Zephyr is leaving the station

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 20, 2012 - 6:00 PM

Parked dinner train has a looming deadline to get out of Stillwater.

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The Minnesota Zephyr dinner train is parked on rails at the north end of downtown Stillwater, where customers boarded for 23 years.

The end of the line finally has arrived for the storied Minnesota Zephyr dinner train, parked and silent in downtown Stillwater more than three years after it quit operating.

Sometime in May or June, the eight cars will be moved to a railroad siding at Andersen Windows in Bayport, said owner David Paradeau.

Taking the train out of Stillwater -- either on flatbed trailers or huge dollies -- will correspond with a state agency's desire to clear the way for the new Browns Creek State Trail.

"I don't want that train sitting there when I'm trying to sell the restaurant," said Paradeau, who hasn't yet sold the dinner train he assembled car by car and ran for 23 years, serving 1 million customers. The three-hour dinner experience included a five-course meal, white linen tablecloths and cabaret singers strolling through the cars.

"It was basically considered a four-star restaurant on wheels," he said.

Paradeau said prospective buyers of the Zephyr need access to private tracks because busy railroads don't want slow-moving leisure trains interfering with commerce. Costs of diesel fuel, heating, insurance and all the other expenses on a dinner train require an owner who understands the commitment involved, he said.

"Nobody has any idea how complicated putting together the Minnesota Zephyr was. I was able to do it because basically I bought the railroad," he said. "More importantly than having the equipment is having the place to do it."

Paradeau sold the 5.9-mile train corridor to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) last year for $4.25 million. The sale was completed this winter.

He is trying to sell the shuttered depot building, which once housed the Stillwater Grill restaurant, a gift shop and a waiting room for train customers.

"I just ran out of money," he said of the restaurant that drew brisk business but didn't stay in business long. Prospective buyers have envisioned using the building for restaurants, a dinner theater and a day-care center, Paradeau said.

The DNR wants the train removed before a flurry of activity begins this summer on the new trail, which runs from where the Zephyr is parked west to the city of Grant, where the trail will connect with the Gateway State Trail, the state's busiest.

"He does need to get it out of there," said Kent Skaar, a DNR acquisitions manager. The Zephyr sits on the center of the new right-of-way for the trail, Skaar said, and must be gone by the time the DNR begins removing the old tracks in June.

Departure of the Zephyr will be bittersweet, he said, describing it as "a combination of excitement for the trail and the loss of the train."

Initial stages of trail construction also will include reconstruction of the Zephyr bridge over Hwy. 95, known locally as St. Croix Trail. The bridge needs masonry work, and some jacking and leveling work will be done, Skaar said.

Proposals for a trail crossing on busy Manning Avenue, a highway near where the Browns Creek trail would connect with the Gateway trail, also are in the works.

The Browns Creek trail has stirred excitement because of the picturesque path it will follow through woods and meadows from its trailhead near the St. Croix River.

In Stillwater, it will connect with a city trail along the waterfront and eventually to a trail loop that will cross the Lift Bridge and return to Stillwater over a new St. Croix River bridge that will open in late 2016 or early 2017.

Most of the money for the trail purchase came from state conservation funds. Washington County contributed $1 million from voter-approved Land and Water Legacy funds.

The DNR estimates 75,000 people a year will use the trail on foot or bicycle.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037, Twitter: @stribgiles

  • AFTER THE ZEPHYR

    More information about Browns Creek State Trail, including photos of the Minnesota Zephyr and the rail corridor, can be found at www.startribune.com/a858

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