A Timeline of Northfield’s Railroads

John W. North and daughter Emma
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. The railroad and Northfield’s depots would play a crucial role in the development of the city. Farmers and millers (including Jesse Ames & Sons) relied on trains to transport wheat, flour, and dairy products to market. Both Carleton College (founded in 1866) and St. Olaf College (founded in 1874) depended on passenger rail service; for generations of students who arrived by train, the Northfield depot became a gateway to the future.

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.” Passenger service to St. Paul began on October 18, and the tracks are extended to Faribault.

“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

Northfield’s 1st Milwaukee depot was a small shed built south of 3rd Street West when passenger service began to St. Paul. It is estimated to have been roughly 16 feet by 16 feet and was moved in 1870. Used with permission of the Northfield Historical Society.

1868. The second 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.

Early Northfield depot and grain elevator, ca. 1868. Used with permission of the Northfield Historical Society

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.

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

1888. In April, fire destroys the CM&StP’s Milwaukee Road 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. 

The original interior layout of the new Milwaukee Road depot provided separate waiting rooms for men and women. Used with permission of the Northfield Historical Society.

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

New Milwaukee Road depot, ca. 1889. Used with permission of the St. Olaf College Archives
The Milwaukee Road depot, 1896. Used with permission of the Carleton College Archives.

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

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

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).

1900. Indoor restrooms were added to the 1888 Milwaukee Road depot. The 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’s Milwaukee Road depot in the lower left-hand quadrant (near the 17). 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; its original depot can be seen on the upper right. Ames Mill is in the lower right-hand corner.

Sanborn Insurance Map, 1900
Sanborn Insurance Map, 1900
William Howard Taft campaigning in Northfield
William Howard Taft campaigning in Northfield, 1908. Used with permission of St. Olaf College Archives

1908. Presidential candidate William Howard Taft makes a campaign stop at the Milwaukee Road 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.

Mildred Ware, wrapped in stars and stripes and riding a massive elephant, at the depot to greet presidential candidate William Howard Taft.

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 depot
Teddy Roosevelt campaigning at the depot, 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 at the Milwaukee Road depot. 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).

1916. A crowd waited at the depot to welcome back the Carleton football team in fall 1916, mostly likely after defeating Hamline–their traditional football rivalry at this time. The Carleton team went on to win the state championship with an undefeated season.

Crowd waiting for the Carleton football team. Used with permission from the Carleton College Archives.
Gas-electric Minneapolis, Northfield & Southern car
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.

Any thought of Northfield during this seventy-fifth anniversary year must carry with it an appreciation of the railroads, which have literally put the city on the map.
Northfield News, May 2, 1930

1940. The St. Olaf Choir arrives at the Milwaukee Road depot after their tour of the western United States.

1945. The Milwaukee Road depot is remodeled, resulting in the dividing wall between the men’s and women’s waiting rooms being removed.

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.The Northfield depot remained the city’s primary link to “the great world outside.”

1946. The railroad limits laundry “bags” to five pounds. These metal boxes were issued to students of St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges for laundry. Students would pack the boxes with dirty laundry and carry them to the depot to be placed on trains to carry them home. Mothers would then wash, iron, and fold the clean clothes and send the boxes back to the depot where students would retrieve them and have clean clothes to wear until the process was repeated. (The boxes were also used as sleds by students wanting a quick trip down the hill from the colleges into the town.)

Source: St. Cloud Register, Dec. 9, 1946

1950. The Northfield depots remain the city’s primary link to “the great world outside.”

Ike and Mamie at the Northfield depot
Ike and Mamie at the Northfield depot, 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 Milwaukee Road 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 Road depot for Local Heritage Preservation Site designation. The City Council accepts.

1981. The 1889 Milwaukee Road 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
Progressive Rail’s No. 40, General Motors-EMD, Model SD-39, 2500 hp at rest in the Northfield yard, 2010. Used with permission of D. Sudermann

2010Save 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) runs one mixed-freight in each direction overnight. The Union Pacific (UP) 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 (now Post) remains the sole active rail shipper in Northfield.

2016Save the Northfield Depot successfully moved the Milwaukee Road depot across the street to its new home on the Q-block.

2017. In October, the depot was temporarily transported back in time and to another state (Alabama) when a film crew for the movie “Tuscaloosa” dressed and filmed the exterior of the depot as the sheriff’s office. The company donated $1,000 for the use of the depot.

2018. In May, St. Olaf College and Carleton College joined forces with award-winning site artist and director Stephan Koplowitz to produce The Northfield Experience―a site-specific, immersive performance event that uses the town of Northfield as its canvas and inspiration. The 1888 Northfield depot was one of seven sites where performances were held.

2019. On July 17, Union Pacific’s recently restored “Big Boy” 4014 steam locomotive stopped at the depot as part of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railway. The locomotive was built in 1944 and is the largest of its kind in the world. Hundreds of people turned out to greet Big Boy.

Big Boy 4014 steaming into Northfield on July 17, 2019.