Today, a meditation on the ways you used to be able to go to Fargo. It starts at Fergus Falls, which a rail enthusiast at a threshing bee suggested I explore.
A secondary main line of Northern Pacific once connected Wadena, Minn. to Jamestown, N. Dak and onward to Leeds by way of Fergus Falls. The passenger trains quit coming a long time ago, and there's little use for station agents to round up grain hoppers and cattle cars these days.
The solid brick station remains, though, as a pub.
The Burlington Northern, er BNSF, branch line is still in service.
Great Northern got rid of its secondary main line by way of St. Cloud, Sauk Center, and Fergus Falls after the merger. The trackage between Fergus Falls and the Red River now belongs to the Otter Tail Valley Railroad, a Genessee and Wyoming property. The Great Northern station is now Otter Tail general offices.
The sign advises, "No trespassing. Please do not walk on the platform." You'll note I honored the request. The platform looks ready for the Winnipeg Limited to roll in and unload mail and express later that night.
Speaking of the Winnipeg Limited, this line was used by passenger trains almost until the coming of Amtrak. Great Northern's version of the Empire Builder used the main line through Willmar and the Surrey Cutoff between Fargo and Minot. The Western Star sometimes used that routing, although sometimes it would use the Sauk Center - Fergus Falls routing in one direction. But the Star was paired with another train, the Dakotan, that would use the other routing. And the Star had a connecting train between Great Falls and Havre in Montana. Furthermore, the Star connected with Burlington's overnight Black Hawk (and The Milwaukee Road's Pioneer Limited) for Wisconsin points and Chicago. And the Dakotan ran as far as Minot by way of Grand Forks, Devils Lake, and Williston (as in the North Dakota oil patch.)
Thus, a passenger could start in Chicago and get to any Minnesota or North Dakota destination with a change of trains in St. Paul or perhaps Fargo; and, if one had enough endurance, ride to Great Falls. Or change to a Northern Pacific day train between Fargo and Winnipeg; this also lasted almost to the merger.
The Winnipeg Limited was an overnight train that also handled blocks of tour sleeping cars (this experience is still possible today, with cars moving on Amtrak or Canadian trains) for and from the Canadian Rockies. Its schedule permitted connections to the Morning Zephyr or from the Afternoon Zephyr at St. Paul; again, until 1970, riders could choose the Morning Hiawatha or Afternoon Hiawatha, although no self-respecting Great Northern man would sell that ticket to Chicago or LaCrosse. Milwaukee or Watertown, maybe.
And most of these trains made connections at St. Paul with Rock Island trains for Kansas City or St. Louis. All gone a few years before Amtrak, but a passenger could go from the Dakotas to the Southwest without going through Chicago. Headed for California? That Great Northern man will send you to Portland.
Today's convoluted Empire Builder routing attempts to protect a great deal of this service, not so well in my view. No, you can't get to Winnipeg any more, and Burlington wants to keep the passenger trains off the Surrey Cutoff to expedite the containers, grain, and oil.
The platform is painted to keep passengers away from the coaches, because for a while the Otter Tail Valley ran excursion trains. That doesn't happen any more, but they at least have a proper buggy on hand.
I was informed a former Great Northern station was in use as a residence not far from the tracks.
Find the Our Lady of Victory school and look for a building that looks like a repurposed railway station.
Fergus Falls is county seat, and a Federal District Court sits here. The city hall has a real New England look to it.
The general offices of the Otter Tail Power Company are also in town, not far from a hydroelectric dam that might still be spinning a turbine or two.
As long as we're on this nostalgia trip, forty years ago I was rummaging through issues of the National Electric Rate Book to figure out the provisions of automatic fuel price adjustment clauses in utility tariffs. And after wading through lots of entries with mundane corporate titles such as Central Illinois Light and Wisconsin Public Service, to encounter a Metropolitan Edison (let's have some Orthodox plain-chant at 440 Hz, please) or an Otter Tail Power Company spices up the day. Yes, it exists, and yes, it did post a fuel adjustment, which we had to tweak for its use of hydroelectric power.
To the east, the impetus for the trip, a visit to the Lake Region Pioneer Threshermen's Association show grounds, where they are running a narrow-gauge French tank engine repatriated after the war.
Too bad nobody preservation-minded glommed onto a streamlined German Pacific that I understand was brought across by the Transportation Corps for evaluation.
The train is calling at a former Great Northern depot moved to the show grounds from Dalton. Note that Laker is a Soo Line name, but the Soo Line also got in on the Winnipeg trade, handling through cars off owner Canadian Pacific eastbound and Chicago and North Western westbound.
The threshermen didn't have to move the building too far, as the old line, which is now the Lake Region Trail, crossed the driveway to the show grounds.
I'll throw in one action shot from the threshing bee. First time I've seen a sawmill powered by two traction engines. The one closer to the camera made a lot more noise, perhaps it was picking up most of the load.
Next, a visit to a station that lost its passenger trains on Amtrak day and recently regained them.
That's the concourse of the Saint Paul Union Depot. I took a few other pictures, but much of the interior is really dark. The stairs lead to track level, but intercity buses call at those platforms. Passenger service uses platforms just off the end of the concourse. Double stack trains require more overhead clearance, you know.
I spoke with a gentleman at the state capitol who mentioned Minnesota's interest in a second train for and from Chicago. Contemplate this station, which once hosted the world's fastest and most comprehensive corridor service (to Chicago) as well as transcontinental trains of four railroads and regional service to Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis, and the Twin Ports, and reflect on how much work there is to be done.
But at least there is train service here, and the morning I was there, the eastbound Builder got away on time.
The Chicago Great Western's station at Red Wing has been without trains for a long time. But substantial brick buildings have all sorts of promise for adaptive reuse.
Saw that, had to stop and get a late breakfast!
The Milwaukee Road had secured the riverfront at Red Wing first, thus Chicago Great Western had to engage in a lot of mountain railroading to get into Red Wing by way of a branch, continuing on to Rochester by way of Zumbrota.