Rolling through history

Author chronicles the simultaneous rise of railroads and Minneapolis

When Minnesota became a state in 1858, the news was carried from the Capitol by the fastest means possible - via Wisconsin. The report that President James Buchanan had signed a bill naming Minnesota as the 32nd state in the union was telegraphed first to Prairie du Chien, Wisc., about 190 miles downstream from St. Paul on the Mississippi River. A steamboat took the bulletin north.

Minnesotans didn't get the news until three days after the ink had dried on the proclamation.

Though a proud new state, Minnesota also was a backward hole in the mud. But change was rolling toward the North Star State and a place on the Mississippi that would soon be its hub of commerce and culture. It was rolling toward that place - one day to be called Minneapolis - in a big, black, clanking cloud of steel and power.

The history of trains and the city of Minneapolis are forever intertwined. The city never would have become the financial giant of the upper North were it not for the steam-powered locomotives that first stormed between St. Paul and St. Anthony (later part of Minneapolis) in 1862.

The newly published &#8220Minneapolis and the Age of Railways,” by Don L. Hofsommer, tells the important story of how railroads transformed this part of the world from backward mud hole to indispensable supplier (and buyer) of the goods that helped America grow.

Hofsommer is a professor of history at St. Cloud State University. He has also written &#8220The Tootin' Louie: A History of the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway” and &#8220The Great Northern Railway: A History,” all published by the University of Minnesota Press.

Hofsommer writes that Minneapolis and its railways &#8220grew up together - each influencing and nurturing the other.” Minneapolis and railroads became important parts of America at roughly the same time, as the U.S. became less of a rural, agrarian society and more of an urban, industrial one.

Hofsommer's book isn't for the faint of heart. It's an intricately detailed and lavishly illustrated description of how the many railroads that intersected here rose and fell (and merged, merged again, consolidated, died out and so on); their stories crisscrossing and weaving in and out of each other much like the steel rail arteries covering the land. Then again, for the true rail lover, and local history buffs, this coffee table book might be a dream come true.

Icy past

One of the photos in Hofsommer's book shows an icy Cedar Lake being chopped up by workers.

Said Hofsommer, &#8220The Cedar Lake Ice Company had a huge warehouse out there that covered about an acre. Ice was harvested in the wintertime and it was put into rail cars. Ice was also stored in that gigantic warehouse and then covered with sawdust to preserve it. It sounds like voodoo physics, but it worked.”

He said the relatively inexpensive &#8220natural ice” was marketed to homeowners as well as to meat packing companies in St. Paul.

A much more important product shipped out of Minneapolis in the early days of rail was flour.

&#8220Eventually, Minneapolis would become the milling center of the world,” he said.

Flour went out on boxcars rolling east to the huge population centers; some of it was shipped from there overseas.

Inbound cars contained more exotic delights - &#8220ladies ready to wear, whiskey, you name it,” said Hofsommer, as well as more mundane manufactured goods such as farm equipment, coal and tools.

&#8220The result was that you had cars moving in both directions with loads and, of course, that's what railroads want,” he said.

Getting the wood out

Even before milled products made Minneapolis an important rail destination, lumber had made Minnesota a desirable addition to freight lines. Hofsommer writes that the thing that first made Minnesota a prime destination for railroad commerce were its &#8220marvelous stands of white pine no other tree was so highly prized.”

According to the Minnesota Historical Society Web site, &#8220when Euro-Americans began to settle Minnesota in the early 1820s, they found about 19.5 million acres in natural prairie systems and about 31.5 million in forests. Fewer than 200 years later, only about 0.3 percent of the natural prairie remains.”

By the time the Virginia and Rainy Lake Lumber Company, in Virginia, Minn. (the largest white pine lumber company in the world) closed in 1929, &#8220the industry had logged over 68 billion board feet of pine from the state's forests, enough lumber to fill boxcars stretching from the earth to the moon and halfway back again.”

(Those boxcars to the moon and back typically went only as far as Chicago or St. Louis or points east, however.)

Rolling, rolling, rolling

Perhaps the most important cargo carried by trains were people. Hofsommer says that at one time, rail lines such as the Minneapolis, Lyndale and Minnetonka line carried people short distances on a daily basis. People routinely rode the rail between Minneapolis and St. Paul, and railroads were the transportation of choice between the Twin Cities and the City of Big Shoulders, aka Chicago.

Said Hofsommer, &#8220There were five, maybe more, serving Chicago and the Twin Cities [in the late 1880s and early 1890s]. The density of the traffic was just amazing.”

He said that though the golden era of Minneapolis railroads was between 1878 or so to approximately 1920, the rails began to lose their passengers to the national bicycle craze that swept the country in the 1890s and the popular trolley car lines that followed it.

But in its heyday, passenger service to Chicago from Minneapolis could move a person those 400 miles at just three cents per mile ($12).

&#8220If you took a sleeper car, it was a bit more,” Hofsommer said.

Unsurprisingly, the rise of the automobile drove the final nails into the passenger train coffin.

The rails made a comeback from the bleakness of the Depression and America's infatuation with highways in World War II, when economical freight and passenger transport was not only thrifty, but also patriotic.

Today, rails have long since given up the fight for transportation supremacy to cars and trucks. Nevertheless, Hofsommer sees hope that the once vital rails will rise again. As evidence, he cites the success of Minneapolis' Hiawatha Light Rail line. He also notes that rising oil prices might, as they did in World War II, prompt a return of some Americans to the rail lines that helped make this country and city economic giants.