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Preserving North Dakota's Railroad History Railroads made important impact across state

Posted by Kylie Blanchard, Clearwater Communications 10/31/2016 3:26:56 PM



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Glancing at a map of North Dakota today, it isn’t too difficult to make an educated guess as to where the railroads ran across the state during its early years. At the peak of railroad operation in North Dakota, this mode of transportation was at the heart of almost every community bringing people, supplies and life to the fledgling state.

“Where the towns are is where the railroads went,” says Frank Vyzralek, retired State Historical Society of North Dakota archivist and long-time railroad historian. “Up until the 1960s, if you were a town in North Dakota, you were on the railroad.”

For those communities not on the railroad, it meant a life of difficult travel and inconvenience. “Those not on a railroad were said to be ‘in-land’ towns,” he adds. “To a certain extent, before automobiles became dependable, that is true.”

Vyzralek says the railroad is primarily responsible for settling the Great Plains and establishing the state. “It was the railroad that brought people here,” he notes. “This was the only inexpensive way to move people and freight fast enough.”

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Northern Pacific Railroad Land Grant, the largest of the railroad land grants in American history. This provided public lands for the purposes of building and maintaining an intercontinental railroad running from Lake Superior to the Pacific Ocean. “The idea was they were supposed to sell land and use that to fund the railroad,” says Vyzralek.

In addition to public lands provided for the railroad to lay tracks, 40 million acres were provided to raise the capital needed to build and maintain the railroad as it moved west.

In 1872, the Northern Pacific’s tracks crossed the Red River into where Fargo resides today and by the summer of 1873 the railroad extended to the Missouri River where Bismarck was established. During the 1870s, financial hardship hit the Northern Pacific Railroad and construction of the track all but ceased at the Missouri River until 1879 when it continued west from Bismarck. In 1883, the westward track met up with Northern Pacific construction from the east in Gold Creek, Montana and the final gold spike was driven into the track.

The Great Northern Railway, established in 1889 from several predecessor railroads in Minnesota, began to make its way through North Dakota in the 1890s. The Great Northern track traveled across northern North Dakota, with a mainline that ran over 1,700 miles from Minneapolis to the west coast, reaching Seattle in 1893.

Along these railroads many important communities flourished including Fargo, Valley City, Jamestown, Bismarck and Dickinson on the Northern Pacific; and Grand Forks, Devils Lake, Minot and Williston along the Great Northern Railway. Along the way, smaller agriculture-based communities also began to depend on these lines to transport both their commodities and necessities to and from the larger surrounding communities and states. Communities flourished throughout North Dakota on the success and expansion of the railroads.

Additional branch lines from competing railroads were also constructed in the state in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the 1880s the SooLine was constructed running from the southeast corner of North Dakota and traveling on a northwest diagonal line to the northern border. “This line was in the way of both the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern,” says Vyzralek. “It eventually was taken over by the Canadian Pacific and never got further west.”

The Milwaukee Line, initially running through Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul, began building west in 1905, expanding track through South Dakota and the southwest corner of North Dakota.

The railroad continued to bring settlers and supplies to the state, and the peak of railroad use hit in the 1920s and 1930s. “In the 1930s, it was estimated that one out of every 3 people in the United States was employed in some way by the railroads,” says Vyzralek.

It wasn’t until the automobile became an affordable and dependable form of transportation that the railroad’s use as a passenger service began to quickly taper throughout the state. “By the 1950s and 1960s, the railroads wanted to get out of the passenger business and just haul freight,” Vyzralek notes. 
In 1973, Amtrak became a passenger service in the state and remains the only passenger line in North Dakota, running primarily along the northern tracks.


As passenger service declined so did the use of many of the railroad depots that were staples in North Dakota’s communities. “Most of the depots are gone from the smaller communities because the railroads wanted to get them off tax roll. They were put up for sale on bids, a few were hauled to farmsteads and others were torn down for lumber,” says Vyzralek. “But you can still drive into a lot of towns and see the depot being used in a number of ways.”

These uses range from operating as museums, community centers, and offices to bars, restaurants or other businesses. “All along where Amtrak operates today, those depots are still in use for the passenger train,” notes Vyzralek.

Preserving the history of North Dakota railroads will help future generations understand how the state was established, he says. He has researched North Dakota railroads for almost 50 years and is currently working on a collaborative book on the history of the state’s railroads. “It’s a very big, important part of our history.”

Throughout North Dakota, many communities and organizations are working to preserve the railroad history of the state through museum collections, building renovations, equipment restoration and more. The following are just a few of the places where pieces of the state’s railroad history are being preserved for future generations: 

The State Railroad Museum of North Dakota, Mandan

“We are working to tell the story of North Dakota railroads,” says Bill Engelter, president of the State Railroad Museum board. “North Dakota was inhabited because the railroad came first.”

The museum opened in 1985 and houses many railroad artifacts both inside and on its grounds. “We have a lot of photographs that depict the early railroads and individuals working on the railroads; as well as artifacts including lanterns, uniforms and depot benches,” he notes. “We also have 12 pieces of rolling stock that represent the early history of North Dakota railroads.”

The museum runs a miniature live steam engine, model railroad, and videos of early passenger travel, and is home to the North Dakota Railroad Hall of Fame. Engelter says the museum also has a unique facet of railroad history in the retired railroad workers who now volunteer at the facility. “They tell people their stories about what they saw and experienced on the railroad.”

Engelter says close to 95 percent of the items at the museum were acquired through donation. “As things became obsolete on the railroad, rather than just junk them, people donated them to the museum.”

The museum is currently in the process of acquiring an 1883 depot from Steele and an early diesel engine. New displays on hobo travel on the railroad and train robberies are also in the works. And each year events are held for visitors to gather and celebrate the state’s railroad history. This year’s celebrations include Father’s Day, June 19; Watermelon Day, July 10; and Railroad Day, August 28.

To visit the State Railroad Museum follow the railroad museum signs while traveling north from the I-94 exit 152 on Mandan’s Old Red Trail. The museum is open from 1 to 5 p.m. Memorial Day to Labor Day, and admission is free. For additional information call 701-663-9322. 

The Railroad Museum of Minot, Minot


The Railroad Museum of Minot is celebrating its 25th year of preserving the railroad history of northern North Dakota. “Most of the people who started this facility were members of the railroad community,” says Roger Burchill, facility manager at the museum. 
He says the primary purpose of the facility is to pass on the history of the state’s railroads. “It is important to educate young kids on the railroads and the history of railroading,” notes Burchill. “Railroads were the chief way to get to the west and everything had to travel by rail.”

The Railroad Museum of Minot shares this history through a variety of artifacts and some items unique to the Great Northern Railroad. “We have an 1887 scooter used on the Great Northern run from Tioga to Williston for carrying small items like food or kerosene,” says Burchill of the tricycle like vehicle that runs on the track. The museum also displays a red caboose, a speeder car, and benches from various depots. Rocky, the Great Northern goat mascot that was once a fixture in front of the town’s depot, is also on display.

Admission is free and the museum is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. The museum is funded in part by the profits of the Magic City Express that runs in Minot’s Roosevelt Park. The train runs seven days a week from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and cost $3 for ages five and older and $2 for seniors.

The museum is located on 1st Street in downtown Minot. For additional information call 701-852-7091 or visit

The Rosebud Visitor Center, Valley City

The Rosebud Visitor Center houses a unique piece of Northern Pacific Railroad history in its restored 1881 superintendent’s coach, The Rosebud. “This was made specifically for S.R. Ainslie, Railroad Superintendent of the Yellowstone Division. He didn’t have a way to get around and he requested a car to live in. It was kind of a railroad RV,” says Mary Lee Nielson, marketing coordinator for the Sheyenne River Valley National Scenic Byway and the Valley City Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The coach was in various railroad divisions before making its way back to the Dakota Division in Jamestown shortly before being decommissioned in 1931. The Rosebud was then moved to Beach where it was used as a vacation home by the John P. Reeve family.

In 1999, The Rosebud was acquired by the Barnes County Historical Society and in the summer of 2000, the coach was moved to Valley City and its restoration began. “We got it back to as close to original condition as possible,” says Nielson. “With the interior we didn’t really do anything except clean it very carefully.” The exterior of the car was stripped of its paint, repaired and repainted. Gold leaf decals and car numbers were also added.

Although it has been completely restored, the interior is very delicate and blocked from visitors entering. To give visitors a closer look, a hallway in the center has been dedicated to replicating the coach’s interior. “This is like you are walking through the Rosebud, with murals on the wall which look like the car,” says Nielson.

The center also houses memorabilia related to the Rosebud and the railroad. “Our outdoor display shows the different rails and signage used by railroads over the years.”

She says it is important to preserve railroad history for the city’s visitors. “Dakota Territory was open for settlement by the railroad and things would have been a lot different if the railroad hadn’t come through,” says Nielson. “Today, thousands of people every year get a peek at history.”

The Rosebud Visitor Center is located on Main Street in Valley City. For additional information call 701-845-1891 or visit 

The Midland Continental Depot Transportation Museum, Wimbledon

The community of Wimbledon has come together to preserve an important part of the state’s railroad history with the restoration of the town’s Midland Continental depot. The Midland Continental railroad was the only attempt at a north/south railroad in the middle of the continental United States. It was to run from Galveston, Texas to Winnipeg, Canada, but the lines never made it out of North Dakota.

The Wimbledon depot, the only Midland Continental depot left in the state, also hosts another unique piece of history as the high school home to jazz singer Peggy Lee.

Restoration began on the building early in the summer of 2010 with the help of state highway transportation enhancement funds. Currently, plaster has been removed from the buildings interior and sheetrock installed in its place. Painting of the interior is underway and new siding is installed on the outside of the building.

“We want to restore the building as a working, busy depot,” says Linda Grotberg, president of the Midland Continental Depot Transportation Museum committee. “We want the displays to be very hands-on so you get the experience of railroad history.”

Never-before-published pictures and artifacts will tell the story of the depot and life-size cutouts of individuals will tell their stories to visitors. In addition, the upstairs living quarters of the depot agent will be fully restored. An entire upstairs room will also be dedicated to Peggy Lee and include her dresses, paintings and music.

Grotberg says the committee is hoping to open the museum to the public early this summer with future plans to restore a flat car and caboose outside the depot.

The community of Wimbledon is located 30 miles north of Jamestown. For additional information visit or call Grotberg at 701-320-9535. For information on scheduling a tour of the depot contact Mary Beth Orn at 701-435-2875.

 “Preserving railroad history is very important to preserving the history of North Dakota,” says Grotberg. “We all have the railroad in our history.”


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