Exploring Duluth’s History: Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad

A Historic Duluth Railroad

By Kyle Chisholm

History Tour Program Coordinator

Lake Superior Mississippi Railroad Historic Image

Original LSMRR’s outer harbor depot (Image: Minnesota History Society via Zenith City Online).

Recently, I had the chance to explore the heart of Duluth’s rich history and the first Duluth railroad connection to the rest of the country – the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad (LSMRR) in West Duluth. The LSMRR was given its the name because it once provided a critical connection between the navigational headwaters of Lake Superior in Duluth to the navigational headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

However, the original 150 miles of rail was part of a much larger vision.

As early as 1853 – when Minnesota was still a U.S. Territory – state legislators approved a plan that would connect Lake Superior to the Puget Sound of Washington by rail. In 1864 the U.S. Congress approved the plan which was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln. As a result, Jay Cooke’s Northern Pacific Railroad (NP) was born. Northbound work on the LSMRR had actually begun in 1862 prior to Lincoln’s approval of the entire NP project – because Mr. Cooke had a vision.

Construction on the southward route from Duluth did not begin until 1869 and was completed August 1, 1871. It was a momentous occasion for Duluth and Minnesota though somewhat overshadowed by the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad just a couple years earlier. Similar to that massive project, the LSMRR was transcontinental in design. Freight and passengers could travel westward on ships via the Great Lakes, transfer to the Duluth railroad line, and continue westward to the west coast. The great City of Duluth was the critical center point of it all.

Lake Superior Mississippi Railroad Tracks

The stamping on this LSMRR railroad tie indicates that it was made by the Carnegie Steel Co. in 1893; the 7 hash marks denote a July production.

Little remains of the spur railroad that connected Duluth to the rest of the country today. The existing 6-mile line was laid down in 1870 and has been diligently maintained by the current LSMRR crew since 1979. In that year, the Burlington Northern Railroad (now Burlington Northen & Sante Fe) donated the line to the City of Duluth for commercial use. By July of 1980, scenic trains were running.

Given its amazing place in Duluth’s history, I connected with the folks over at the LSMRR to experience this iconic railroad first-hand.

The current LSMRR has no ties to the original namesake which folded in 1876 and was rebranded as the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad (SPDRR). The all-volunteer organization at LSMRR has a mission to educate its guests about Duluth’s early history. The LSMRR crew operates from its station on Grand Ave, across from the Lake Superior Zoo with volunteers from varied backgrounds but sharing the common goal to preserve and share this unique piece of Duluth railroad legacy.

LSMRR Exterior Image

The LSMRR train loading at the station. The passenger cars are from 1913.

Unfortunately, there are some looming challenges for this historical organization. The U.S. Steel Plant clean-up may require a section of the line to be removed. Whether or not the line will be replaced after clean-up completion is currently under debate. Likewise, the LSMRR volunteers have been maintaining the line for 35 years and a new influx of volunteers would help to secure its future. If you’re interested in volunteering, but are worried about a lack of rail experience, don’t be. No experience is necessary to get involved. The LSMRR provides training and helps its volunteers become certified as Engineers, Conductors, and Firemen.

I was fortunate to investigate this rail on two separate occasions. On my first visit, I met with some of the LSMRR crew and had a chance to talk with them about their experiences and the history of the line. My second visit was as a guest on one of their weekend train excursions. It’s a piece of history worth preserving and the railroad helps showcase a beautiful part of Duluth that is hard to access. On top of all that, the LSMRR story provides a vital connection to our past. Should operations continue, the railroad foresees a symbiotic future with the planned development along the St. Louis River Corridor especially their connection to local walking trails and their ability to assist kayakers in accessing remote areas along the St. Louis River.

LSMRR Line Along St. Louis River

The 1870 railroad path along Spirit Lake. Spirit Island can be seen in the distance.

LSMRR Line Along St. Louis River

This dike provides support for the LSMRR along the St. Louis River’s original train line.

I’d like to express my gratitude to the folks at the LSMRR including, but not limited to, Pat and Rich Johnson, Harold Dols, and President Brad Massengill. Thanks for a great experience – my kids had an absolute blast!

If you’re interested in learning more about Duluth’s rich history, check out our History Bus Tours and our Zenith City Walking Tours.
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