Thursday, December 9, 2010

Hill City, Minnesota

The year is 1920, and Hill City is a thriving northern Minnesota community. The thick pine forests surrounding the area provide the raw materials for the National Woodenware factory, a manufacturer of wooden pails, pickle barrels, and cracker barrels.

Completed pails awaiting shipment from the Woodenware factory

The forests also provide a variety of woods for the J.M. Wood Company, the local sawmill, whose lumber is used for construction projects in Hill City, and also shipped off to customers in Grand Rapids and Duluth.

J.M. Wood Company as seen from the Woodenware factory

The community also enjoys the bounty of several productive farms, including potatoes, carrots, cabbages, and rutabagas. Farmers from all around bring their goods to Hill City, to Johnson’s Produce, where they are sold to Hill City townsfolk, or shipped off to market in Grand Rapids or Duluth.

Early photo of Al Johnson’s potato warehouse, which became Johnson’s Produce

The few roads around Hill City are generally poor in condition, making it difficult to transport goods beyond the town’s borders. The solution to this problem was obviously a railroad. Three major railroads operate in northern Minnesota - the Great Northern, the SOO, and the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range. The Great Northern comes only as close as Grand Rapids, the DM&IR is primarily an ore line, and the SOO, being a relative newcomer, was uninterested. A group of investors, led by Warren Rabey, decided to build a new railroad, running from Hill City to Grand Rapids, where it would meet the Great Northern. This new railroad was known as the Hill City Railroad, and its first train rolled into Hill City in 1909. The first railroad delivery into Hill City was a boxcar (by way of the Great Northern) loaded with goods for the Smith & Taylor General Store.

Unloading the first boxcar to arrive in Hill City

The railroad struggled for six years, losing money from the beginning. In 1915, after a $2500 loss due to a passenger coach fire, the railroad was put up for sale by its creditors. The Great Northern expressed an interest, but ultimately the railroad was sold to the DM&IR for the sum of $200,000. The DM&IR was looking to become more than an ore hauler, and this acquisition opened the door for entry into the general freight market, as well as an interchange with the Great Northern. Today, as a subdivision of the DM&IR, Hill City is served by engine #506, a mighty 2-10-2 steam locomotive.

The train visits Hill City twice daily, once early in the morning, and again late in the afternoon. The morning visit (from Duluth) brings mail, empty reefers and boxcars, general merchandise, and occasional passengers. Outgoing mail, passengers, produce, lumber, and Woodenware products, bound for Grand Rapids, are picked up as the train departs Hill City just before lunch.

Later in the afternoon, the train returns, headed back home to Duluth. With it comes mail and passengers from Grand Rapids, logs for the Woodenware factory and the sawmill, and empty reefers. The day closes with the departure of more mail, passengers, Woodenware products, lumber, and produce destined for Duluth.