The Mesabi Trail has grown into one of the country’s largest, single rail trails, covering more than 100 miles in northern Minnesota. The corridor winds its way between Grand Rapids and Aurora while passing through the state’s beautiful backcountry of bogs, lakes, and forests. Various points of the trail use former stretches of rail bed once operated by the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Railway (DM&IR or “Missabe Road”). This system was relatively small compared with other railroads, but it was the largest transporter of ore and taconite and the United States. Over the years, particularly after World War II, the DM&IR began cutting back its system, abandoning branches and secondary lines that were no longer profitable, including parts of its network within the Mesabi Range and creating the trail known today.

The history of railroads building northwest of Duluth began when rich deposits of iron ore were discovered during the late 1860s near Vermillion Lake. Prospectors were attempting to find gold but instead stumbled upon iron pyrite and what turned out to be the vast Vermillion Iron Range. In 1874, the Duluth & Iron Range Rail Road was chartered to build from Duluth to Babbitt, Minnesota, near Birch Lake. The system languished, however, until it was acquired by two businessmen from Philadelphia, Charlemagne Tower and George Stone in 1881. With their influence and ability to secure funding, the D&IR soon began construction and was completed within three years—between Agate Bay (present-day Two Harbors) and Soudan near Lake Vermillion.

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Rail service began on July 31, 1884, and ore movements quickly increased when mining operations ramped up throughout the area. There was, however, another railroad that would become part of the classic DM&IR: Known as the Duluth, Missabe & Northern Railway (DM&N), it was established on June 23, 1891, to serve the Mesabi Range. Here, another vast deposit of iron, a bit farther west, was discovered by Lewis Merritt in November 1890. Merritt could raise no interest among the D&IR or other nearby roads to build into the region, forcing him to charter his own line. The DM&N was able to complete a route from Mountain Iron (west of Virginia) to Stony Brook Junction, where an interchange was made with the Duluth & Winnipeg (which later became part of the Great Northern Railway).

After also opening short branches to Biwabik and Virginia, the DM&N moved its first loads of iron in October 1892. It wasn’t long before Merritt came to dislike the connection at Stony Brook Junction because it required a roundabout connection back to Lake Superior. So in 1893, a direct extension was built to Proctor and Duluth, opening on July 22 that year. Unfortunately, the financial Panic of 1893 caused the DM&N to fall into bankruptcy, and by 1901, the United States Steel Corporation acquired it. USS also came to own the D&IR by 1902 after it acquired Federal Steel (then-owner of that railroad). After both systems came under the control of USS, expansions continued in the way of additions of many branches across both iron ranges and also through improving operations around Duluth–Superior and Two Harbors.

The creation of the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Railway officially occurred on March 22, 1938, when the DM&N, D&IR, and two other smaller properties merged. The Missabe Road became a rail fan favorite for its unique operation in hauling almost nothing but iron ore and later (1960s) taconite, a low-grade rock that contained iron and eventually became the company’s main source of freight. The line used a fleet of massive steam locomotives to move the heavy mineral, including 2-8-8-2 “Chesapeakes,” 2-8-8-4 “Yellowstones,” the 2-10-4 “Texas,” and 2-10-2 “Santa Fes.” The era of diesels arrived on the DM&IR with the purchase of Electro-Motive SD9s in 1955, although the railroad had been testing them as early as 1954 (F7s from the Bessemer & Lake Erie).

Eventually, the Missabe went on to roster a large fleet of six-axle diesels, including RSD15s (from the American Locomotive Company), a total of 74 SD9s, along with SD18s, SD38ACs, and SD38-2s. Not surprisingly, passenger operations on the DM&IR were not significant and began to decline after 1920 (its peak year). Up until that time, the railroad offered two daily runs between Duluth and the northern end of the system at Ely. Over the years, these were slowly cut back until the remaining service provided by a Budd Company Rail Diesel Car (RDC) was discontinued after July 15, 1961.

At its largest, the Missabe operated a system upward of 600 miles long, but its network was scaled down starting in the 1960s when iron ore mines began to close, a process that continued into the 1970s. It was during this time that the branches making up the Mesabi Trail were abandoned. By 2001, the DM&IR was operating just 212 miles of its original network, then owned by Great Lakes Transportation, LLC, a subsidiary of the Blackstone Group. Today, the remaining routes of the fabled Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range are owned by giant Class I carrier Canadian National, which completed purchase of the railroad from Blackstone on May 10, 2004.

Railroad attractions near the trail include the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad, Lake Superior Railroad Museum, and North Shore Scenic Railroad, all located a few hours away in Duluth. You can also check out the Duluth & Iron Range Depot Museum in Two Harbors (inside the restored DM&IR depot).