When I was a boy in rural Oklahoma, the Soo Line seemed the most exotic railroad in the world. Michigan's Upper Peninsula seemed as far away as Alaska. Sault Ste. Marie might as well have been in France. I had heard of the Great Lakes, but I had also heard of the Indian Ocean; my ignorance of each was as vast as their waters.
Minneapolis businessmen founded the Minneapolis, Sault Ste. Marie and Atlantic Railroad in 1883, without any land grants or government money. From the start, the railroad was called “Soo,” a phonetic spelling of “Sault,” French for “waterfall” or “rapids.”
Because all eastbound rail traffic from the Twin Cities was controlled by the Milwaukee Road and the Chicago and Northwestern, grain producers and distributors in Minnesota believed that they were being significantly overcharged by what amounted to a legalized duopoly. Similarly, James J. Hill (of the Great Northern) controlled grain shipping eastward across the Great Lakes, and his high rates showed the lack of competition. So the Minnesotans decided to construct their own railroad northeast to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, to a connection with the Canadian Pacific, which would then haul the merchandise to eastern Canada for ultimate transport to Boston and New York, bypassing both the Chicago railroads and Hill's ships.
Initial construction ran 46 miles from Bruce, Wisconsin, to Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, where the new railroad leased connecting track to Minneapolis from The Chicago, Minneapolis and Omaha. In 1887, tracks reached Sault Ste. Marie.
|This southbound is approaching the bridge across the Mississippi River.|
In 1888, the flour millers sold 56% of the railroad to George Stephen and Donald Smith, the two Canadian members of the syndicate that built both the Great Northern and the Canadian Pacific. Stephen and Smith changed the railroad's name to the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Railroad. When they retired in 1890, the two sold their interests in the Soo to the Canadian Pacific. That same year, the CP also purchased the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic, an ore hauler linking Duluth with Sault Ste. Marie. Both American lines continued to operate as indepdendent companies.
|A beautiful Soo Line caboose along the Mississippi River at Dakota, Minnesota -- on the old Milwaukee Road mainline to Chicago.|
Prior to its completion in 1893, the Great Northern Railway had teamed with Canadian Pacific to carry goods from the Twin Cities to the CP's port at Vancouver, British Columbia. Once the Great Northern reached Puget Sound, however, the partnership dissolved. To fill the gap, the Soo constructed a new line from the Twin Cities to Portal, North Dakota. The CP then built a connecting track to its mainline at Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, a route providing almost straight-line service to Vancouver.
A second Canadian passage was completed in 1903 to Winnipeg, Manitoba, via Noyes, Minnesota. Thereafter, the Soo constructed multiple agricultural branches, mostly in North Dakota, to increase grain shipments. The railroad also extended its reach in Minnesota with two connections to Duluth, one from Brooten, Minnesota, and a second from Frederic, Wisconsin.
|The old Milwaukee Road main.|
|Northbound manifest approaching Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, on the original Wisconsin Central line to Chicago.|
|Trailers along the Mississippi -- headed to the Twin Cities.|
The Wisconsin Central was formed in 1871 by the consolidation of (1) the Winnebago and Lake Superior, (2) the Portage and Superior, and (3) the Portage, Stevens Point and Superior. The brainchild of local Wisconsin promoters, the new line was a land grant railroad.
Between 1850 and 1872, the federal government ceded public lands to both states and railroad companies to promote railroad construction -- lands taken from Native Americans either herded onto reservations or "removed" westward (mostly to what is now Oklahoma). Companies received alternate sections of public land, in 25 or 50 miles wide strips, for each mile of track constructed. Responsibility for surveying and mapping the grants fell to the U.S. General Land Office, now the Bureau of Land Management. Numerous maps of the United States and individual states and counties were made which clearly indicated the sections of the granted land and the railroad rights-of-way.
Construction of what became the Wisconsin Central began in June, 1871, at West Menasha and was completed to Waupaca by October. The route between Stevens Point and Ashland was completed in 1877, and by June of that year trains were running from Ashland to Milwaukee (part of the way over the rails of other companies). In 1880, the railroad entered the Twin Cities (also part of the way over other companies' rails). Wisconsin Central completed its own line into the Twin Cities in 1884, and to Chicago in 1886. In 1909, rails reached Duluth.
|Old Wisconsin Central route near Stephen's Point, Wiconsin. The lead unit retains the basic red and white scheme but with the new slanted "SOO" logo on the sides.|
After acquisition of the Wisconsin Central, the Soo Line continued to construct branch and connecting lines west of the twin cities, establishing a huge grain collection system sympathetic to the needs and economies of local farmers. At the beginning of the Great Depression, the railroad's footprint looked as follows:
The Soo filed for bankruptcy during the Great Depression, emerging from reorganization in 1944. Freight traffic thereafter proved profitable, but passenger service waned. The company cancelled local passenger trains in 1959, followed by summer vacation routes in 1960. The last passenger train ran from Milwaukee to Calumet, Michigan in 1969.
|In 1983, a southbound manifest approaches Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on track originally laid by the Wisconsin Central.|
|Northbound manifest on the passing siding north of Dakota, Minnesota -- old Milwaukee Road mainline from Twin Cities to Chicago.|
In 1961, the Soo Line officially merged with the Wisconsin Central Railway and the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic. In those days, the railroad held its trains to a maximum 40 mph systemwide, hardly competitive, especially after the merger that created the Burlington Northern.
Other railroads negotiated labor agreements with reductions in crew size, eliminating cabooses, but the Soo didn’t reach similar agreements until the late 1980s. As other roads expanded and merged, eventually creating the mammoth systems of the 21st century, the Soo became a small dog in a pack of Great Danes. To avoid being trampled, the railroaded need to expand its traffic and reach new markets.
|Northbound to the Twin Cities.|
|On a frigid January morning, Soo 741 south looks vainly for the sun.|
|Southbound trailers. The second unit was inherited in bankruptcy, with all "Milwaukee Road" emblems painted over in black, causing these engines to be called "Black Patches."|
Kansas City was a logical target. When the Rock Island was liquidated in 1980, the Soo acquired the 77 mile Minneapolis, Northfield and Southern to connect with the Rock's Spine Line to Kansas City. However, in 1982, the Bankruptcy Court awarded that line to the Chicago and Northwestern, teaching the Soo, if it did not already know, that any sort of negotiated agreement, no matter how horrible, is generally preferable to bankrupcy's roulette wheel.
Or maybe not. Both the Soo and the C&NW fought it out again in another bankruptcy proceeding -- the Milwaukee Road, which by the time of collapse had cut itself to the bones of a 3,000 mile system in the Upper Midwest. The Soo's bid was lower than the Northwestern's, but in the unpredictable fashion that makes bankruptcy attorneys take to the bottle, a different judge awarded the Milwaukee Road to the Soo, ruling that such was more in the public interest. Included in the purchase was the Milwaukee's secondary main to Kansas City.
|The line to Kansas City.|
|Also southbound to KC. The train's whistle from behind the trees generated high hopes, quickly dashed as the three flat cars appeared.|
Thus, the Soo in one day went from a 4,500-mile railroad to a 7,500-mile system, paying a price it truthfully could not afford -- $187 million in cash, assumption of $383 million of Milwaukee Road debt, plus the attendant millions required to refurbish the Milwaukee's substandard track.
Eventually, to escape this burden, the Soo sold its Wisconsin and Upper Peninsula lines to a new Wisconsin Central, Ltd. and in effect (though continuing to operate as an idependent railroad) became an extension of Canadian Pacific to the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, Chicago and Kansas City.
After the acquisition of the Milwaukee Road and the sale of its other lines, the Soo consisted of a 3,450-mile core system with feeder lines and three Canadian gateways: Portal, Noyes, and Detroit (under an agreement with CSX).
|New Soo Core System|
|The new Wisconsin Central, Ltd. (the old Soo).|
|Southbound Soo Line manifest (north of Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, on the Wisconsin Central line to Chicago -- 1985). Beyond Soo 776 South are the semaphor signals guarding the parallel Chicago and Northwestern line.|
|For some years, the Soo Line ran cabooses after every other American road had reached agreements to abolish them. Here a local pulls a single load, plus manned caboose, on approach to Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin.|
|The white paint scheme on the Soo's cabooses and engines was reminiscent of the old White Knights on the Kansas City Southern.|
|KCS White Knights|
In 1990, Canadian Pacific purchased the remaining 44 percent of Soo Line stock that it did not already own and turned the railroad into a wholly owned CP subsidiary. In 1995, the Soo Line sold its lines in western Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and southern Minnesota to the I&M Rail Link. (Canadian National purchased the new Wisconsin Central in 2001.)
Today (September 2023), the Soo Line exists only on paper. Most motive power on the railroad now wears Canadian Pacific red.
Inquiring minds may wonder how the humble author from Oklahoma managed photographs of the Soo Line. Or, more pertinently, how did the humble author find his way to the Great Lakes? The story is long and winding, not particularly worth re-telling in the particulars, but the short version is that I met and married in Oklahoma a young woman from Wisconsin whose parents and siblings still lived along the old Wisconsin Central mainline in Oshkosh. Before marriage, I felt it necessary to visit my would-be bride's parents and so made the mistake of traveling north in winter.
In those long ago days, Amtrak operated the Texas Chief from Houston to Chicago, and both I and my future wife rode in the coach the thousand miles to the Windy City, then transferred to the Empire Builder, which ran along the Milwaukee Road to Columbus, Wisconsin, where my future father-in-law waited.
|Another local on another cold day.|
The date was December 1976, and the old man (who was then significantly younger than I am now) could not understand why anyone would take a train in modern America.
"You know," he said to me, "they fly airplanes in the modern world."
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