for freight trains, they would continue to haul raw materials like lumber and ore. Today they carry the majority of goods and freight across the country. But the glory days of the railroad—days when trains had names like “The City of New Orleans”—those days are relegated to the memory of a country and of a time that, in some ways, seems more exciting and romantic.
In the early 1900s there were four passenger trains between Duluth and Grand Forks passing through Grand Rapids. Once iron mines became active near Bovey and on the Mesabi Range, railroads became even more critical. But then roads were being improved and constructed. There were paved highways (mostly cobblestone) and all were in major cities. By 1925 there were more than 250 named highways across the country. Road building was becoming standardized and techniques were improving quickly. The car was about to take over as the preferred mode of transportation. Passenger trains were being phased out. A nd so, on that crisp April morning in 1959 the last passenger train traveled through Grand Rapids.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The Itasca County Historical Society will display a running, model train set throughout 2018. This incredible piece was donated by Nashwauk native Alan Stone to honor his hometown. The tiny school bus waits at the railroad crossing, people are going about their daily tasks and vintage Coca Cola signs hang on the side of buildings. The water towers read “Cooley” and “Nashwauk” as the Great Northern engine pulls the line of train cars. This 16-foot display is worth the visit. Itasca County Historical Society is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free.
Jody Hane is a life-long resident of Itasca County and works for the Itasca County Historical Society in Grand Rapids, MN. All photos accompanying this article are the property of the Itasca County Historical Society.