Today’s Heartland State Trail was originally a branch of the Great Northern Railway (GN), running between its main lines at Cass Lake and Sauk Centre. The corridor was constructed in stages during the 1880s and 1890s by predecessors, later formally acquired by the GN during its massive expansion in the east at that time. It became known as the “K Line” under GN, handling predominantly agriculture and lumber traffic through only a few towns of any notable size along the route. Despite its secondary status, it remained in use through the Burlington Northern merger of 1970 but was abandoned shortly thereafter when the new carrier cited declining freight volume as the reason for pulling up the tracks.

The Great Northern Railway was the vision of James J. Hill, a successful businessman born in 1838 who had amassed a tidy fortune in the steamship industry until 1878, when he and his associates entered the railroad industry by acquiring the moribund St. Paul & Pacific. Also known as the “Empire Builder,” in 1879, Hill formed the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway to acquire the assets of the StP&P. It was not long before Hill was pushing his new railroad westward in an attempt to establish a transcontinental route to the Pacific Northwest. This feat was first achieved by the Northern Pacific Railway during the 1880s, but within the decade, Hill’s efforts witnessed his road well on its way to achieving that goal as well. In 1889, Hill created the Great Northern Railway, eventual successor to all of his predecessor and subsidiary systems. In 1893, service was finally opened to Seattle.

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As Hill focused on completing the transcontinental route, rails were also being laid across Minnesota in an attempt to establish a healthy volume of freight for the railroad. One project in particular was the line now part of today’s trail. It was constructed as three separate railroads; however, as authors Ralph Hidy, Muriel Hidy, Roy Scott, and Don Hoffsummer note in their book “The Great Northern Railway: A History,” all were largely funded through Hill’s StPM&M. The first was the Sauk Centre & Northern Railway, incorporated in 1881. Running north from the StPM&M at Sauk Centre, it reached Eagle Bend in 1883 and was acquired by the StPM&M that year. The second was the Wadena & Park Rapids Railway, incorporated in June 1883. It was planned to run from the end-of-track at Eagle Bend as well as connect its namesake towns, a project finished on July 29, 1891. In September, it was conveyed to the new Great Northern Railway. The final component was the Park Rapids & Leach Lake Railway, organized on October 5, 1897, and planned to connect Park Rapids with the GN main line at Cass Lake. The line opened on May 1, 1899, and was immediately leased by the Great Northern.

James J. Hill passed away in 1916 at the age of 77 but lived long enough to see his railroad largely completed and stretching from the Twin Cities to Seattle, passing through North Dakota, Montana, and Idaho. Its greatest concentration of lines was situated in Minnesota and North Dakota, while it also reached Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Bieber, California, stretching more than 8,000 miles. The railroad moved a wide diversity of freight, from iron ore bound for the Lake Superior docks at Duluth to agricultural products grown throughout the Upper Midwest. It also handled all types of merchandise moving to and from the Puget Sound region. The GN became well-known in the public sphere thanks to a train it originally launched in June 1929 called the “Empire Builder,” a nod to the company’s founder. The train was actually renamed from what had been the GN’s top transcontinental service since late 1905 known as the “Oriental Limited.”

The Builder gained further acclaim after the railroad re-launched it as dazzling streamliner in early 1947. The train’s exterior featured a gorgeous livery of bright Orange (referred to as “Omaha Orange”) and dark green (dubbed “Pullman Green” after the famous passenger car manufacturer that had long used the color). The interior included all of the accommodations one could expect during that era, such as lounge-observations, sleepers, and diners. In the 1950s, domes were also added. These cars provided spectacular views of the Cascades, Rocky Mountains, and other areas of the West. The train ran between Seattle and Chicago, but to reach the Windy City, required running on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy east of the Twin Cities. Additionally, a section ran between Spokane and Portland over the Spokane, Portland & Seattle. Both of these railroads were allied with the Great Northern as was the Northern Pacific. All had come under common ownership under Hill’s tenure. He had long wanted to merge the four into one giant conglomerate but was blocked from doing so by the federal government.

Additional attempts were carried out over the years but these too were denied. Finally, the Supreme Court and Interstate Commerce Commission approved the merger in early 1970, and the Burlington Northern Railroad was formed on March 3 that same year. Over the years, the Sauk Centre–Cass Lake corridor had carried on under the Great Northern and survived into the early Burlington Northern years, moving primarily lumber products from the rich tracts of white and red pine in the region. Following the merger, however, its future was short-lived. With little freight remaining on the line, the BN abandoned it in 1972; Today’s trail was formed a few years later.

Railroad attractions in Minnesota include the Duluth & Iron Depot Museum in Two Harbors; End-O-Line Railroad Park & Museum in Currie; Jackson Street Roundhouse in St. Paul; Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad, North Shore Scenic Railroad, and Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth; Minnehaha Depot, Minnesota Discovery Center (offering a trolley ride), and Minnesota Streetcar Museum in Minneapolis; and the Depot Visitors Center & Railroad Museum in Wadena.