Steve Glischinski’s remarkable book “Minnesota Railroads: A Photographic History, 1940-2012” includes a photo taken of the St. Paul Union Depot on April 30, 1971. That was the last day of passenger train service from that magnificent building until May 7, 2014.
Glichinski’s book was published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2012, so it failed to capture the return of rail passenger service to Minnesota’s capitol city.
But what the hundreds of photos, along with the well-written and fact-filled captions do tell is the story of railroad’s grand mid-century days, late century decline, and 21st century renaissance. For anybody with the least interest in railroads and Minnesota’s history, the large format book is a page-turner.
Throughout the last 70 years or so there has been a group of slightly fanatical photographers who fanned out across Minnesota to capture railroad history on film and, more recently, digital images. Glischinski took some of those shots himself and he invested an awful lot of shoe leather in locating hundreds more.
Take, for example, the April 17, 1971, photo of a small group of people waiting at Burlington Northern’s tiny one room clapboard station at Crookston. They are waiting for Burlington Northern’s Train 47 to take them to Winnipeg.
Baron Behning took the photo just 13 days before the company discontinued passenger service on that line. The photo’s bleakness nicely captures the theme of decline and deterioration of railroads during that time that Glischinski documents in that section of his book.
Glischinski’s photo collection also records the hay days of Minnesota railroading during the 1940s and 1950s. That was the era when steam was giving way to diesel and even a few gas-electric trains. A 1947 photo, by Ronald V. Nixon, records the panorama of the Mississippi River Valley from the top of Barn Bluff as a steam-powered mail and express train heads toward Red Wing. Glischinski tells the reader about that train:
“The steam locomotive is a streamlined 4-6-4-F7-class Hudson. Designer Otto Kuhler styled the shrouding with orange and gray paint and silver wings. Six Hudsons were built by American Locomotive in 1938 for heavy high-speed passenger service. They once pulled glamour trains such as the Hiawathas, but by 1947 diesels had taken over many runs and the beautiful engines wound up on secondary trains such as this.”
Each of the four photographic sections of Minnesota Railroads begins with a few pages of text that analyzes that period of railroad history. “The Revival and Revitalization, 1980-2000” text concludes with the following regarding that period’s final years:
“There were fewer miles of track, but those that remained were well maintained and carried more traffic. The large railroads of 1980 Burlington Northern, Chicago & Northwestern, Milwaukee Road, and Soo Line had morphed into BNSF Railway, Canadian Pacific, and Union Pacific. Lines that once might have been abandoned were operated by short line and regional railroads. Railroads, once spurned by investors as a declining industry, had become an attractive investment.”
Most Americans are familiar with the big railroad names, but Glischinski’s Revival and Revitalization section is full of photos of trains and names of companies that were created during those years. There are the Otter Tail Valley Railroad and the short line conglomerate RailAmerica. There are the Minnesota Commercial Railway, Twin Cities and Western, St. Croix Valley Railroad and others. These are the companies, along with the big familiar companies, that are moving freight, or not moving it, in the 21st century. There were 19 railroads operating in Minnesota in 2012, according to Glischinski. The longest was BNSF with 1,598 miles of track and the shortest was the Red River Valley & Western Railroad that operated on two miles of track.
Glischinski’s photo collection presents a remarkable history of Minnesota railroading. Sometimes they are more than that. Many hint at or show a broader American history such as the 1949 photo of pistol toting mail workers sorting mail in a railway post office or Byron D. Olsen’s June 1961 photo of a train on Minneapolis’ Stone Arch Bridge which also shows the St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam No. 1 under construction. Some photos, like William D. Middleton’s 1959 shot of the steward in the North Coast Limited dining car, are art and history combined.
“Minnesota Railroads: A Photographic History, 1940-2012” is an entertaining and educational look into the state’s past and a thoughtful analysis of what the future may hold. It can be obtained directly from the University of Minnesota Press or from bookstores.