Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway

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Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway
MSTL Map.png
Reporting mark MSTL
Locale Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota
Dates of operation 1870–1960
Successor Chicago and North Western
Track gauge 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Headquarters Minneapolis, Minnesota

The Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway (M&StL) (reporting mark MSTL) was an American Class I railroad that built and operated lines radiating south and west from Minneapolis, Minnesota which existed for 90 years from 1870 to 1960.

The railway's most important route was between Minneapolis and Peoria, Illinois; a second major route extended from Minneapolis into eastern South Dakota, and other trackage served various areas in north-central Iowa and south-central Minnesota. The M&StL was founded in 1870, and expanded through line construction and acquisition until the early 20th Century. Most of the railway's routes saw only relatively light traffic, and consequently the company's financial position was frequently precarious; the railroad operated under bankruptcy protection between 1923 and 1943. The M&StL was acquired by the Chicago and North Western Railway in 1960, and much of its former trackage was later abandoned.

In 1956 it reported 1550 million net ton-miles of revenue freight and 2 million passenger-miles on 1397 route-miles and 1748 track-miles operated; those totals don't include the 117-mile Minnesota Western.


The Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway was created on May 26, 1870 by a group of Minnesota investors interested in establishing a railroad connection between Minneapolis and the agricultural regions to the south. Ultimately the railroad's primary line was extended south from the Twin Cities into Iowa and then east to Peoria, Illinois. It ran through Mason City, Iowa, which became an important traffic center for the railroad. One of the major attractions of the railroad was that it allowed freight bound for Illinois to by-pass Chicago.

The Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway had spurs into various parts of Iowa and a line into South Dakota. During the 1880s the M&StL went into its first receivership leaving the Rock Island interests in control of the M&StL. The Rock Island turned over the operation of the western district of the Wisconsin, Minnesota & Pacific (another Rock Island road) to the M&StL by 1889 which ran from Morton, MN to Watertown, SD (the eastern district of the WM&P ran from Mankato, MN to Red Wing, MN and later became part of the Chicago Great Western - the two districts of the WM&P were never connected). After receivership ended in the mid-1890s the M&StL purchased the western district of the WM&P in 1899 from the Rock Island and built an extension from Morton, MN eastward toward Minneapolis connecting the western mainline with its southern mainline at Hopkins, MN thereby connecting the two mainlines and creating a continuous railroad system.

Its sister railroad, the Iowa Central Railway began in Iowa in 1866 and merged with Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway in 1901. By 1916 the combined system had become stable and was absorbing other, smaller railroads.

20th century[edit]

The railroads sold land to prospective farmers at very low rates, expecting to make their profits by shipping farm products out and home goods in. They also set up small towns that would serve as shipping points and commercial centers, and attract businessmen and more farmers. The M&StL in 1905, under the innovative leadership of its vice president and general manager L. F. Day, added lines from Watertown to Le Beau and from Conde through Aberdeen to Leola. It developed town sites along the new lines and by 1910, the new lines served 35 small communities.[1]

Not all the new towns survived. The M&StL situated LeBeau along the Missouri River on the eastern edge of the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. The new town a hub for the cattle and grain industries. Livestock valued at one million dollars were shipped out in 1908, and the rail company planned a bridge across the Missouri River. Allotment of the Cheyenne River Reservation in 1909 promised further growth. By the early 1920s, however, troubles multiplied, with the murder of a local rancher, a fire that destroyed the business district, and drought that ruined ranchers and farmers alike. LeBeau became a ghost town.[2]

Locomotive D-538 is preserved at the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

By the early 1920s the railroad was having financial problems and in 1923 again went into receivership. Despite calls for the railroad to be sold to a larger operation, Lucian Sprague took over in 1935. He streamlined the company and its assets by selling off scrap and increasing efficiency. By 1942 Sprague was chairman/president and orchestrated a reorganization that year. The effort was a success and in 1943 the receivership was terminated and ownership was returned to the railroad. Sprague remained president of the M&StL until 1954 when he was ousted in a dramatic shareholders battle orchestrated by Benjamin W. Heineman.

Heineman became president of the Chicago and North Western Railway (C&NW) two years later in 1956. In one of his last acts with the M&StL, Heineman orchestrated the purchase of the Minnesota Western Railroad for the M&StL, which was the successor line to the famous Luce Line Railroad in central Minnesota. Four years after leaving the M&StL for the C&NW he arranged for the C&NW to acquire the Minneapolis & St. Louis in November 1960, and the smaller railroad was soon integrated into the C&NW system. Where possible, long-haul traffic was transferred to former C&NW routes, and large sections of the former M&StL were abandoned in the 1960s and 1970s.

Today only a few short segments of the old M&StL remain in use. In Minnesota, The Minnesota Valley Regional Railroad Authority owns the former M&StL line from Norwood/Young America to Hanley Falls and is currently operated by Twin Cities & Western affiliate Minnesota Prairie Line. The line from Hanley Falls to Madison is owned by the BNSF Railroad. The Montgomery Spur which runs from Merriam Junction just south of Shakopee to Montgomery is operated by the Union Pacific. The Chaska Industrial Lead from Merriam Junction to downtown Chaska has been abandoned by UP following a trestle collapse along the Minnesota River in the spring of 2007 due to high water. UP later sold the Chaska Industrial Lead corridor to a coalition of area government entities to preserve it for future transportation use, sewer lines, and recreational trails. In Iowa, UP operates the line from Mallard to Grand Junction, from Northwood through Mason City to Rockwell, and from Ackley through Marshalltown and Grinnell to Oskaloosa. Canadian National operates a short spur between from Ackley to Geneva. Most of the M&StL Mississippi River bridge still stands between Keithsburg, IL and Oakville, IA.

Passenger service[edit]

While the primary business of the M&StL was the haulage of freight, the railroad also operated a limited number of passenger train services. Since the railroad's route structure was not based on direct lines between major American cities, long-distance passenger service was generally not competitive with the trains of larger railroads. The premiere M&StL passenger train was the North Star Limited, which operated from Minneapolis to Albia, Iowa on the M&StL, and then continued to St. Louis via the Wabash Railroad. The North Star Limited was discontinued in 1935.

In 1929, the M&StL began acquiring a number of gas-electric railcars -- self-propelled vehicles that included compartments for baggage/express and mail. Some of the gas-electrics also included passenger compartments, and all were able to tow additional passenger and express cars as necessary. Soon, the railcars provided nearly all of the railroad's meager passenger service. The railroad also purchased two Budd RDC's in 1957 for Minneapolis - Des Moines service, but the cars proved unsuccessful and they were sold the following year.

M&StL passenger service declined throughout the 1950s, the result of significant drops in mail, express, and passenger revenue. The last M&StL passenger services—trains 13 and 14 between Minneapolis and Watertown, South Dakota -- made their final departures on July 20, 1960.

Ex-Minneapolis and Saint Paul 244 at Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad


  1. ^ Don L. Hofsommer, "Boosterism and Townsite Development Along the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad in South Dakota," Journal of the West (2003) 42#4 pp 8-16.
  2. ^ Don L. Hofsommer, "A Promise Broken: LeBeau and the Railroad," South Dakota History (2003) 33#1 pp 1-17.
  • Hofsommer, Don L. The Tootin' Louie: A History of the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8166-4366-0.

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