Save the train for future generations
The future of the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad (LS&M), also known as the Scenic St. Louis River Railroad, is in imminent peril. This could potentially be its last season of operation.
Fearing this might be my family's last chance to experience a ride drenched in history that follows the last six miles of track from the first train into Duluth in 1870, we finally made the journey. I'm really glad we did. If it goes away it'll never return. Ever.
Is this attraction worth saving? Besides the thrill of riding a train, which my daughter described as "awesome," the journey deepens the rider's understanding of the St. Louis River estuary, as well as Duluth's unique heritage and history.
Per the excellent narration of Vickie Surges, who served as the guide for about 100 enchanted souls on the ride, I learned that in 1894, "This very track brought hundreds to safety from the Hinckley fire." She also went on to touch upon a history that was far richer and nuanced than even I expected, and my expectations were high. We learned about the relative self-sufficiency of Whiteside Island (known today as Clough Island). We gained further appreciation for the interests that J.P. Morgan had here as we glided past the neighborhood and former company town bearing his name. We reflected upon the influence of some the most powerful men in the world on our city, such as Carnegie, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt.
This railroad, the construction of which was delayed by the Civil War, was critical, as the website lsmrr.org points out: "The 154 miles of track connected the head of navigation on Lake Superior with the head of navigation on the Mississippi River. This opened up a viable means to transport goods to Lake Superior for shipping to Eastern markets."
These rails helped make Duluth what it is. Riding them, as we clickety-clacked beside sites of intense interest, made history come alive. Now an area of great beauty that teems with wildlife, not long ago the level of industrial activity taking place on these waters was breathtaking as numerous factories were located along this stretch for manufacturing products out of the natural resources taken from the ground and forests of the region.
As Harold Dols, the kindly conductor — who also does track work, pulls spikes, lays rail, guides the train as one of the engineers and even has helped with needed engine work — explains, "The LS&M gives you a perspective of the St. Louis River estuary that you can't get anywhere else."
These comments proved to be accurate as we passed through areas that would otherwise be inaccessible.
Frequently the train seemed to be riding right on top of the water, as we were surrounded on both sides for a time as if gliding along in a boat. Other moments found us boring through a tunnel of tree branches in our beautiful century-old railcar, which provided a sensation of the curtain of history being pulled up to reveal hidden treasures.
And then we pulled alongside the skimmer pond, an area where poisons skimmed off the top during a manufacturing process were dumped into what is now a Superfund site. Cleanup of the nasties begins soon. The track will be removed so the arduous process can be completed over three years. U.S. Steel, which is funding much of the cleanup, is willing — and mandated — to put the track back when the work is completed. However, the city is weighing how to use the money designated for the eventual restoration work.
An extension of the Western Waterfront Trail through this section is being considered. But this need not be done to the exclusion of future operations of a beloved railroad attraction that costs the city next to nothing. The LS&M, run entirely by volunteers and lacking representation in the process, humbly requests consideration of a side-by-side rail AND trail concept.
The planning process is ongoing. A decision will be meted out within three months. The train runs on Saturdays and Sundays until Oct. 11. Take what may be your last ride on a track boasting 145 years of history, form your own opinion and contact the mayor and city council to express it.
Monthly Budgeteer columnist Eddy Gilmore is the author of a newly released book, “The Emancipation of a Buried Man.” Discover more at www.eddygilmore.com.