Railroad History

From the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources


Scattered evidence shows that humans have lived in central Minnesota for at least 8,000 years.

While few archeological sites of significance have been found in the general region of the Luce Line State Trail, the region must have been a fertile hunting ground for these early nomadic people. Stone projectile points, found to the west at Browns Valley, suggest that these very early (Paleoindian) people were bison hunters.

The Woodland Tradition, which began between 1000 and 500 B.C. in Minnesota, is also evident near the trail. Characterized by pottery and burial mounds, hundreds of sites have been documented around the shores of Lake Minnetonka and some of its islands.

A particularly concentrated grouping of mounds was found within and near the city of Mound, a few miles south of the Luce Line Trail. The city contained 31 burial mounds.

Other mounds of the Woodland Tradition have been discovered near Howard Lake, a community about seven miles north of the trail at Winsted.

Cultural groups in the Woodland Tradition were small. They relied upon a variety of seasonal foods and moved over a large territory as food resources became available during the year.

In addition to bison, they depended on deer, elk, beaver, muskrat, and raccoon. Vegetable foods probably included wild plums, chokecherries, prairie turnips, and other foods gathered in the region. Their pottery bore distinctive simple decorations.


Historic Native American Culture

The Cheyenne lived in central Minnesota during the 1700s. While hunting parties ranged over a large region, they concentrated their villages along the Minnesota River valley.

However, the Dakota drove the Cheyenne out of the region before 1800. The Ojibwe, in turn, had pushed the Dakota, out of the Mille Lacs area.

By the time settlers from Europe moved into the region in the 1850s, they encountered only the Dakota. Those in the eastern part of the region were part of the Mdewakanton, a major division of the Dakota under the general leadership of Chief Wabasha. Hunters from Chief Shakopee’s band frequently roamed the area in search of buffalo and other game. Encounters with the new settlers were usually peaceful.

This coexistence came to an abrupt end in 1862 when a skirmish broke out near Acton in Meeker County. Although the Dakota started the fighting, government callousness and double-dealing were really responsible for the war.

While Dakota raiders attacked Hutchinson and one or two other settlements, the larger battles were all fought west and south of the area. The result of the war was the loss by the Dakota of even their very restricted reservation along the Minnesota River and expulsion from the state.


The Fur Trade

Beginning in the 1700s, the Minnesota River Valley became the gateway to the western plains and a source of commerce for the fur trade. Many posts were established along this important waterway.

A few additional posts were at scattered locations within this region of Minnesota, notably along the Crow River and its tributaries. For example, trapper and trader James Baird settled in the Winsted area in 1846.

Although the fur trade continued into the 1850s, its economic importance declined over the years. Permanent settlements and villages were on the horizon, and a way of life was beginning to change.


European Settlement

The 1851 treaties of Traverse de Sioux and Mendota opened the door to widespread settlement of the region. As a result, many of the villages along the Luce Line State Trail were first settled in the mid to late 1850s.

While most of the earliest settlers came from New England or other eastern states, it was not long before European immigrants found their way into central Minnesota.

• Large numbers of Germans settled in Carver County as well as adjacent counties.
• Bohemian and Irish families arrived in the Hutchinson area in 1858 with Danish settlers joining them in 1867.
• Czech and Polish immigrants began to settle within the vicinity of Silver Lake during the late 1860s.
• Swedes moved into other areas of Meeker, Sibley, and Kandiyohi counties.
• Norwegians were attracted to Kandiyohi County and areas to the northwest.

While some of these newcomers were tradesmen, most were farmers interested in the chance to own land, an opportunity that had been denied to many of them in their European homelands. Tiny communities sprang up as settlement advanced westward.

Often, the sawmill and the blacksmith shop preceded agriculture and the flourmill. Many communities were platted before real settlement began, and some remained as only speculative dreams on paper.

Despite the war with the Dakota in 1862, the transformation of the region’s woods and prairie into farms continued nearly unabated. The pace of settlement even increased in the years following the Civil War. By the early 1870s, most of the central region of Minnesota was covered by settlements and farms.

The 1870s were marred by repeated crop devastation by grasshoppers in the western part of central Minnesota. In addition, low prices for agricultural products and high freight costs created widespread depression and political unrest within farming areas.

This unrest was largely responsible for the phenomenal growth of the first nationwide farmers’ organization. Founded by Oliver H. Kelley, an influential farmer in Sherburne County, this organization soon became known as the Grange. Although started in Minnesota, the Grange became a crucial force in the betterment of the life of farm families throughout the Midwest.

By 1872, 61 percent of the cultivated acreage in Minnesota was wheat. Reliance on this single crop could be devastating to the small farmer in the event of a crop failure. However, most farmers raised much of the food necessary to feed their families and livestock. Since these early days, farmers have diversified to include corn, soybeans, some sugar beets, poultry, and livestock.


Railroad History

In 1908, W. L. Luce and his son, E. D. Luce, incorporated the Electric Short Line Railroad Company in Arizona.

Their plan was to build a railroad from Minneapolis to Brookings, South Dakota, linking many farm communities as yet unserved by a railroad . . . Not long after, a short track was put into operation within Minneapolis.

Westward construction finally began in 1913, when approximately eight miles of track was completed and put into operation between the western
city limits of Minneapolis (Glenwood) and Parkers Lake.

This was the first Luce Line steam train.

The following year saw trackage constructed along the northern shore of Lake Minnetonka, past Stubbs Bay, and west to Winsted. By the end of 1915, the fledgling railroad had reached Hutchinson.

After halting at Hutchinson for several years, construction resumed. The tracks reached Cosmos in 1922 and Lake Lillian in 1923. The railroad’s alignment partially followed a trail used by the Dakota people nearly two centuries earlier.

The alignment selected affects trail use to this day. Other Minnesota railways were built in the previous century, and the fledgling towns therefore grew up around the central location of the depot.

Because of the comparatively late start of the Luce Line, it was built on the perimeter of many of the towns it served. Since most of the land it traveled across had already been settled for some time, the route was not always the most desirable land for construction and included much land unsuitable for farming, such as wetlands.

In 1915, six gasoline and gas-electric motorcars provided passenger service. Trains ran roundtrip between Minneapolis and Stubbs Bay, Minneapolis and Hutchinson, and eventually between Minneapolis and Lake Lillian.

The line was a boon to early tourists and vacationers, transporting them quickly to the popular resort areas on Medicine Lake, Parkers Lake, and Lake Minnetonka. Unfortunately, fire destroyed two of these motorcars in 1916 and 1918.

Secondhand steam powered engines for freight trains were purchased from the Soo Line and Northern Pacific. By the early 1920s, one freight train per day, in each direction, was scheduled between Minneapolis and Lake Lillian.

On May 1, 1924, the Line was sold and reorganized as the Minnesota Western Railroad Company, with the Luces still in control. Their plans called for an extension to Montevideo and then on to Brookings, South Dakota.

Through the sale of bonds, the enterprising father and son obtained about $600,000 for continued construction. In 1927, the line reached Gluek, about 12 miles to the east of Montevideo.

All funds had been expended, and the Luces’ financial situation was grave. Harry Pence, President of the Minneapolis, Northfield & Southern, bought the line in December 1927.

Gluek was to be the final western terminus of the line, far short of its original destination. However, the 115 miles of the railroad connected many communities to the markets of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

From the late 1920s hauling grain, lumber, and other commodities was the railroad’s major role.

The line changed hands twice during the 1950s. Its final owner was the Chicago & North Western Railway Company, purchasing the line along with its previous owner (Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway) on November 1, 1960.

The increasing competition from other modes of transportation created an unprofitable situation for the line during the 1960s. The Chicago & North Western formally abandoned the Luce Line in 1970.

The Electric Short Line Railroad connected six counties from the urban environs of the state’s largest city to the prairies and farmland of western Minnesota. During its peak years of operation, nearly 20 communities gained railroad access to the expanding metropolitan area of the Twin Cities.

Today, 16 of these communities are still served by the railroad’s recreational descendant, the Luce Line State Trail.

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