Appropriately named, the Paul Bunyan State Trail was originally built as a logging railroad during the late 1800s and later was a branch of the Northern Pacific Railway, which acquired the property in the early 20th century. Throughout most of the line’s railroad days, it moved large amounts of forest products; during its early years it hauled passengers to the many resorts located along the numerous lakes throughout the region. Passenger trains stopped running by the 1960s, and with little freight remaining by the 1980s, then owner Burlington Northern abandoned the route before the decade ended.

The area north of Brainerd was rich with tracts of timber, notably white pine, which logging companies began to exploit by the late 19th century. During 1880, the first such operation was established by lumberman Charles Phillsbury, who started the Gull River Lumber Company and acquired significant tracts of timber between Gull Lake and the Gull River. Roughly 10 miles west of Brainerd, where the Northern Pacific crossed the Gull River, the company constructed a sawmill. Beginning in 1889, it operated a small, unincorporated narrow-gauge system (3 feet between the rails) known as the Minnesota Logging Railroad, incorporated as the Gull River & Northern Railway (GR&N) later that year. The GR&N was chartered to run from Gull Lake to the Minnesota–Canadian border and by early 1890 had about 12 miles of line in service.

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During 1892, the newly formed Northern Mill Company leased the Gull River Lumber Company’s operations, moved the primary mill to Brainerd, and renamed the railroad the Brainerd & Northern Minnesota Railway (B&NM) on May 16. One of the new company’s first endeavors was to see the system convert to standard gauge for easier interchange with other railroads (such as the Northern Pacific); the task was completed by early 1893. Additionally, the B&NM opened a line into East Brainerd and also began pushing northward, skirting the lakes and tapping the rich tracts of pine along the way. By 1896, the B&NM had 60 miles of main line from Brainerd to Walker; with temporary spurs and branches, it added another 40 miles. Finally, on December 17, 1898, the railroad completed an additional 31.79 miles to Bemidji. Thanks to trackage rights granted by the Northern Pacific, passengers could board B&NM trains directly from NP’s Brainerd depot.

At this time the B&NM was a profitable system, moving nearly 350,000 tons of freight (of all types) and carrying over 25,000 passengers annually, making it one of the largest and most productive logging railroads in the country. On July 16, 1900, the B&NM was acquired by the newly established Minnesota & International Railway (M&I), which had ties to the Northern Pacific but was not (yet) directly owned by the much larger transcontinental railroad. With NP financial support, from Bemidji the new M&I continued its march north, reaching Grand Falls by 1905. A year later, the Big Fork & International Falls Railway (BF&IF) was chartered on December 29, 1906, and opened the final 34 miles to International Falls in 1907. The BF&I was subsequently leased by the M&I, and by World War I, the Northern Pacific had controlling interest in the entire system from Brainerd to International Falls.

Throughout its history this route (about 200 miles in length) depended on forestry products as its main source of freight. Aside from directly moving logs and finished lumber, the M&I also shipped everything from agriculture, paper, and pulpwood to whatever other general types or less-than-carload freight it could obtain. At International Falls it also interchanged some traffic with the Canadian National. The turn of the 20th century witnessed an unexpected development: the rise in tourism as resorts, cottages, hotels, and other social clubs began springing up along the many lakes in the areas north of Brainerd. It was promoted as the “Lake Park Region,” and tourists used the Minnesota & International route to reach many of these resorts. The line continued to see an influx of tourists until the 1920s, when improved roads and highways encourage many folks to go by automobile in favor of trains.

On October 22, 1941, the Northern Pacific acquired the assets of the Minnesota & International as well as the Big Fork & International Falls and merged each into its network (both formally ceased to exist after October 6, 1942). It had become the 8th Subdivision of the railroad’s Lake Superior Division. As early as the mid-1920s, logging movements began to decline on the M&I, which continued into the 1930s. Steam locomotives were used until the early 1950s, when the last runs occurred during 1954 and were replaced by new Electro-Motive GP9 diesels. By the 1960s, the only remaining passenger service was provided by Budd Company Rail Diesel Cars (RDCs); the last scheduled service left International Falls on the afternoon of July 28, 1966.

In early March 1970, the Northern Pacific; Great Northern; Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; and Spokane, Portland & Seattle merged to form the Burlington Northern. The new conglomerate continued to use the “Mike & Ike” line, as it was also known, for a little more than a decade until the railroad lost interest in the remaining few shippers the route still held. With few trains still using the line, and deferred maintenance on the rise, BN was granted permission from the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon the old M&I during the mid-1980s. On the morning of August 15, 1985, following a few photos ops of the last crew—and a large decorated chocolate chip cookie cake to signify the end of an era—the final train left Bemidji for Brainerd. Leading the train was Burlington Northern GP20 #2035, toting seven loads of forest products, followed by a caboose.

Railroad attractions include the Duluth & Iron Range Depot Museum in Two Harbors (a restored Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range depot); Lake Superior Railroad Museum, Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad, North Shore Scenic Railroad in Duluth; Minnesota Streetcar Museum in Excelsior; and the Depot Visitors Center & Railroad Museum in Wadena.