Hints of Minnesota’s mighty railroad history can be found near the industrial underbelly of downtown Minneapolis, just west of Target Field.
That’s where an obscure mile-long stretch of rail corridor was thrust into the spotlight this fall, when landowner BNSF Railway required planners of the Southwest light-rail line to build a crash-protection wall separating freight and LRT trains.
But the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which is expected to pay half of Southwest’s $1.9 billion price tag, said the addition of a concrete wall — 10 feet high in places — would “adversely affect” a historic rail district.
A recent review by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) found the railroad district is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, a national nod to all things historic.
It takes a little imagination to conjure the history. The most telling sign that the Great Northern Railway once rumbled through the corridor, beyond the daily freight trains and Northstar Commuter rail traffic, are fragments of crumbling, aggregate walls dating back to the late 19th century.
The proposed Southwest line is expected to snake through the area by 2022, connecting Minneapolis and Eden Prairie. It was the LRT project that prompted MnDOT to recognize the workaday area’s historic back story — one that may seem a bit abstract to the layperson.
“Historic? I guess so,” said Bill Day, a Minneapolis resident who was biking on the Cedar Lake trail earlier this month. “There are some bridge abutments and retaining walls around here that look old-timey.”
The crowded sliver of land also accommodates the popular Cedar Lake Regional bike trail and Linden Yards, a city-run recycling patch replete with piles of gravel, asphalt chunks and the leafy gunk that street sweepers collect.
Gateway to the West
Great Northern, the nation’s fifth transcontinental railroad, stretched from St. Paul to Seattle in the 1890s. The line was built by James J. Hill, the St. Paul rail magnate known as the Empire Builder.
According to MnDOT, it’s a legacy “of undisputed importance in the development of the railroad industry and the state of Minnesota.”
As MnDOT historian Greg Mathis explained it, the rail corridor’s importance rests not in historic structures or buildings but in its formidable story.
“This was your gateway to the West,” Mathis said.
But although the area is eligible to be listed on the National Register, there aren’t any plans to nominate it. Some of the retaining walls and earthen embankments that hint of Hill’s heyday would need to make way so the crash wall can fit into the corridor.
Examples of local sites on the National Register include Fort Snelling, the Pillsbury A Mill and Hill’s Summit Avenue mansion in St. Paul.
‘Far on the fringes’
Probably the last time the rail corridor drew public attention was in 2010, when the city granted Minneapolis developer Ryan Cos. exclusive development rights to Linden Yards — called “the banana” by some planners and scribes because of its shape.
At the time, Ryan envisioned a mixed-use development with offices and housing near Van White Memorial Boulevard, with the proposed Bassett Creek Valley LRT station as an important draw. But development rights expired in 2015, due largely to delays in the Southwest project.
Tony Barranco, Ryan’s vice president of real estate development, said that talks continue with the city about the site but acknowledged that it would take some “creativity” to develop it.
“It’s an intriguing site, but not knowing when the rail will come through, it’s too far on the fringes right now,” he said.
Barranco said he had no idea the site had historic value, and it’s easy to see why. Beyond concrete and asphalt recycling, the city stores its manhole covers, sewer pipes, streetlights and signal poles there. Roadside detritus left around the city, such as tires and “sewer material,” is kept there, too.
Only part of the Linden Yards property is technically located in the historic corridor, once home to both the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba (later the Great Northern and BNSF) and the Minneapolis & St. Louis railways.
To build a new crash wall, Southwest’s planners and MnDOT will need to develop a mitigation plan, which may call for “interpretive panels” throughout the historic corridors.
It’s unclear how much the plan would cost and how long it would take to craft.
Day said that while biking through the area he occasionally thinks of his great uncle, who lived on nearby Linden Avenue in the early 1900s.
“I try to imagine what he saw, what it looked like back then,” he said, as a nearby street-sweeping truck roared by, looking to lighten its load.