Previously I posted about abandoned railways repurposed as trails (rail-trails) and trails that lie alongside active rail lines (rails-with-trails) in the Twin Cities. For this post I’ll focus on abandoned railroad corridors in the Twin Cities which have been mostly wiped out of existence by human activity (agriculture, development, etc.). While these corridors have trails on certain segments, they’re very short in length and typically dead-end in random spots.
A surprising number of railways once existed in the Twin Cities. There were railyards in the North Loop, Warehouse District, and Downtown East areas of Minneapolis. Tracks to the former Milwaukee Road Depot, now repurposed as a hotel, cut between Washington Avenue and 2nd Street, and along what is now West River Parkway were tracks serving the Great Northern Depot, located where the Federal Reserve now stands. To make this post shorter and simpler, I decided to only focus on rail lines that covered a significant distance, at least 5 miles.
In addition to the large network of regular railways, a streetcar system served the Twin Cities from 1888 until it was shut down in 1954. At its peak this network stretched from Excelsior to Stillwater, and from Inver Grove Heights to White Bear Lake. Most of this network was on streets, however, so I decided to only focus on routes with a significant length of dedicated right-of-way.
I will give a brief history of each rail line, the railroad(s) that owned it, and when it was abandoned. These railways may be difficult to imagine today because of dramatic changes in their surroundings, so I have included some historic aerial photos, present-day aerial photos, photos from Google Maps and Street View, and my own photos from explorations of these railways.
While walking or biking along rail-trails and rail-with-trails I found there to be a lack of historic information on the railways. For railways that didn’t have a second life as trails pretty much the only way to find information on them is visiting a historical society or digging deep through the internet. With that in mind, the intention of this post is to provide some general information on these forgotten railways that helped the Twin Cities grow and prosper. I also want to bring awareness to the lost opportunity these railways could have had for public benefit, and the importance of protecting railroad right-of-ways that may someday be abandoned.
Milwaukee Road Hastings & Dakota (H&D) Northern Route
The Milwaukee Road had a secondary route that bypassed the congested rail yards in Minneapolis and St. Paul. This route split from their mainline in Cologne and met back up with their mainline in Hastings. From Cologne the H&D went southeast through Chaska, Shakopee, Prior Lake, Lakeville, Farmington and Vermillion.
Abandonment of the H&D was in phases, beginning in the early 1930s with the segment between Farmington and Hastings. The H&D was severed by Highway 212 sometime between 1972 and 1975, and it’s likely this abandonment continued through Chaska and the trestle across the Minnesota River to Shakopee. The portion between Shakopee and Farmington was abandoned in 1979.
By the late 1970s the Milwaukee Road was struggling financially, and many of its low-traffic branch lines and secondary routes were sold off or abandoned. A couple of other Milwaukee Road routes in this post were victims of the Milwaukee Road’s drastic cutbacks in the 1970s.
Milwaukee Road H&D Southern Route
A southern route of the Milwaukee Road’s H&D once ran southwest from Farmington to Kasota via Eureka Township, Elko New Market, Webster, Lonsdale, Montgomery, and Le Center.
The entire route was abandoned by 1979 along with the rest of the H&D’s northern route. Besides the trestle piers in the above photo, I haven’t found any remaining traces of this railroad’s existence besides a short rail-trail in Elko New Market.
Milwaukee Road Bayport Branch
The Milwaukee Road had another branch line paralleling the St. Croix River from Hastings through Afton, Lakeland, and Bayport. As with the other Milwaukee Road routes, this was abandoned in 1979.
A few traces of the Bayport Branch exist. A trail uses the right-of-way for a couple of miles east of Highway 61, and the trail continues off the right-of-way to downtown Prescott. A trail through Afton State Park also uses the right-of-way, and if you look closely you can even see railroad ties embedded in the dirt and gravel. Within Bayport, broken and rusty rails parallel active tracks owned by Union Pacific. Those rusty rails were part of the Bayport Branch, and more than 40 years later remain in place.
Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway Morton Subdivision
While the right-of-way of this former rail line has been preserved as the Lake Minnetonka LRT Regional Trail between Hopkins and Victoria, most of it has vanished between Victoria and Norwood Young America. The Morton Subdivision was a branch line of the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway (M&StL) that began in Hopkins from their mainline and went west to South Dakota. The Chicago & North Western (C&NW) purchased the M&StL in 1960, and in 1980 the C&NW abandoned the segment between Hopkins and Norwood Young America. It was more cost effective to build a new connection with the Milwaukee Road’s mainline and utilize their track.
Between 1982 and 1984 the C&NW abandoned the rest of the Morton Subdivision. Due to the rail line’s importance in small farming communities for shipping, the Minnesota Valley Regional Railroad Authority purchased the right-of-way and sought a railroad to takeover operations. First was the Minnesota Valley Railroad, and then the Minnesota Central Railroad, neither of which lasted long. The Morton Subdivision struggled to survive and was likely near permanent abandonment, but investment from state and federal sources allowed the Minnesota Prairie Line, a subsidiary of the Twin Cities & Western Railroad, to take over operations in 2002. The subdivision not only survived but is in much better shape than it was in the 1980s and 90s (here’s a video from 1991 showing the poor condition of the tracks back then).
Great Northern’s Hutchinson Spur and Twin City Lines to Excelsior
The Great Northern’s branch line to Hutchinson originally went through Hopkins, Minnetonka, Excelsior and Victoria. That route was replaced in 1900 with a new route between Wayzata and St. Bonifacius, and in the present day this is the Dakota Rail Trail. At Carver Park Reserve there’s a short segment of trail near Steiger Lake that uses the former railroad right-of-way.
The original route was abandoned between Excelsior and St. Bonifacius, and the segment between Excelsior and Hopkins was sold to Twin City Lines for streetcar service. East of Hopkins there were already streetcar tracks to Edina, South Minneapolis and points further north and east. The streetcar service was popular for tourists visiting Lake Minnetonka, and with the so-called streetcar boats people could travel on Lake Minnetonka from Excelsior to Big Island and Wayzata. Since most of the route to Excelsior had dedicated right-of-way streetcars could operate at higher speeds than on city streets.
As roads were improved and automobile ownership increased in the early 1930s, the streetcar line was abandoned between Hopkins and Excelsior. Later in the 1940s the segment between Hopkins (pretty much where the new Downtown Hopkins light rail station is located) and the Brookside neighborhood in Edina was abandoned. In 1954 the rest of the route was abandoned along with the entire Twin Cities streetcar system.
Part of this route’s right-of-way was reused for streetcars beginning in the 1970s and continues today as the Como-Harriet Streetcar Line. Another heritage streetcar line operates in Excelsior, but on right-of-way that was owned by the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway (part of the aforementioned Morton Subdivision), whereas Twin City Lines streetcars operated on streets in downtown Excelsior.
Minneapolis Anoka & Cuyuna Range (MA&CR)
Between downtown and Northeast Minneapolis the MA&CR utilized streetcar tracks owned by Twin City Lines, and this route closely followed what is now Metro Transit’s Route 11 bus. The MA&CR then turned west at 30th Avenue & Grand Street, and from Marshall Street going north the MA&CR had dedicated right-of-way closely following East River Road/Coon Rapids Boulevard to what is now Mercy Hospital. From there the MA&CR curved north following 7th Avenue through Anoka. Passenger trains turned onto Main Street and headed into downtown Anoka while freight trains continued north. The MA&CR connected with the Great Northern and Northern Pacific (both now part of BNSF) very close to the present day site of Anoka’s Northstar Line station. The MA&CR then curved southwest and followed the Rum River into downtown Anoka.
In 1939 a tornado in Anoka destroyed part of the MA&CR, so the route was abandoned between there and Fridley. In Fridley the route continued to be used, notably for an ammunition plant (today the site is a bunch of warehouses and Forgotten Star Brewery), and today only a short section of MA&CR track remains in use. The track is located right by BNSF’s Northtown Yard and is used to serve a water treatment facility on the other side of East River Road.
Minneapolis Filtration Plant Railway
While this railroad didn’t cover a significant distance, it was a unique operation that deserves a mention. A streetcar line ran from the Soo Line (now CPKC Railway) next to Central Avenue & Columbia Parkway in the northeast edge of Minneapolis to the Minneapolis Water Works facility in Columbia Heights. For a short segment trains operated on Central Avenue and then turned northeast operating along Reservoir Boulevard. The connection to the Soo Line allowed it to haul freight, and with a connection to Twin City Lines streetcar service on Central Avenue it also offered passenger service. In 1953 Twin City Lines cut their service south on Central Avenue, which meant the overhead wires that were also used by the Minneapolis Filtration Plant Railway were taken down. That service was shut down with them.
Chicago Great Western
Much of the Chicago Great Western (CGW) network was abandoned after the railroad merged with the Chicago & North Western (C&NW) in 1968. The primary reasons for this were lack of freight traffic and redundant routes, but in some circles it’s alleged that the C&NW also wanted to eliminate competitors’ rail lines even if the purchased routes were profitable. Whether that’s true or just a myth is unknown.
The C&NW’s abandonment of the CGW network included many miles in Minnesota, notably what is now the Cannon Valley Trail between Cannon Falls and Red Wing, and the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail between Faribault and Mankato. The primary north-south route for the CGW did not get a second chance at life as a trail. Part of this route was used by passenger trains operating between the Twin Cities and Rochester, and as far as I know the CGW was the only railroad to offer direct passenger rail service between the two.
When MnDOT was studying high speed rail to Rochester from the Twin Cities, utilizing part of the former CGW right-of-way was considered. However, much of the right-of-way was plowed for farming when it was abandoned between 1981 and 1984, so many properties would have to be acquired to rebuild this rail line.
Twin City Lines Inter-Campus Shuttle
Before the Campus Connector bus service, Twin City Lines operated a streetcar service connecting the East Bank and St. Paul campuses of the University of Minnesota. From Como Avenue & Eustis Street the streetcar line had dedicated right-of-way to the St. Paul campus. There was also a connection with the Minnesota Transfer Railway (now Minnesota Commercial Railway), which allowed Twin City Lines to haul coal to the coal-burning plant at the St. Paul campus.
When I checked out the old right-of-way a few years ago part of it had a path through the woods, and I was pleasantly surprised to see old railroad ties, a platform and steps leading from the platform to Folwell Avenue.
Milwaukee Road and Twin Lines Deephaven Line
Prior to its use by streetcars, the Deephaven Line was owned by the Milwaukee Road and carried steam locomotives. After the route was purchased by Twin City Lines it was electrified with overhead wires. From Hopkins it branched off of the Twin City Lines route to Excelsior and went northwest through Minnetonka. The route ended next to Saint Louis Bay on Lake Minnetonka in Deephaven. Just as with the route to Excelsior, this was abandoned in the early 1930s.
Twin City Lines to Mahtomedi, White Bear Lake and Stillwater
Another streetcar service popular with tourists, this route operated on East 7th Street from downtown St. Paul and then turned north at Hazel Street. Just south of where it crossed over the tracks of the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railway (now Union Pacific), streetcars had dedicated right-of-way pretty much the whole way to Mahtomedi via North St. Paul. In Mahtomedi the route split into three, with one going to White Bear Lake, one to Dellwood and the other to Stillwater. Each route continued on dedicated right-of-way except the route in Stillwater, which was on city streets near and within downtown Stillwater.
In the early 1930s the three branches from Mahtomedi were abandoned. In 1951 this route retreated farther south to the St. Paul city limits. By 1953 the rest of the route was abandoned, along with the entire streetcar network in St. Paul. Most of the right-of-way is gone, but a few short segments, notably along Furness Parkway, were converted to trails.
Northern Pacific Stillwater Branch
This route branched off of the Northern Pacific’s Skally Line in downtown White Bear Lake and went east to downtown Stillwater. It followed the northern shore of White Bear Lake, and ran next to the northern terminus of the Twin City Lines streetcar service in Dellwood. At a location called Duluth Junction the Stillwater Branch crossed tracks owned by the Soo Line (now the Gateway State Trail), and east of Duluth Junction the route of the Stillwater Branch is now the Brown’s Creek State Trail.
Towards the end of the Stillwater Branch’s life it was only used to serve small industries in downtown Stillwater, Oak Park Heights, and Andersen Windows in Bayport. While the Allen S. King Power Plant in Oak Park Heights could’ve given the Stillwater Branch a big boost with coal traffic, that was taken care of by the Chicago & North Western on a different route. Union Pacific now fills that niche. In 1982 the Stillwater Branch was abandoned, and the right-of-way between White Bear Lake and Duluth Junction is mostly gone.
Northern Pacific Taylors Falls Branch
This was another branch line off the Northern Pacific’s Skally Line. From Wyoming it went east to Taylors Falls via Chisago City and Lindstrom. A notable locomotive that operated on the Taylors Fall Branch was Northern Pacific #328, which was displayed in downtown Stillwater after the Taylors Falls Branch was abandoned in 1938. Years later #328 was restored and operated many excursion trips around Minnesota until 1999. Today it’s stored at the Jackson Street Roundhouse in St. Paul.
Replaced Railroad Alignments
BNSF’s Wayzata Subdivision handles long and heavy freight trains that can reach speeds of 50 miles per hour. Between Wayzata and Minneapolis, the subdivision has been realigned. The original alignment, which was built by a predecessor railroad to the Great Northern, winded through Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Minnetonka. In addition to a winding route, lightweight iron rails were used for a single-track rail line. The new route that became the Wayzata Subdivision is straighter, flatter, uses heavy steel rails, and had two mainline tracks (the second mainline track was removed in the late 1980s). While it’s been more than a century since the original alignment between Minneapolis and Wayzata was replaced, there are a few spots where the old railroad grade can still be found. More information on this route can be found here.
From Minnetonka going west the Milwaukee Road also originally had a winding route that was replaced with a straighter route, which had two mainline tracks all the way between the Twin Cities and Aberdeen, South Dakota. Most of the second mainline track was removed during World War II. While the original alignment was abandoned more than a century ago, you can still see parts of it if you look close with aerial photos, or even on the ground where a couple of trails have been established on the former railroad grade. A notable example is a trail that cuts across Shady Oak Lake.
Mapping the Lost Railways
To give a more clear picture of the route of these railways I mapped them out using Google Maps. This was made a lot easier by historic aerial photos from Minnesota Historical Aerial Photographs Online, Historic Aerials Viewer, Hennepin County Aerial Imagery Viewer, Carver County, Anoka County Parcel Viewer and Ramsey County. In the case of mapping the original alignments of the Great Northern and Milwaukee Road it was difficult as these routes were abandoned when aerial photography was just beginning, so I wasn’t able to fully map out those routes. My map isn’t 100% accurate, but it should give a pretty good idea of where these railways were located.
In terms of information on abandonment dates, most of it is secondhand knowledge I’ve gotten from local railroad groups, but this website from the Minnesota Historical Society also helped. For streetcar line abandonment dates the Minnesota Streetcar Museum’s Facebook page was a huge help.
Preserving the Past for the Future
Most of these abandoned railways have at least one short trail, but in many cases either the railways were abandoned before rail-trails took off or there was a lack of public and/or political will to preserve these routes when they were abandoned. We know that trails like the Midtown Greenway, a flat trail with sparse road crossings, can serve as pedestrian and bicycle highways popular for recreation and even commuting.
As I did my research for this post I often thought of the huge lost opportunities presented by these railways. Any of them could have become popular rail-trails connecting communities currently short on infrastructure for pedestrians and bikers (especially in suburban, exurban and rural areas). Although the railways mentioned in this post may not be able to be brought back as rail-trails along their entire route, it should be a priority to preserve what’s left of their right-of-way and take advantage of it for trails. In addition, it’s important to keep an eye on existing railways that may be abandoned in the near future and make sure steps are taken to preserve their right-of-way for trails and/or transit.