Lake Superior Railroad Museum

As a final stop before I left Duluth, and Minnesota, I took a quick tour of the Lake Superior Railway Museum. The museum sits in what is the old Union Depot, built in 1892 and once the railroad terminal for seven different rail lines. This building, and the trains it holds, is a relic of the past. One day we may visit airports for the same reason, to examine the way humans once moved themselves across vast distances. At the turn of the 20th century, that method was railroad. According to Tim Shandel, the curator of the railroad museum, the very idea of Americans being able to get in a car and drive ourselves across any vast distance quickly and easily is a post-World War II phenomenon.

“It wasn’t until the ’50s that America began to see what was then called ‘all weather roads,'” Tim told me as we stood inside Car Missabe. “The thirteen hour trip from the Twin Cities to Duluth by rail makes the kids these days just blink their eyes in wonder.”

Car Missabe was the main reason I went to the museum. This car was one of the first Pullman business cars purchased by the Merritt family for their new railroad, the Duluth, Missabe and Northern Railway. It was the construction of the DM&N that put the Merritt holdings at steak. The railroad was expensive to build, and the ore docks in Duluth where the railroad terminated, which was supposed to be paid for by profits from the mines themselves, would not pay fast enough. In June of 1893, when the stock market crashed, the price of ore plummeted. Leonidas Merritt and his brother Alfred desperately tried to secure more funds, but ultimately failed. One of the great stories of the time, which tells a lot about Lon and how hard he worked to save his company, comes via his wife, who wrote to him an account of the first shipment of ore arriving at the new docks. It was a momentous day not only for the Merritts, but for Duluth, and that Lon could not be there was tough on him. But he was in New York, trying to secure funding to stabilize the company, unable to return to Minnesota because he did not even have enough money to buy a rail ticket. John D. Rockefeller would eventually foreclose on the loan Lon had taken to build the railway, and possession of the railroad, and the mines, fell into the hands of that industrial titan.

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Car Missabe was delivered to the DM&N in 1892. I would like to believe that the car was used by the Merritts on October 17, 1892, when the first shipment of ore from the Misabe Range left Mountain Iron, but Tim told me there was no way to know whether that was the case. “We don’t know when the car was actually delivered,” he said. Still, it is known that the Merritts used the car until they no longer had possession of the railway. Afterwards, it was used by the DM&N until that line merged with the Duluth & Iron Range Railway—which passed through Two Harbors on its way to Duluth—to form the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway.

In 1931 was sold to a construction firm out of the Twin Cities who had contracted to do some work on the Boulder Dam project—what would come to be known as the Hoover Dam. They shipped the car to Nevada where it stayed and operated as an onsite business office for the construction firm until 1937. Then it was shipped back to the Twin Cities and sold to George T. Maloy, an executive with the construction firm. Maloy thought the car would make an excellent cabin in the woods. The trucks, or wheels, of the car were removed and sold, and the car itself was placed on a property in Hudson, Wisconsin—a town where I had a book signing and met two members of the Merritt family.

The car was donated to the museum in 1997 Maloy’s remaining family. Originally promised in the mid-1970s, the car was not actually given to the museum for another twenty years, during which time the funds which were to be used for the restoration had grown in value. As a result, much more money was probably available to the museum to restore the car than might have been available had they gotten it earlier. The staff at the museum have done an amazing job restoring this beautiful piece of Mesabi Range history.

I spent a little more time exploring the rest of the museum and seeing some of the other rail cars that have been used throughout Minnesota over the years. Three cars of note: the McGiffert Self Propelling Log Loader, which could load logs on the same track on which it stood. It towered over the tracks, a hundred feet high. When it was loading logs, cars could travel beneath it. When all log cars had been loaded, the McGiffert’s wheels would be dropped back in place and the Log Loader could move to it’s next loading sight. If it were going far, a locomotive might pull it, but usually it moved under its own steam.

IMG_2856A second engine of note was the giant rotating snow plow. This thing looked like the worm in the sand dunes from Return of the Jedi, or the giant worms in Tremors. It would—and might still—chew through feet deep snow piled onto tracks like it was an eel gliding through water. The size of it, too, just blew me away.

IMG_2861Finally, I saw one of the original wooden ore cars that was used by the DM&N during those first ten years, before metal ore cars became the standard method of transporting ore. The little wooden cars seem like toys compared to the larger iron and steel ones, and certainly they are tiny compared to the giant engines that fill much of the museum.

One more minor point. One of the cars was full of photos that gave some idea of the history of the many railroads that have dotted the Minnesota landscape through the years. This photo in particular caught my attention.

Incorrectly identifies date of first shipment from the Mesabi Range.

Incorrectly identifies date of first shipment from the Mesabi Range.

The image shows the first car load of taconite pellets leaving the Minntac plant on October 25, 1967. Note the pine tree on top of the car, a tradition which began with the first shipment of ore from the Mesabi Range in 1892. The date is wrong, though, as the first shipment of ore left Mountain Iron on October 17, 1892, not October 25.