Only memories remain of Duluth's incline railways

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When Budgeteer reader Bob Watts was a little boy, he loved riding the Incline Railway up Seventh Avenue West from Superior Street to the hilltop.

It was an adventure, he said, like riding the trolley car across the canal at the Aerial Bridge, or going in the gas car at the swinging bridge out past Fond du Lac.

"The Incline was just a slow little trolley that went up the hill," said Watts, 87. "It went up level though, and you could see out over the bay. It was a heck of a deal, especially for kids and for visitors."

Duluth actually had two incline railways.

The one Watts recalls from his youth was the Seventh Avenue Incline Railway, aka the Duluth Skyride, built in 1890 by Highland Improvement Company. The Seventh Avenue Incline was in operation from 1891 through Labor Day 1939, when its tracks were scrapped for war-effort metal.

The second incline railway was called the Duluth Belt Line Railway. It had a shorter lifespan, running from 1889 to 1916. The Belt Line ran near Central Avenue and Main Street up to Bay View Heights in West Duluth. Also known as the West Duluth Incline, originally it was west of the corner of Arlington Avenue and Duke Street.

Today, the approximate street address for its depot would be 77th Avenue West and Vinland Street.

More is known about the Seventh Avenue Incline Railway, and the Northeast Minnesota Historical Center -- whose Pat Maus provided much of the historical information contained in this story -- has some wonderful pictures of the old railway and its trolley cars.

The Seventh Avenue Incline Railway had two separate tracks that ran a half-mile up the hill, rising to more than 500 feet above Lake Superior. According to the Minnesota Reflections Web site, the original cars were large enough to hold four teams of horses with wagons as well as large groups of people.

In its heyday, the Seventh Avenue Incline did more than simply transport people (and horses) up and down the steep hillside.

The Hilltop Amusement Hall (aka the Incline Pavilion or Beacon Hill Pavilion) was built at the top in 1892, designed by the prominent local architect Oliver G. Traphagen. There were vaudeville performances, demonstrations of hot air balloons, afternoon concerts and an array of other events at the Pavilion. As many as 5,000 people at a time would attend events at the parklike area.

Sadly, the Pavilion burned down May 28, 1901, after a fire broke out in the power station at the top of the system. The fire released one of the two cars (they ran opposite each other, like a pair of weights, one went up when the other went down) that went careening down the slope and crashed into the ticket house on Superior street below. No one was injured, but it took six months to make repairs and resume partial service. From that time on, only one counter-weighted car was used. In 1911, two cars resumed. However, the Pavilion was never rebuilt.

According to a history on the Duluth Transit Authority Web site, in September of 1933 all of the properties of the Duluth Street Railway Company were transferred to the Duluth-Superior Transit Company, recently incorporated. At that time, the transit system's mixed fleet consisted of 110 streetcars, two electric trolley buses and nine gasoline-powered buses. However, by the end of the decade, all of the streetcars in the system were replaced by buses. The Seventh Avenue Incline was one of the last to go, making its final run in September 1939.

The Seventh Avenue Incline Railway left no ruins, just a right of way marked by telephone poles. The closest Northland residents can come to approximating a ride on the incline today is a walk up the concrete steps that climb the hill from West Fourth Street to Skyline Drive. The steps run roughly parallel to the old railway tracks.

"In the summertime at least a couple days a week, I see people walking or running the stairway," said Duluth architect David Salmala, whose distinctive "black box" home sits right next to the right of way once occupied by the Incline Railway. "It's a nice walk in summer."

In the Twin Cities, streetcars would continue to run until the 1950s, when new owners focused on profits basically quit investing in improvements and made deep cuts to services. The same owners -- who ripped up all the streetcar tracks and switched the entire system to buses -- were later found guilty and sentenced to prison terms for pillaging the Twin City Rapid Transit Company for illegal personal profit.

Editor's Note: This is the first of four area history features running in the Budgeteer this month. In the coming weeks, we will look at the history of curling, U.S. Steel and communism in the Twin Ports. If you have memories of these places and organizations to share, call Jana at 720-4112. Keep reading for a brief history of passenger rail in the Twin Ports.

The last train to Duluth

The first train to Duluth, with passengers, arrived here from St. Paul on a very hot and dry Aug. 1, back in 1870.

The inaugural trip took 16 hours and, while the train left early in the morning, it was dark when the passengers detrained at the new Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad station behind where Fitger's is today.

LS&M was Duluth's first railroad and became a part of the Northern Pacific when construction began on that road to the West Coast.

Today's St. Louis County Heritage & Arts Center (the Depot) was built by the NP's Union Depot and served five railroads and 54 trains a day back in the 1930s.

That was just one station; there were three other depots in downtown Duluth, all with train service from here to the rest of the nation.

There were some storied trains featuring the first-class service that railroads were famous for back in the day: the Soo Line Laker, and all Pullman overnight trains to Chicago, The Badger and Gopher on the Great Northern Railroad and the 400 on the Chicago & Northwestern.

One by one, they fell by the wayside until only the Northern Pacific was left. Its last train left Duluth for Staples to connect with the NP's Mainstreeter to the West Coast.

Amtrak restored passenger rail service in 1975, running first just to Superior and then adding a stop in Duluth.

The last train arrived and departed Duluth on Easter Sunday 1985.

That was a time when gas was only 89 cents a gallon, there was no congestion on I-35 and two things that have changed our word didn't yet exist: the laptop computer and cell phones.

Using these last two items means a trip by train today would be productive time instead of windshield time.

This is why efforts have been under way for several years and are gaining momentum now to return rail passenger service between Duluth/Superior and Minneapolis.

For the latest on that project, go online to www.northernlightsexpress.org.

Writer Ken Buehler is the executive director of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum and chairman of the Northern Lights Express (NLX) Technical Committee. NLX is the name of the proposed high-speed passenger rail project between Minneapolis and the Twin Ports.