By Christopher McTaggart ’22
The railroad has been a vital aspect of Northfield since its founding in 1856. Just one year later, the Minneapolis & Cedar Valley Railroad received a state charter to build tracks from St. Paul to Iowa, cutting through the newly-incorporated town of Northfield, Minnesota. Northfield’s founder, John W. North, became president of this new rail line and established its headquarters in Northfield. When the bank panic of 1857 scared off investors, North sold his holdings and construction on the railroad stalled. However, by the end of the Civil War, construction had resumed, and rail service finally connected Northfield to St. Paul on Sept. 9, 1865.
Northfield’s first railroad depot was rather modest in nature, a simple 16 x 16 foot wooden hut located south of 3rd Street West. While a physically unimpressive structure, this first depot was perhaps the most important building in Northfield at the time as it connected the small frontier town with the hub of St. Paul, and in turn, the country at large. The railroad was vital to Northfield’s developing economy, allowing the import of materials required for construction and manufacturing processes, as well as the export of goods and materials produced in the small town. However, this railroad also permitted passenger travel, making the trip from St. Paul in just three and a half hours– slow by modern standards, but certainly a speedy clip at the time. It was this aspect of the railroad that brought the Minnesota Conference of Congregational Churches to Northfield in 1866, while looking for a site to establish a new college. In deciding on Northfield as home of this new institution, the MCCC cited the railroad as a key factor in their decision: “Northfield is on the Minnesota central railroad, what other than the central railroad should it be on, if it is to have a college for the whole state?” This institution, originally “Northfield College,” would become “Carleton College” in 1871.
Northfield quickly outgrew its first rudimentary railroad depot, and a second, more substantial structure was completed in 1868. This second depot, estimated to be roughly 40 x 70 feet, was a significant improvement from the 1865 structure. Beyond the increase in size, this depot featured multiple windows, an elevated platform, a shingled roof, outside benches for passengers, and a central waiting area with a fireplace for colder seasons. The most conspicuous aspect of this depot however, was the grain elevator looming roughly twice as tall directly across the tracks. As evidenced by the first depot, the exchange of goods was vital to Northfield’s developing economy, and this new grain elevator allowed for easier sale and transport of agricultural goods north to the cities, and now as far east as Chicago. By 1874, over 27 million pounds of freight left Northfield by rail. With exports outweighing imports to the town, Northfield left its frontier days behind and established itself as a proper, economically self-sufficient township.
This second depot stood for just 20 years, as a fire– likely caused by sparking train wheels igniting dry goods in the adjacent grain silo– razed it to the ground in April of 1888. The replacement depot, finished by the end of that same year, became the most widely used depot for the town, and is the only depot still standing today. This 1888 depot followed a similar layout as the building it replaced, though notably constructed of brick this time to avoid future fires. Plans for this building included two waiting rooms (one for men and one for women), a baggage room, a central fireplace, an office, a ticket window, and a larger swooping roof with an exaggerated overhang to shelter passengers waiting on the platform below. Following a general formula adopted by numerous midwestern train depots at the time, Northfield’s 1888 depot is described as “a classic, if modest, example of what might be termed ‘Richardsonian Depot Vernacular'” by Northfield’s “Save the Depot” project.
While still transporting freight and agricultural goods, the 1888 depot had more emphasis on passenger travel than any other depot to that point. Beyond simply transporting people to and from Northfield, the depot also served as a social hub. J.E. Schilling, a local farmer, wrote that “in the early days when no ball games were played on Sundays and no theatres were open on holidays in the cities, the only excitement here was to go over to the depot in the afternoon and see the trains come and depart… It was said many times that a fairly good census of our population could be taken any Sunday afternoon at the depot.”
Crowds of spectators were common at the depot, and increasingly so as the town and colleges grew in size. A record was set in 1898 when throngs of people showed up to send Northfield’s enlisted men off to fight the Spanish-American War, though this record was quickly broken as collegiate sports took off in Northfield. Before busses, Carleton’s athletic teams traveled up to the cities by special train. The school commissioned railcars to transport athletes, students, and fans alike, and even cut classes short on multiple occasions to ensure spectators could make the train to watch games in the cities.
These special trains weren’t exclusive to the college. Many famous figures and politicians made their way to Northfield in this manner. William Howard Taft arrived at the 1888 depot by way of special train in 1908, and was greeted by a sizable crowd along with the mayor’s daughter, Mildred Ware, wrapped in an American flag sitting atop an elephant borrowed from a nearby carnival. Theodore Roosevelt made a less impressive appearance in 1912 by special train, and in 1952 General Dwight D. Eisenhower would be the last notable public figure to arrive at Northfield on the railroad.
However, beyond athletic competitions and visiting celebrities, the railroad proved vital to many aspects of college life in Northfield. Most obviously, just about every student who didn’t live in the surrounding area arrived at the start of the term and left for break by train. Over 1,000 pieces of luggage were processed by the depot in one week at the end of the 1913 school year. An addition had to be added in 1917, and a second in 1944 to accommodate the copious student travel. Numerous students also used the railroad postal service to send “laundry bags” back home to be washed, as options in town proved too expensive. This too had to be restricted in 1946, with the railroad imposing a 5 pound weight limit on such parcels.
Railroad travel reached its peak around the 1940’s, with eight passenger trains servicing Northfield daily, and numerous others transporting goods and materials to and from town. However, in the 30 years that followed, rail travel lost its hold as the predominant means of transport in the US at large, and in Northfield specifically. In 1969 just two passenger trains serviced Northfield, and in July of that year, the Rock Island Plainsman would be the last passenger train to depart Northfield, Minnesota. Ironically, Eisenhower arrived to Northfield by train, but it was his Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 that led to the eventual demise of the United States rail system.
Trains still travel through Northfield, servicing the Malt-O-Meal factory as well as McLane Shipping, though the era of passenger rail service has ended. However, there’s been a recent push for the return of a commuter rail line connecting Northfield to the twin cities along the Dan Patch corridor– a stretch of tracks constructed by Marion W. Savage in 1908 to connect his stables in Savage, Minnesota to the Twin Cities. This project is still ongoing, but slated for further approval in the very near future.