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Northfield's Railroads, 1857-2010

John W. North and daughter Emma, ca. 1855. Used with permission of the Northfield Historical Society

John W. North’s vision for the town that bears his name included a railroad, since he believed rail connections essential for Northfield’s growth. In 1857, soon after the town’s founding, the Minneapolis & Cedar Valley Railroad (M&CV) received a state charter to build and run a railroad from St. Paul (Mendota) south through Northfield to Iowa. North became president and established the line’s headquarters in Northfield. Planning and fundraising began in 1857. The Panic of 1857, however, frightened off investors, and the M&CV entered bankruptcy in 1859. John North was compelled to sell his Northfield properties. Appointed Surveyor-General of the Nevada Territory by President Lincoln, North left Northfield for good in the spring of 1861. Large portions of the roadbed to Northfield had been graded by that time but no track laid. Only toward the end of the Civil War, when rails again become available, did M&CV, now the Minnesota Central Railway (MCR), complete the tracks from Mendota through Northfield to Faribault.

1863. In June, over a two-day period, one traveler estimates that some 8,000 bushels of wheat are transported on the road from Northfield to Hastings by cart. Even so, farmers are unable to transport all of their grain to market. There is growing pressure for a faster and more efficient mode of transportation: the railroad.

1865. On September 9, the tracks of the Minnesota Central Railway (MCR) reach Northfield, and, in October, both freight and regular passenger service finally commence. The MCR is later acquired by the Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad, which becomes the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad (CM&StP) in 1874 and is later known as “The Milwaukee Road.” The tracks extend to Faribault by October 18.

"It was a day of exultation when in the summer of 1865 the first locomotive made its advent into the valley of the upper Cannon, and the first train from St. Paul pulled up to the Northfield station, thus affording easy contact and communication with the great world outside. This event had not a little to do with securing within a twelve-month the location of the college at this point."  
- Delavan L. Leonard, The History of Carleton College, Chicago: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1904, 80.

Early Northfield depot and grain elevator (after 1868). Used with permission of the Northfield Historical Society

1868. The first train depot, a wooden structure built by the Minnesota Central, goes up just south of 3rd Street West. Directly opposite, the railroad constructs a large grain elevator.

1869. A Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad overnight train, the Eastern Express, offers sleeping-car service between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago. Half a million bushels of wheat are harvested in Rice County. Much of the local grain, or the flour milled by area mills, is shipped to eastern markets by train.  Over 27 million pounds of freight leaves Northfield by 1874, most of it by rail; exports now outweigh imports indicating that for Northfield the frontier era is past.

1876. The James-Younger Gang travels by train from Missouri into Minnesota to stage their fateful raid on Northfield’s First National Bank. After capture, trials, and sentencing in Faribault, Minnesota, Cole Younger and brothers, Jim and Bob, pass through Northfield by train on their way to prison in Stillwater, Minnesota.

1878. Although flour export from Northfield remains steady, wheat production in Rice County begins to decline after 1878. Low market prices, soil depletion, and the notorious chinch bugs share responsibility. Even so, the famous Ames Mill on the Cannon River, powered now by steam and with its own rail spur, produces 400 barrels of flour daily by 1879. Dairy products gradually take over from wheat and flour. Four creameries spring up in Northfield. Milk cans are brought to the Northfield depot by rail; butter, cheese, and condensed milk are shipped out. Purebred dairy cattle travel to and from Northfield by train, allowing local farmers to claim the title, “Holstein Capital of the World.”

1881. The railroad boom throughout the Upper Midwest spurs the growth of Minnesota towns and the settlement of the Dakotas further west. “Build it and they will come” seems the motto. The London Times observes, tongue-in-cheek, that new American railroads often run from “Nowhere-in-Particular to Nowhere-at-All.” By now, however, Northfield, with its population well over 2,000, two colleges, and thriving commerce, qualifies as Somewhere-in-Particular. The railroads and their depots play a vital role.

In 1881, the writer Hamlin Garland takes the train from Osage, Iowa, to Farmington, Minnesota, spending the night in Faribault. From Faribault, he writes home "a long and impassioned account of my sensations as I stood beside the Cannonball [sic] River." In his memoir, A Son of the Middle Border, Garland writes that, from Faribault, "I pushed on to the town of Farmington, where the Dakota branch of the Milwaukee railroad [the CM&StP] crossed my line of march. Here I felt to its full the compelling power of the swift stream of immigration surging to the west. The little village had doubled in size almost in a day. It was a junction point, a place of transfer, and its thin-walled unpainted pine hotels were packed with men, women and children laden with bags and bundles, all bound for the west…"

1882. In fierce competition with the Minnesota Central, which lays a rival track along the Cannon River to Red Wing, the CM&StP presses forward a line from Northfield through Randolph to Cannon Falls and Red Wing. On October 20, the CM&StP sponsors an excursion from Northfield to Cannon Falls to celebrate the completion of its line ahead of its competitor. Four passenger coaches full of Northfielders arrive in Cannon Falls, and the Northfield Community Band leads a parade down the town’s main street. The Cannon Valley Line, as the Minnesota Central is called, begins service between Northfield and Red Wing in January 1883 with a separate depot, since demolished, located one block away from the present Northfield depot. In 1884, the Cannon Valley is acquired by the Chicago Great Western Railway (CGW), which is also constructing a new north-south mainline from St. Paul through Randolph, Minnesota, to Dubuque, Iowa. From Red Wing, the CGW branch passes through Cannon Falls, Randolph, Northfield, Faribault, and on to Mankato.

Decorah, Iowa, CM&StP Depot (prior to 1888).

1888. In April, fire destroys the CM&StP depot, resulting in a loss of $25,000 (almost $600,000 in current dollars). In September, railroad officials visit the CM&StP depot in Decorah, Iowa, taken as a model for the Northfield depot. The cornerstone for the new depot is laid in late October, and the framing is completed in early November. 


1889. By early January, the new depot is completed.

New Milwaukee Depot sometime after 1889. Used with permission of the St. Olaf College Archives

1893. A third railroad, the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern, begins service to Northfield, making use of the Milwaukee Road tracks and sharing the same depot. In 1903, this railroad merges with the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railway (CRI&P).

1898. Troops set off from the Northfield depot for the Spanish-American War.

Northfield area soldiers leave for Spanish-American War, 1898. Used with permission of the Northfield Historical Society

1900. The 1900 Sanborn insurance map, framing the neighborhood bounded by 2nd and 4th Streets on the north and south, and by Water and Linden Streets on the east and west, shows the CM&StP depot in the lower left-hand quadrant. The longer building along the tracks to the north is the CM&StP freight depot, across from the new grain elevator. The other set of tracks, to the right, belong to the Chicago Great Western. The original CGW depot can be seen on the upper right. Ames Mill is in the lower right-hand corner.

Detail of Sanborn Insurance Map, 1900.


William Howard Taft campaigning in Northfield, 1908. Used with permission of St. Olaf College Archives1908. Presidential candidate William Howard Taft makes a campaign stop at the Northfield depot. A young woman, Mildred Ware, wrapped in stars and stripes and riding a massive elephant, greets the 300-pound Republican. According to the Minneapolis Journal, the prodigious president said, "I am pleased to see this beautiful emblem of party victory. I should like to mount the animal myself, but I am afraid there isn’t time to rig a derrick to get me on there."In the November election, Taft carries Minnesota against William Jennings Bryan, the Democrat candidate. Read more about Taft's visit to Northfield in the Northfield Historical app.

1910. The Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester & Dubuque Electric Traction Company, better known as the Dan Patch Line, lays tracks from the Twin Cities to Northfield. Seven trips daily to Minneapolis are offered in 1915 and five south to Faribault. The gas-electric cars of the Dan Patch are stored in a barn located just east of St. Dominic Church across Spring Street. The barn becomes a spot for friendly poker games. The Dan Patch Line connects with the Minneapolis streetcar system at 54th Street and Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis, and in Northfield it links to the CGW. The Dan Patch has its own small depot on the west side of the new elevator between 2nd and 3rd Street.

W.F. Schilling, Northfield newspaper editor, city booster, and Holstein breeder extraordinaire, observed that in the first decade of the twentieth century, train watching was a popular Sunday afternoon pastime in Northfield. "It was said many times," Schilling wrote in 1952 in the Northfield Independent, "that a fairly good census of our population could be taken any Sunday afternoon at the depot."

Teddy Roosevelt campaigning at the Northfield depot in 1912. Used with permission of St. Olaf College Archives

1912. Campaigning against incumbent William Howard Taft for the Republican nomination for president, Theodore Roosevelt makes a whistle-stop speech in Northfield on March 29. Roosevelt loses to Taft at the convention in June and then, running on the Progressive or “Bull Moose” ticket, Roosevelt faces both Taft and Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat candidate, in November. Roosevelt loses to Wilson, but carries Minnesota over both Wilson and Taft.

"A brief glimpse was all that was vouchsafed the expectant multitudes as the train pulled out again after a stop of only about two minutes." Known for long speeches, TR on this occasion offered only the "gist of his views": "In spite of all that might be said to the contrary, asserted Mr. Roosevelt, he believed the average American is a mighty good sort of a fellow and his wife is better still. He believed the American people perfectly capable of self government and that they should not be dictated to by political bosses. The train then pulled out amid the cheers of the crowd, Roosevelt waving his hand in response."
- “Northfield Gets Glimpse of T.R.,” Northfield Independent, March 30, 1912.

1915. A local timetable gives Northfielders a choice among fifteen separate passenger-service times on weekdays for travel to the Twin Cities on the Dan Patch, the Milwaukee (CMStP&P), and the Rock Island (CRI&P).

Gas-electric Minneapolis, Northfield & Southern car in Minneapolis yard, 1923.

1918. After falling into bankruptcy in 1916, the Dan Patch Line is purchased by the Minneapolis, Northfield & Southern Railway (MN&S), which continues passenger service with gas-electric cars until April 1942, both on the Dan Patch track from the Twin Cities and on the CGW track  from Randolph through Faribault to Mankato.

1945. A Rock Island timetable indicates a single daily flag stop of the Twin Star Rocket in Northfield on its twenty-five hour run from Minneapolis to Houston via Kansas City. Average speed is close to 54 mph. An Electro Motive Diesel E6A 2,000 HP Diesel supplies the power. Passenger service on the Milwaukee Road has reached its peak and is beginning to decrease.

Ike and Mamie at the Northfield Depot, September 16, 1952. Used with permission of Northfield Historical Society

1952. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Republican candidate for president, together with Mamie Eisenhower, makes a rail stop in Northfield on September 16. Disembarking from the train at the Northfield depot, the general greets dignitaries before traveling several blocks by motorcade to Laird Stadium at Carleton College. There he addresses a crowd of some 10,000 enthusiastic supporters, including students from Carleton, St. Olaf, and fourteen other colleges. “This was the dandiest meeting I’ve had in a long time,” Ike comments. As their motorcade returns to the depot, citizens gather around his car, a Cadillac convertible, to shake hands.

"Dwight Eisenhower meets a master farmer of Minnesota. The Republican presidential nominee is pictured at the Northfield depot last week as he shakes hands with Fremont Albers of Dundas, master farmer. Others in the picture, left to right, are Mrs. Nellie Phillips; Mrs. Donald Rock, representing farm women; Ed Parsons, chairman of the Northfield motorcade for the program at Laird Stadium, Carleton College."
- Northfield News, Thursday, September 25, 1952.

1969. Passenger service comes to an end at the depot. The last Twin Star Rocket passenger train from Kansas City passes through Northfield on July 28, 1969.

1980. Northfield’s Heritage Preservation Commission nominates the Milwaukee depot for Local Heritage Preservation Site designation. The City Council accepts.

1981. The 1889 Milwaukee Depot closes for good on October 22. There are no plans for the old depot, according to Milwaukee Road officials.

Progressive Rail’s No. 40, General Motors-EMD, Model SD-39, 2500 hp at rest in the Northfield yard, August 2010
Used with permission of D. Sudermann

2010. Save the Northfield Depot is organized to rescue and restore the historic building. Rail freight through Northfield continues to grow. Sunday through Thursday, the Canadian Pacific (CP, .pdf) runs one mixed-freight in each direction overnight. The Union Pacific (UP, .pdf) operates three mixed-freight trains in each direction daily. In addition, UP operates some four coal trains in each direction weekly and three trains per week carrying grain, fertilizer, and ethanol. Progressive Rail (PR), the local carrier, routes one train Monday through Friday to Lakeville and some five trains per week to Cannon Falls and Faribault. PR also uses the Northfield yard to make up trains for Lakeville, Cannon Falls, and Faribault. PR makes pickups for both CP and UP and receives cars from both carriers in Northfield. PR stores some cars in Northfield for customers in Lakeville and Cannon Falls.  On average, some ten trains pass through Northfield on most weekdays. Malt-O-Meal Company remains the sole active rail shipper in Northfield.