Minnesota's Logging Railroads


  Log drive on the Rainy River.  Photo Lake of the Woods Historical Society

Log drive on the Rainy River. Photo Lake of the Woods Historical Society
  J.M. Paine and Company operated the first logging railroad in the Carlton area between 1886-1900.  Photo Carlton County Historical Society
J.M. Paine and Company operated the first logging railroad in the Carlton area between 1886-1900. Photo Carlton County Historical Society

Prior to the construction of specialized logging railroads, the logging operations in Minnesota relied on river transport, log drives, and boom operations to move logs to the sawmills. The logging camps were located along major rivers, the Mississippi, Minnesota, and St. Croix, as well as along streams that fed into these rivers. It wasn't long before the timberlands adjacent to water transportation were depleted and it became apparent that new transport methods would need to be developed.

In Wisconsin and Michigan, logging railroads were first constructed in the 1870s to move logs to the mills. It wasn't until 1886 that the first logging railroad came on the scene in Minnesota at the vicinity of present day Carlton. Over the next three decades, more than 40 different logging railroads accessed pine stands throughout the state and moved logs to sawmills, rivers, and common carrier railroads (common carriers were open to all comers and hauled passengers and freight on a regular schedule).

The logging railroads were typically owned and operated by logging and lumbering companies, although some of the larger common carrier railroads also entered the log hauling business and built logging spurs. Virtually all the logging railroad lines were of a temporary nature and existed only for a few years until the timber was exhausted. Then the line was typically abandoned and the tracks removed. Over the years, nearly 5,000 miles of logging railroads were built across the northern part of the state.

Logging railroads constructed in Minnesota were almost exclusively standard-gauge railroads (4' 8-½" wide inside the rails) in marked contrast to other states such as Michigan, which often had a mix of standard- and narrow-gauge lines. This feature, although more costly to construct, facilitated the interchange of cars with other carriers. Most railroads had one or more main lines and many additional miles of branch and spur lines.

Logging railroad in Crow Wing County. Photo Crow Wing County Historical Society
Logging railroad in Crow Wing County. Photo Crow Wing County Historical Society
Logs being loaded by horses, one log at a time.  Photo Northern Trackers Railroad Club, Inc.
Logs being loaded by horses, one log at a time. Photo Northern Trackers Railroad Club, Inc.

Most were well graded and graveled, but some were used only during the winter and consisted of ties and rails laid across the frozen ground. Typical construction costs were around $5,000/mile.

The rolling stock consisted of a few locomotives, typically in the 50-75 ton range, and a few dozen to a few hundred logging cars, depending on the size of the operation. Log cars were either a longer flat-car type or a shorter log car called the Russel car. Russel cars held approximately 5,000 board feet of logs. Some lines also had freight and passenger cars as part of their rolling stock and operated similar to more traditional common carriers.

Cut logs were skidded from the stump by oxen or horses to a railroad landing or sometimes sleigh loaded and hauled for reloading onto log cars. Early on, the cars were loaded by either brute strength using manpower or with teams of horses. Various steam-powered loaders or "jammers" were introduced in later years, which not only sped up the process but also made it much safer. Log lengths often varied from the standard 16-foot log, with logs of 12, 14, and 18 feet also produced.

Once loaded, the log cars delivered the logs to mills directly or sometimes transferred cars to a common carrier railroad that delivered the logs to the ultimate destination further away. Railroad logging often operated in conjunction with river transportation. Logs were unloaded at river landings and sent downriver to mills further downstream.

The Brainerd and Northern Railroad operated northwest of Brainerd between 1894 and 1900.  Photo Northern Trackers Railroad Club, Inc.
The Brainerd and Northern Railroad operated northwest of Brainerd between 1894 and 1900. Photo Northern Trackers Railroad Club, Inc.
Washburn Sawmill in Anoka County. Photo Anoka County Historical Society
Washburn Sawmill in Anoka County. Photo Anoka County Historical Society

Logging railroads were constructed mainly to facilitate the transport of logs, but they also benefitted the logging camps and nearby communities in other ways. Camps became less isolated and mail, newspapers, fresh produce, and other provisions could be provided to the loggers and camp workers more readily. Injured loggers also had quicker access to medical care. However, the logging railroads were a mixed blessing according to some reports as they also provided easier access to saloons and other temptations and resulted in an "increase in drunkenness and debauchery" amongst the jacks.

Logging railroads figured prominently in the expansion of lumbering across northern Minnesota from the 1890s to the end of the white pine era in the 1930s. Lumber production in Minnesota peaked at the turn of the 20th century in part due to the impact of logging railroads. In 1899 Minneapolis was the leading lumber producer in the world and produced nearly 600 million board feet of lumber that year.

By 1910, Minneapolis ranked third nationally in lumber production and in 1919 it closed its last sawmill. Duluth closed its last active sawmill in 1926 and in 1929 the largest white pine sawmill to operate in the state, the Virginia and Rainey Lake Company, cut its last log. When the big sawmill in International Falls closed its doors in 1937, it signified the end of an era in Minnesota's forest history. During the white pine era, an incredible 67 plus billion board feet of lumber was produced!

Remnants of logging railroads can still be found. Some are nearly overgrown, some have new uses as woods roads and trails, and a few stretches have been incorporated as common carrier railroads still in operation.

The best resource is the book,"Minnesota Logging Railroads" by Frank A. King from the University of Minnesota Press. An article by Buzz Ryan titled "Minnesota Logging Railroads" can be found at www.mnhs.org/mnhistory.

Written by Dick Peterson