Northern Minnesota’s economy has been powered by locomotives for over one hundred and thirty years. The ensuing boom after the nineteenth-century discovery of iron in the Mesabi and Vermilion Ranges ushered in a period of growth and prosperity for the operators of the Duluth, Missabe, and Iron Range Railroad.
However the rail operator’s fortunes turned sour by the end of the mid-twentieth century, when ore extraction costs began to eclipse the commodity’s retail prices. Communities along the western shoreline of Lake Superior were devastated as port activity dwindled. Jobs were cut and rail depots – like the one in Two Harbors, Minnesota – shuttered.
For fifty years the depot and roundhouse in Two Harbors sat abandoned, reminding of an era driven by coal and iron. The site was eventually razed, but not before photographers Dan & Cynthia Traun were able to visit and capture the buildings as they appeared in their final days.
cover photo courtesy Cynthia Traun
The Duluth, Missabe, and Iron Range Railroad (reporting mark: DMIR) was the result of a merger between four distinct northern Minnesotan railroad lines which served the region’s iron boom for over one hundred years.
- Duluth & Iron Range Railway (D&IR)
- Duluth, Missabe, & Northern Railway (DM&N)
- Spirit Lake Transfer Railway
- Interstate Transfer Line
In 1865 a Minnesota state geologist reported a discovery of gold and quartz near the Mesabi and Vermilion Ranges in Northern Minnesota. A short gold rush soon followed, but the prospectors who flocked to the region discovered the range was not as rich with gold as it was with iron.
Duluth banker George C. Stone heard of the large iron deposits and in 1873 met with Philadelphia business person and lawyer Charlemagne Tower (for whom the northern Minnesota town of Tower would be named) to discuss purchasing the property.
Tower (pictured above right) approved an immediate prospecting excursion to the Mesabi Range, however none on the expedition were satisfied with what was found.
The expedition continued on.
The exorbitant cost of prospecting the region, the lack of transport infrastructure, and financial concerns surrounding the Panic of 1873 were enough deterrents to keep him away for the time being.
Construction took just over two years before the line was opened in 1883.
Duluth & Iron Range Railway (D&IR)
After the United States Civil War, Mitchell spent time exploring the eastern end of the Mesabi Range in Minnesota in search of iron ore.
Peter knew transport in the largely undeveloped region would be challenging. His plan of action was to obtain a grant from the state of Minnesota and build a railroad line from Babbitt, Minnesota to Duluth.
During this time Tower was doing his prospecting next door in the Vermillion Range, and he needed transportation for his iron ore as well. Tower’s operation mined in Soudan and shipped from the Lake Superior port of Two Harbors, about 68 miles (109 km) away.
By 1882 Tower had gained control of the land grant and rail rights to the unbuilt D&IR line from the Mitchell syndicate.
Tower got to work constructing the line in 1883, but the terminus was changed from Duluth to Agate Bay in Two Harbors before work began.
The iron deposit was large, which combined with the completion of the D&IR line in 1884 led Charlemagne Tower to incorporate the Minnesota Iron Company that year.
In addition to iron ore shipments, trains along the D&IR hauled passengers during the summer months.
These mainline trains featured parlor cars (or café cars, at left & below) which served beverages and local delicacies to the primarily wealthy Midwesterners on board with summer homes along Lake Vermilion.
Field Gets Crowded
In 1887 iron ore was discovered on the lands north of Tower owned by an east coast-based group of investors – a syndicate including the likes of H.H. Porter (at right, Union Steel Works) and John D. Rockefeller (below left, Standard Oil).
The investment group attempted to buy the D&IR line from Charlemagne Tower. Initially he refused to sell – until he realized he lacked control over east-bound shipping lanes. This was important, because the Porter syndicate had said control.
Tower understood holding out could risk losing access to important shipping lanes – but he didn’t want to part with the railroad and keep the mine, which would merely create a transport expense for his iron ore.
By late 1887 the east coast syndicate met Tower’s terms, acquiring both the D&IR line and the iron ore claim in Tower.
Charlemagne would retain a small interest in the newly created Minnesota Mining & Railroad Syndicate.
[ An unusual service provided by the D&IR Railway was the “Fisherman’s Special,” which ran between Duluth and Two Harbors on Sundays during the summer.
The morning train stopped at several trout streams along the north shore, where the fishermen were dropped off for a day of fishing. They were picked up in the late afternoon by the returning train. ]
Duluth, Missabe, & Northern Railway (DM&N)
Discovery of iron ore near Tower, Minnesota, in 1864 led to the beginnings of the Missabe Road, a railroad many considered the jewel of the Twin Ports.
The Merritt family (pictured below) were iron ore pioneers in Minnesota, credited with being the first to chart the Mesabi Range and identify the region’s richest iron deposits.
Known as the Seven Iron Men, the family founded the largest iron mine in the world and unwittingly kick-started the consolidation of the American Railway System.
When the Merritt brothers extracted the Mesabi’s iron, their dilemma was transport; at the time area miners had been using horse and wagon to bring ore down the Missabe Trail – until they reached the town of Mesabi, at which point everything could then be loaded on to the D&IR railway.
The Seven Iron Men wanted a direct rail line from their mines in Mountain Iron and Biwabik. Initially they reached out to Charlemagne Tower, enquiring if the addition of a line to the existing railway was possible – but D&IR was not interested.
[ Mesabi or Missabe? Both are correct and different spellings of a French version of the Native American Ojibwe word for “Giant Mountain” or “the Sleeping Giant.” The U.S. government often uses Mesabe, while Minnesotans have several accepted variants including Missabe, Mesaba, & Mesabi. ]
After six years of construction, the DM&N finally moved its first load of iron ore out of the Missabe Range in October of 1892.
Their resources tapped, the brothers were forced to put their own stock up as collateral on a personal loan from John D. Rockefeller.
A series of poor financial decisions by the Merritt Brothers unfortunately coincided with the Financial Panic of 1893 and left them in debt to the oil magnate. Restitution came in 1894 with a transfer of ownership of both the Mountain Iron Mine and the DM&N Railway to Rockefeller. The Seven Iron Men were bankrupt.
Once he assumed ownership, Rockefeller leased his iron ore properties – including the DM&N – to the Carnegie Steel Company in 1896.
[ All iron is not created equal, access and extract-ability depends on how the metal was formed. The Vermillion Range contains deeper veins of hard ore which required dynamite to separate from volcanic rock; the Mesabi Range contains softer ore located closer to the surface and capable of being scooped by shovel. ]
original photos courtesy Minnesota Historical Society
Revolving Door of Ownership
In 1887 and just four years after its opening, the Duluth & Iron Range line was relinquished by Tower to a group that would later come to be known as Illinois Steel. At its peak in the 1890s, Illinois Steel was the largest steel producer in the United States.
By 1898 Illinois Steel had merged with other entities to form the Federated Steel Company. Just three years later Elbert H. Gary (yes, that Elbert Gary) and J.P. Morgan would combine the assets of Federated Steel with Carnegie Steel to form the world’s first billion-dollar company: The United States Steel Corporation (USS).
Included in the 1901 merger were control and rights to both the D&IR and DM&N lines. Also included: The Interstate Transfer Line, a small but valuable stretch of rail connecting Itasca and Oliver, Wisconsin. The holding companies merged, but the lines themselves did not; operationally the D&IR and DM&N continued to function independent of one another.
[ In 1927 the D&IR served iron mines located in Aurora, Babbitt, Biwabik, Colby, Ely, Eveleth, Largo, McComber, McKinley, Mariska, Pettit, Sparta, Tower Junction (Soudan), Virginia, and Winton, Minnesota. ]
The Great Depression decimated all industries, including rail. Throughout the 1930s few rail lines were immune to contraction or takeover, including those under the ownership of U.S. Steel.
The prior organization of U.S. Steel’s rail assets was not efficient, which forced operational changes in the years following the onset of the Great Depression.
In January of 1930 the DM&N began leasing the D&IR in an effort to consolidate operations.
[ Total ore hauled by the DM&N and D&IR railways in 1929: 27.8 million tons ]
Changes to organizational structure began to accelerate by 1937 starting with the merger of the DM&N and the Spirit Lake Transfer Railway. The Duluth & Iron Range was dissolved and became a part of the newly established Duluth Missabe & Iron Range Railway in 1938.
[ Total ore hauled by the DM&N and D&IR railways in 1932: 1.5 million tons ]
The former D&IR, which had been leased by the DM&N for the last seven years, had finally been merged. In their place was the Duluth, Missabe, and Iron Range Line (reporting mark: DMIR), separated into two divisions and named for two of its former lines:
- The Missabe (operating on the former DM&N trackage) and
- The Iron Range (operating on the former D&IR trackage)
Also on board: The Interstate Transfer Line, which dissolved in 1938 before joining the DM&IR.
Duluth, Missabe, & Iron Range Line
The combination of the multiple rail lines created the single, larger line of Duluth Missabe & Iron Range. The new line was unique in that it was able to operate a rail service completely independent of other lines.
Specifically, the Duluth Missabe & Iron Range had the capability to move ore from mines directly to shipping docks without requiring a lease or partnership with another railroad.
[ During its 1940’s peak, the Mesabi range produced 1/4 of the country’s iron needs – enough to build 178 battleships per year from 1941 to 1945. ]
Fewer arrangements and leases with other lines resulted in fewer costs and greater profit margins. This, combined with increasing demand for steel in the years leading up to World War II, saw the tonnage of iron ore more than double from 8 million tons in 1938 to over 18 million tons in 1939.
By 1940 the Missabe was shipping 28 tons of iron; in 1941 the mines produced over 37 million tons of iron. Mining operations continued to escalate into the 1940s; by 1942 ore movement was nearly 45 million tons. The DM&IR’s eventual high-water mark came in 1953, when ore shipments eclipsed 49 million tons.
The DM&IR received permission from the War Production Board to purchase eighteen of the most powerful articulated steam locomotives available, known as the class M 2-8-8-4 Yellowstone. The first eight Yellowstones were delivered to DM&IR by Baldwin Locomotive Works in the spring of 1941, and would see service through 1960.
[ What do locomotive numbers mean (ex: 2-6-4)? Known as Whyte notation (pictured at right), the method for classifying steam locomotives devised by Frederick Whyte became popular in the early twentieth century.
The first number counts leading wheels, the second number counts driving wheels, and the third counts trailing wheels.
When describing Mallet-style (pronounced “mallay”) articulated locomotives (multiple engines), just four numbers are used as there are no unpowered wheels between engines. The two numbers in the middle indicate driven wheels by each engine. See common wheel arrangements and their corresponding names here. ]
Meanwhile the DM&IR purchased the discarded steamers and for the next several years continued with the older technology due to its added benefit of thawing frozen loads of iron ore.
In 1953 the DM&IR received its first diesel locomotives when the EMD SW9 arrived.
Exhausted Range, Eventuated Economies
The raw material demands of World War II produced jobs and wealth for the communities surrounding the Iron Range, but the decade of heavy mining had exhausted the area’s supply of easily accessible high-grade iron ore.
Quality was decreasing while extraction cost was increasing.
Lower-grade taconite was more accessible and economic to extract. After low-grade iron ore is mined and the rock removed, the result is a high-grade taconite.
[ The Missabe steam locomotive roster reached an all-time high in 1951, at 172 engines. ]
Easily pelleted, taconite was cheaper to extract but it also commanded a lower price on the market. Demand was also below that of iron, which meant lower returns on investment.
As a result, mines began to contract operations.
[ Taconite (at right) is a low-quality iron ore which usually also consists of quartz, chert, or carbonate. The name was coined during a discovery in northeastern Minnesota by a geologist who thought it resembled the rock found around the Taconic Mountains in New York. ]
Reduced mining resulted in fewer jobs, which in turn reduced the population and use of services. The Missabe passenger service was scuttled in 1957; four years later in 1961, all passenger service was discontinued.
Regional operations further dwindled into the 1960s, shuttering mines and train depots along the way. When the 80 year-old facility in Two Harbors, Minnesota, was shut down on January 18th, 1963, residents called it “Black Friday.”
Safety would come from the state of Minnesota on November 3rd, 1964, in the form of the Taconite Amendment. In an effort to salvage regional industry and jobs, the state agreed to waive corporate taxation of taconite extraction and transport for twenty-five years.
A short rebirth of industry followed led by the 1964 formation of the Eveleth Taconite Company, who wasted no time opening its first plant the following year in Forbes, Minnesota.
[ Taconite pellets can generate dust emissions during railcar unloading and ship loading, moving, and stockpiling. In 2008 Duluth Missabe and Iron Range Railroad Company (DM&IR) was fined $20,000 by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) for three air quality violations in 2007. ]
Two Harbors Machine Shop: 1914 & 2013
U.S. Steel would throw its hat into the taconite ring with the Minntac Pellet Plant at Mountain Iron, opened in October of 1967 and eventually becoming the largest taconite pellet plant in the United States.
Eveleth and Minntac sent taconite pellets to the port of Two Harbors, where it would then be sent by sea to the East faster than by rail. Up to 23,000 tons would be loaded onto each vessel at port (such as the aforementioned SS Edmund Fitzgerald).
Coming Full Circle: From John D. Rockefeller to the SS Edmund Fitzgerald
Oglebay Norton, an independent iron ore company, was founded in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1854. One-time Oglebay Norton employee John D. Rockefeller would go on to make his fortune in oil and acquire both the DM&N and D&IR lines. Rockefeller ultimately hired Oglebay Norton as the sales and shipping agent for the iron ore extracted from the mines.
Sixty years later it was Oglebay Norton who partnered with Ford Motor Company in the ownership of Eveleth Taconite Company. Eveleth Taconite (later known as EVTAC) was the long-term leaseholder of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald when the ill-fated ship sank in 1975.
photos courtesy Dan Traun
A Turbulent End
In 1988 and on the eve of Taconite Amendment expiration, U.S. Steel decided to spin-off its mining, railroad, and shipping companies into subsidiary Transtar – before offering a 51% controlling stake in Transtar and itself to the Blackstone Group for more than $500 million.
USX would retain a 49% stake in the new holding company.
[ In 1990 Donald Shank, former GM and VP of the DM&IR, began the North Shore Scenic Railroad. He sold it to the Goldfines family in 1991. The Goldfines owned and operated the NSSR until 1996, when the Lake Superior Railroad Museum assumed operation. Shank had envisioned the abandoned railroad depot would one day be turned into a museum.
When U.S. Steel closed its Duluth mill in the 1970s and threatened to liquidate all assets, workers hid one of the railroad engines behind a wall of miscellaneous equipment in a shed. After several years when the coast was clear, the workers notified the museum about the hiding place. Today the “7-spot” engine is now part of the Duluth museum’s collection. ]
Two Harbors Machine Shop: 1930 & 2013
In late 2000 shipments of taconite began to fall. Threats of shutdown floated around the Eveleth Taconite company (later known as EVTAC Mining Co.), and in November the Minntac Mine idled its production lines. By January of 2001 the first round of layoffs had been announced.
Transtar operated the DM&IR line until 2001, when assets were transferred to Great Lakes Transportation (GLT) LLC, a wholly-owned Blackstone holding company with operations in great lakes shipping, inland river barging, and railroad freight. In exchange, Blackstone yielded full control of Transtar back to USX Corporation (U.S. Steel).
For the first time in nearly one hundred years, the DM&IR lines were no longer associated with U.S. Steel.
[In 2002 the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway was said to be the largest iron ore handling railroad in North America, with 212 miles of track. ]
When the demand for EVTAC’s taconite pellets decreased sharply at the turn of the twenty-first century, it faced the threat of closure.
Eveleth’s taconite was important to the DM&IR, comprising nearly fifty percent of the rail line’s annual tonnage.
In February of 2003 the DM&IR’s track, bridge, and building departments were targeted for ten-percent staffing reductions; owner GLT offered $100,000 incentives to tenured employees who voluntarily quit their jobs. By early May the DM&IR sent letters to 86 employees indicating they would be laid off if the EVTAC plant ceases production, which it ultimately did in less than a month.
In May of 2004 control of DM&IR was shifted from GLT to Canadian National Railway (CN). The $380 million-dollar deal gave the Montreal-based rail company the portfolio of mining and rail assets from GLT. This marked the first time in the DM&IR’s 120-year history it was under foreign ownership.
A brief resurgence in taconite production offered a respite from layoffs when EVTAC operations emerged from bankruptcy as United Taconite and restarted under the ownership of Cleveland-Cliffs, Inc. (today known as Cliffs Natural Resources).
[ In 2004 CN shipped over 21 million tons of iron ore products, primarily taconite pellets produced by three CN-served plants on the Mesabi Iron Range. ]
Canadian National merged the DM&IR with Wisconsin Central Limited in December of 2011. The following year the Duluth, Missabe, and Iron Range Railroad was officially dissolved.
A handful of spur routes (such as the North Shore Scenic Railroad) have been preserved.
photos courtesy Dan Traun
Two Harbors DM&IR Properties
The Two Harbors DM&IR site began with a six-stall wooden roundhouse, but soon operations expanded to nearly fill all 30 acres of the property. Added later were a boiler house, car house, engine room, foundry, machine shop, storehouse, and a 50-stall brick roundhouse – all by 1930.
The site maintained engines pushing ore, passenger, and timber lines. At its peak the Two Harbors facility encompassed 30 buildings and was servicing 109 locomotives. Annual engine overhaul requirements kept the machine shop and roundhouse busy twenty-four hours a day.
When “Black Friday” struck Two Harbors in January of 1963, the machine shop and roundhouse ceased operations. For the next fifty years, the buildings would sit vacant and slowly deteriorate.
In December 2002 the GLT-owned DM&IR properties around Lighthouse Point on the south side of Two Harbors were sold to real-estate developer Sam Cave for $1.4 million.
Cave intended to build a 120-room hotel, conference center, and townhouse complex on the 50-acre property with pristine views of the Wisconsin shoreline.
Cave understood the town’s plight but wanted $1.8 million in return, and Two Harbors lacked the financing to afford the property.
Over the next four years Sam Cave submitted several development proposals to the city but all were voted down by the city council. When talks broke down in late 2005, Cave sued the city over their failure to issue permits.
By 2010 just nine structures of the original thirty built by DM&IR in Two Harbors remained. The property had been the center of a legal dispute for nearly a decade before city officials emerged the victor.
photos courtesy Cynthia Traun
View what’s left of the Proctor, MN roundhouse on Google Maps
The demolition cost $471,000 and was started in September of 2013. By December the job had been completed.
( As of March 2015 Google Maps still shows several of the structures standing – including the machine shop and roundhouse – in a picture taken before they were razed. )
We are fortunate that Dan and Cynthia Traun were able to capture the remains of the Duluth, Missabe, and Iron Range Railway buildings in Two Harbors before they were demolished.
Did You Know?
• Most of the world’s current iron ore formed during the middle Precambrian period, when erosion leveled mountains and released iron into the waters below.
• The Mesabi Range in northeast Minnesota is the chief deposit of iron ore in the United States.
• Before Two Harbors was incorporated, a settlement known as Agate Bay occupied the space. Whisky Row was the name of Agate’s notorious district, reported to have 22 saloons and brothels with zero churches. The area was leveled and converted to coal storage in the late 1880s. Over the last ten years archaeologists have been excavating what they believe might be artifacts from Whisky Row.
• The former Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company (better known as 3M today) was founded in Two Harbors, Minnesota in 1902. They believed the land they purchased was high in corundum, the second-hardest mineral on earth. However it was low-grade and unsuitable for their intended use. The mining venture ultimately failed (although it helped lead to 3M’s sandpaper), and in 1906 the company relocated to Duluth.
• The remains of a shipwreck near Two Harbors can still be seen on Google maps – albeit barely. During an 1896 gale, the schooner Samuel P. Ely sunk after running aground. Sport divers “rediscovered” the shipwreck in the 1950s, and before long the site was vandalized. The wreck was finally added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992, and since 1994 divers have been stabilizing the ship to preserve it in a state of arrested decay. (map)
Ore Dock No. 1 was once the world’s largest loading dock, and at one time held an unofficial record as being one of the fastest loading as well.
• Greyhound Bus Lines was originally founded in 1914 in Hibbing, Minnesota, to transport miners to and from their work along the Iron Range.
• During the heat of World War I the state’s Public Safety Commission issued a “Fight or Work” edict. The 1918 law stated “Every male person in Minnesota shall be regularly engaged in some useful occupation.”
• The DM&N Railway was one of the defendants in a suit against the railways over their responsibility in the 1918 Cloquet Fire, the worst natural disaster in Minnesota history.
• The DM&IR was one of the last railway lines to give up steam in the United States.
• From 1919-1921 mining companies paid $16 million to move the entire town of Hibbing, Minnesota two miles to the south because it was sitting on veins rich in ore (pictured above right). The relocating continued into the 1970s as the mining operations continued to expand south (map).
• The D&IR Railroad Depot Museum faces the harbor and is located in the former headquarters of the Duluth & Iron Range Railroad company. The two-story, 110’ x 44’ brick building was erected in 1907 and served freight and passenger needs until 1961. Today it is on the National Register of Historic Places. The museum is open from May through October; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., general admission is $5.
• The Eveleth Taconite Company has a darker, more well-known claim to fame as being the defendant in the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit filed in the United States (Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co., 1988).
• Two Harbors and the DM&IR influenced the creation of Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs). In the 1940s the town’s hospital saw both resident doctors retire; when young doctors could not be located to take over, the residents of Two Harbors banded together to purchase the hospital and renamed it the Community Health Center (CHC).
The CHC operated like a cooperative; by 1951 it had a staff of four, including a surgeon and internal medicine specialist. The health center had 3,800 members each paying annual dues of $1. Beyond that, a single member paid $3.25 a month, a family of two $5.75. A family of three or more paid $6.75. The co-op would later build a new hospital in Duluth (today St. Luke’s). In the 1980s the CHC moved to Duluth and changed its name to FirstPlan. The 2008 financial crisis forced FirstPlan to eventually shut down when costs exceeded revenues ($108M vs. $103M).
• Read more about the DMIR Yellowstones here.
• The Duluth & Iron Range Railroad Company Passenger Station on 404 Pine Street in Tower, Minnesota (street view) was built in 1915. Today, it is on the National Register of Historic Places. When train service stopped in 1962, the station was later donated to the city of Tower.
• This website has a robust Duluth, Missabe, & Iron Range engine identification gallery.
• What is the steepest railway in the world? That would be the Pilatus Mountain Railway in Obwalden, Switzerland (pictured at right).
The Pilatus opened as a steam-traction line in 1889 and was later converted to electric propulsion in 1937. It reaches a maximum incline of 48%, but perhaps more amazing: It was built with private capital and has remained financially viable its entire operational life.
original photos courtesy Minnesota Historical Society
For additional reading on the DM&IR, consider reading the book Missabe Road: The Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Railway by Frank A. King.