Willard Munger State Trail (Hinckley-Duluth) History


At a Glance

Name: Willard Munger State Trail (Hinckley-Duluth)
Length: 70 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Wheelchair Accessible, Mountain Biking, Snowmobiling, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Carlton, Pine
Surfaces: Asphalt
State: Minnesota

A Brief History

Today’s Willard Munger State Trail runs along a section of what was once the Northern Pacific Railway’s (NP) main line linking the Twin Cities with Duluth and following the St. Louis River much of the way. The history of the route dates back to the days of the Civil War built by another railroad and later acquired by the NP at the turn of the century. On March 2, 1970, Burlington Northern was created through the merger of four primary railroads: the NP; Great Northern; Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; and Spokane, Portland & Seattle. Because the NP and GN paralleled one another in several locations, the new mega railroad had superfluous trackage, including between Duluth and the Twin Cities. This led to BN abandoning the former NP grade during the 1970s, which then led to the creation of the Willard Munger State Trail.

The Northern Pacific Railway is noteworthy not only because it grew into one of the largest systems in the country, but also because the company was the first to establish transcontinental rail service between the Midwest and Puget Sound. The NP was created on July 2, 1864, by President Abraham Lincoln, who signed an act of Congress to create the Northern Pacific Railroad. However, lack of suitable financial support saw the project languish for a few years before it was acquired by Jay Cooke, a wealthy banker and investor. By 1873, the NP was opened from Duluth to Bismarck, Dakota Territory, as well as a stretch of unconnected trackage in the west from Kalama to Tacoma, Washington Territory. A decade earlier in 1863 what became its primarily link between the Twin Cities and Duluth was formed. Known as the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad, it was completed to Thompson (about 30 miles west of Duluth) along the NP’s main line by 1870, officially completed on August 1.

The LS&M and NP both fell into bankruptcy during the financial Panic of 1873. Each would eventually be reorganized, the former as the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad in 1877 and the latter as the Northern Pacific Railway in 1878. Through strong financial backing of East Coast businessmen, the NP was able to complete its transcontinental system to Portland, Oregon, by the summer of 1883. In the coming years, the NP reached Seattle, Tacoma, and several other points throughout the west.

Also known as the “Skally Line,” the St. Paul & Duluth (StP&D) grew slightly after 1880. During 1888, an updated route known as the Duluth Short Line Railway (leased to the StP&D after September 1, 1886) was opened between West Duluth and Carlton, Minnesota, and eliminated some steep grades and high, wooden trestles. This section is now part of the Willard Munger State Trail. (The original route was finally abandoned during the 1930s.) By the end of the 19th century, the StP&D had also acquired or built branches to Taylors Falls and Cloquet as well as to Grantsburg and Stillwater, Wisconsin. In 1900, the Northern Pacific formally acquired the StP&D, where it eventually became the 3rd Subdivision of the Lake Superior Division. In 1967, this was changed to the 3rd Subdivision of the St. Paul Division).

During its early years, the line moved a variety of freight, from forest products and agriculture to through-movements, less-than-carload, and various types of general merchandise. For many years the NP offered connecting passenger trains (#65 southbound and #66 northbound) from Duluth to the Twin Cities, where patrons could catch the road’s two popular transcontinental runs: the “North Coast Limited” and “Mainstreeter.” Also known as the “Twin Ports-Twin City Express,” the service was a standard, coach-only affair and required between four to six hours to complete the trip between the two cities. By the 1960s, the NP was scaling back all of its passenger services, which left only the Mainstreeter and North Coast Limited by the time Burlington Northern was created in 1970. Both trains would survive until the creation of Amtrak in the spring of 1971. As BN began streamlining operations, it saw the 142-mile Duluth–Twin Cities line, which was then referred to as the 2nd Subdivision of the Lake Division, as redundant and began abandoning the route during the mid-1970s.

Railroad attractions near the trail include the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad, Lake Superior Railroad Museum, and North Shore Scenic Railroad all located in Duluth. You can also check out the Duluth & Iron Range Depot Museum in Two Harbors (inside the restored DM&IR depot). The Jackson Street Roundhouse, Minnesota Streetcar Museum, Minnehaha Depot, and Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 #261 (a large, restored steam locomotive that regularly hosts excursions throughout the Midwest) are all located in the Twin Cities.

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