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A History of Minneapolis: an Overview by Staff at the Hennepin County Library

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Featuring historical photos and items from the collections of the Hennepin County Library, with contemporary photos from the Phototour of Minneapolis by Chris Gregerson.


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In 1862, the St. Paul and Pacific Railway laid tracks between St. Paul and St. Anthony, bringing the village's first railroad. This railroad, which would become the Great Northern, crossed the river into Minneapolis at Nicollet Island in 1866. The first all-rail line connecting Minneapolis and Chicago opened in 1867.

G.A. Bracket and Pierre Bottineau in 1869 with the exploration party charting the course of the new Northern Pacific Railroad. The group started from Minneapolis. This photograph was taken on their second day out.
Minneapolis Collection, BR3199.

Stone Arch Railway Bridge over the Mississippi.
Municipal Information Library, Slide Collection, MIL3698.

As railway track increased, railroads supplanted the earlier settlement patterns along the rivers. The population grew in communities that were serviced by the railroads. Minneapolis grew in population, prosperity, and in size, prompting the demand for rail connections for passengers as well as freight. A man by the name of James J. Hill became manager of the St. Paul, Minneapolis, & Manitoba Railway (principal forerunner of the Great Northern). The Stone Arch Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River just below the St. Anthony Falls, was built by Hill and completed in 1883. That same year, a jubilee was held in Minneapolis celebrating the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad all the way to the West Coast. By 1889, there were twenty independent railway lines branching out from Minneapolis, reaching all regions of the country. Minneapolis was also connected to the Canadian Pacific Railroad at Sault Ste. Marie by the Soo Line, completed in 1887. In 1889, the Milwaukee Road built a new passenger station at Third Street and Washington Avenue. In 1891 an average of 1,080 railcars per day entered Minneapolis, carrying everything from wheat to corn to wood to bricks to household goods.

The Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad Station at 3rd Street and Washington Avenue in 1901. This is the present day Milwaukee Depot, minus the elaborate 40 foot-high decorative cupola. (The depot has recently been renovated to become a hotel, indoor waterpark, and ice skating complex.)
Minneapolis Collection, BR0190.

The Great Northern Railroad Station (1922) at Hennepin Avenue and the Mississippi River.
Minneapolis Collection, Uncat Photo Depot: Great Northern

The railway service was extremely important during its heyday to the health and economy of the city and its residents. By 1900, 75% of the nation's freight went by rail. Rail service continued to grow until after WWI. By 1925 passenger service was down 50% in Minnesota. The financial crisis in the 1930s delivered a crippling blow to the rail companies. During WWII, freight and troops were moved over the nation's rails. After the war people returned to their cars.

Two women waiting for a train at the Great Northern Depot (circa 1945).
Minneapolis Collection, Uncat Photo Depot: Great Northern

Rail service is still the principal mode of transporting freight but passenger service is just a fraction of the total rail service. A reflection on the times, the Milwaukee Road Depot ceased being used as a passenger station in 1971. Today the Milwaukee Road Depot is the city's only reminder of its once bustling train stations. (The Great Northern Station was built in 1914 and razed in 1978.) Empty for many years, the Milwaukee Road Depot and train shed have been transformed into a hotel, restaurant and ice rink complex.

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Next: Intercity Transit and Highways