The Railroad Era. (Minnesota)
From: Minnesota in three Centuries 1655-1908
Editors: Licius F. Hubbard, James H. Baker,
William P. Murray and Warren Upham
The Publishing Society of Minnesota 1908


THE advent of railways is one of the heralds of advancing civilization. Speedy transit, bringing the utmost limits in touch with the common center, tends to the concentration of thought which develops commerce, wealth and intelligence to their highest excellence. At the time of the organization of Minnesota as a Territory; there were over 7,000 miles of railroads in operation in the United States. It was not, however, until three years later that there was a continuous rail route connecting Chicago with the markets of the East.

It is a difficult matter to establish, the date of the first agitation of the subject of railroad building within the boundaries of the State. In 1847, according to General James H. Baker’s “History of Transportation in Minnesota,” Historical Collections Volume IX, p. 24, Professor Increase A. Lapham, then a noted Wisconsin civil engineer, outlined a plan of two railroads, one from Lake Superior, the other from St. Paul, which were to meet on. the Red River of the North, below where Fergus Falls, now is; he made a map and carefully studied the country. James M. Goodhue, the first editor in the Territory in 1850, in an editorial entitled “A short Route to Oregon and California” gave a prophetic vision of the Northern Pacific Railway.

There were many railroad companies chartered by the Territorial Legislature. The first bill, however, to incorporate a railroad corporation was introduced by J. W. Selby, then a farmer, residing in St. Paul, and afterwards prominent in that city’s interests and affairs. In the Legislature of 1852 (of which he was a member) Mr. Selby introduced a bill to incorporate the Lake Superior and Mississippi River Railroad Company. This bill passed the House, but was defeated in the Council. The Legislature, however, memorialized Congress to provide for a survey and location of a line of railroad from St. Paul to Milwaukee, asking that a liberal donation of public lands be granted the corporation undertaking the project.

Governor Ramsey, in his message to the Legislature in 1853, states that a railroad of 100 miles, of easy and cheap construction would connect the navigable waters of the Mississippi River, with the Red River of the North, and another 100 miles connect the Mississippi with Lake Superior. He further said that a railroad, the Louisiana and Minnesota was already in contemplation, which would unite the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean with Minnesota; and that a railroad was also projected from St. Paul to Green Bay, Wisconsin, which would bring Minnesota within ten hours travel of Lake Michigan. He advocated that Government help should be extended to those projected roads, especially to the Louisiana and Minnesota railroad.

A bill, for the incorporation of the Mississippi and. Lake Superior Railroad Company, was presented in the Council of 1853 by George W. Farrington, of St. Paul. The road was to run from some convenient point in the town of St. Paul, to some convenient point at or near the Falls of the St. Louis River. The capital stock was $3,000,000, and could be increased to $5,000,000. The bill was approved by the Governor, March 5, 1853.

This was essentially a wild cat Legislature. Every prominent citizen of the Territory appears as an incorporator in some corporation. It was a self evident fact that the day would come when Minnesota would be traversed by railroad lines, and the disposition of her citizens seemed to be to secure a franchise that some time in the future would be worth a monetary consideration to capitalists, who would have financial ability to carry the project to a successful termination.

The most ambitious effort of the Legislature of 1853, was the incorporation of the Lake Superior, Puget Sound and Pacific Railroad Company with a capital of $50,000,000. Its starting point was to be at the head of Lake Superior and its terminus some point on the Pacific Ocean, that the corporation should ftnd most available. Amongst its incorporators are the names of Abbot Lawrence, of Boston; Moses H. Grinnell and Simeon Draper, of New York; Julius White of Chicago; Charles C. Trowbridge, of Detroit; Levi Blossom of Milwaukee; James D. Doty of Menasha, and others.

The Minnesota and Western Railroad Company, another ambitious project, was also incorporated; it also haa franchises from Illinois and Wisconsin, and its plan was to build a road from Chicago to the Pacific by way of Janesville and St. Paul to the Columbia River. The incorporators claimed, in 1853 to have the road under contract for building to Janesville, and it was soon to be surveyed to St. Paul. Its capitalization was $2,000,000 and according to its incorporation act in Minnesota; it was run from some point on Lake St. Croix or the St. Croix River to the towns of St. Paul and St. Anthony, thence across the Mississippi River, by the most feasible route to the western boundary of the Territory, with a branch to a point to be selected on the Red River of the North, and another to the St. Louis River. This company was to have six years in which to complete the line from St. Croix Lake or St. Croix River to St. Paul. The act was amended by several Legislatures, until 1871 when the name was changed to the Minneapolis and St. Louis.

The Louisiana and Minnesota Railroad Company was also incorporated with a capital stock of $4,000,000, with the privilege of increasing to $5,000,000. The starting point was the town of St. Paul, and the line was then to proceed to the northern boundary line of Iowa, there to connect with projected roads in that State. The St. Paul and St. Anthony Company, with a capital of $400,000, was to construct a road from St. Paul to St. Anthony. It is needless to say, that there was not a foot of rail laid by any of these ambitious projects.

In the Legislature of 1854, the indefatigable Joseph R. Brown introduced a bill to incorporate, the Minnesota and Northwestern Railroad Company. It was passed at midnight on the last day of the session, and contrary to expectation Governor Gorman signed it. The route designated was from some point on Lake Superior, by way of St. Paul to the Iowa line in the direction of Dubuque.

June 29, 1854, Congress passed an act to aid the Territory of Minnesota in the construction of a railroad, from the southern line of said Territory commencing at a point between townships range 9 and 17; thence by the way of St. Paul, by the most practical route to the eastern line of said Territory in the direction of Lake Superior. The act granted every altern,ate section of land six sections in width designated by odd numbers en both sides of said road.

As will be seen, the proposed route of the Minnesota and Northwestern Railroad Company was identical with that mentioned in the land grant. It was well known to several members of the National House of Representatives, that extraordinary privileges had been granted to that company by the Territorial Legislature, and to avoid the grant inuring to any special company the following proviso was inserted:

“And be it further enacted; That the said lands hereby granted to the said Territory, shall be subject to the disposal of any future Legislature, thereof for the purposes aforesaid and no other. Nor shall they inure to the benefit of any company hereafter to be instituted or organized.”

It was on July 24, 1854, that Elihu B. Washburne, of Illinois rose to a question of privilege. He said the House on June 29, had passed a bill granting lands to Minnesota to aid in the construction of a railroad; that a material alteration had been made in that bill since its engrossment. Minnesota had chartered a company with most extraordinary powers, granting it all the lands which had been or should thereafter be granted by Congress, to aid that Territory in the construction of a railroad.

The House, to avoid the ünf air provision of the Territorial charter in giving all the lands for a particular road, had added a proviso; that said lands shall be subject to a disposition of any future legislation, for the purpose aforesaid and had added this provision with regard to their disposition. “Nor shall they inure to the benefit of any company hereafter to be constituted or organized.”

This was the framing of the bill, so as to prevent the company then incorporated from receiving the benefit of the grant. The first alteration was striking out the word “future” in regard to the disposition of the lands by a Legislature, which change he believed was made by the committee. The second alteration was made, he charged, after the bill was engrossed, the word “and” was substituted for “or” so that the restriction read “constituted and organized company.” This company, he claimed, being constituted “and” organized expected to hold these lands under the bill and hence the object of the change.

Representative Stevens, of Michigan, a member of the Committee on Public Lands, arose and made a personal statement. The Minnesota Land Bill, when it was sent to the committee, was referred to him for his individual action. The word “future” had been struck out while in his han ds and the alteration of the word “or” to “and,” he thought proper should be made and he supposed it had been made. The bill passed the House, and while in the Senate his attention was called to the fact, that the alteration had not been made and on consultation with John W. Forney, then clerk of the House of Representatives, and Senator Patton, who had charge of the bill in the Senate, the alteration was made. The bill was, however, repealed and a resolution was offered expelling Colonel Forney, was lost by a large majority.

The Minnesota and Northwestern Railroad Company contended, they had complied with the provisions of the Congressional act and Congress had no right to repeal the bill. To make a test case, suit was brought by the United States Government in the United States District Court against the Railroad Company, for the value of five hundred trees that had been cut by them from the grant. The case was decided in favor of the company.

The act provided that any lands granted to aid in the construction of a railroad between the points named, should be and thereby granted to said company in fee simple, without further act or deed. The Governor of the Territory was directed to execute and deliver conveyances of land granted, whenever the railroad company certified to the construction of twenty miles of road. No such provision ever appeared in later grants.

An appeal was taken to the United States Supreme Court, and in December, 1861, the action of Congress was sustained upon the ground; that the granting act provided that no title to granted lands should vest in the Territory, until the continuous length of twenty miles of road had been completed, and as no title had passed to the Territory nor any road been built at the time of the forfeiture, Congress was competent to repeal the act.

Governor Gorman in his message in 1855 stated, that there was opposition to the act of the preceding Legislature endowing the Minnesota and Northwestern Railroad Company; “with powers most extraordinary and dangerous to the future welfare and security of the people.” The charter requirements to deposit $150,000 in. the Territorial treasury, as evidences of good faith had not been complied with by the incorporators. In fact the opposition to the company even extended to Congress. The House of Representatives, by a resolution declared, the charter of the company null and void; but the Senate failed to approve of this action. The failure to annul the charter was the cause of great rejoicings by the friends of the railroad company at St. Paul. An act to amend the incorporation of the Minnesota and Northwestern Railroad Company having passed the Legislature was vetoed by Governor Gorman, but was re-passed by a two thirds vote, thereby becoming a law.

At the next session of the Legislature in 1856, the momentous question was still the Minnesota and Northwestern Railroad Company, which came before that body with a petition for an extension of time to complete their contracts. On the last night of the session the request was granted, and much to the surprise of the public was approved by the Governor. In his message announcing his approval he said that though the bill was satisfactory as far as the resulting interest was concerned, yet there were not such guards as in his judgment should be thrown around so important an interest as was involved in the company’s charter. He stated that in conjunction with others, he had succeeded in procuring a tax of two per cent upon the gross proceeds, receipts, and income of the road, which, if the road was ever built, would be an important event to tax payers. If, on the other hand, the company did not construct the road, nothing can be lost to the people. He confessed he has no confidence in the incorporators’ assurances that they will build the road, nor did the ends resorted to by them meet with his approval.

The Legislature of 1855, incorporated the Minneapolis and St. Cloud Railroad Company, to build a railroad from Minneapolis to St. Cloud, also a main line by the way of Mille Lacs from St. Paul in the direction of Lake Superior. It is upon this charter, which has been kept alive by various Territorial and State Legislative acts, that the Great Northern now operates in Minnesota.

There were not less than twenty seven railroad companies authorized and chartered by the Legislature from 1853 to 1857, but there was no life in any of them. On March 3, 1857, Congress granted to the Territory, lands amounting to 4,500,000 acres for the construction of a system of railways. This Government grant only stimulated the promoters and speculators of visionary lines of railway. Minnesota was at this time, like her sister States that had preceded her to pass through, in the development of her internal improvements, a chaos of broken promises, contracts and pledges.

The rumors and news of railroad building in the East frequently appeared in the public press. The Minnesotian, in December, 1853, had just heard of “sleeping cars in which one may rest as comfortably as anywhere,” and still there was not a yard of railroad within two hundred miles of Minnesota. The Chicago and Rock Island railroad was finished to the Mississippi River in the spring of 1854. In the fall of 1857 the Milwaukee and Prairie du Ohien railroad was completed, and in the spring of the following year the La Crosse and Milwaukee reached La Crosse.

This advance of the iron horse, naturally stimulated the desire on the part of the Legislature, to advance railroad building within the Territorial boundaries. The magnificent grant of Congressional lands caused the Governor in 1857, to call an extra session of the Legislature, as many railroads corporations had been organized to build roads and desired large grants of land to help in their construction.

An act was approved May 22, 1857, creating four railroad corporations, and granting to them alternate sections designated by odd numbers, six miles in. width on each side of the roads and their branches.

These four railroad corporations, viz. The Minnesota and Pacific, the Transit, the Root Valley and Southern Minnesota and the Minneapolis and Cedar Valley, became known as the Land Grant Railroad Companies. They were to pay three per cent of their gross earnings in lieu of all taxes and assessments, and the lands granted by Congress were to be exempt from all taxation until sold and conveyanced by the companies. The corporations were generally given ten years to construct their respective roads.

The Transit Railroad Company had been first chartered March 3, 1855, with a capital of $5,000,000, and. the route designated for it by the act of May 22, 1857, was from Winona via St. Peter to a feasible point on the Big Sioux River, south of the forty-fifth parallel of north latitude, also from this terminus to any point on the Missouri River south of the same parallel of latitude.

The Root River Valley and Southern Minnesota Railroad Company was originally chartered March 2, 1855, with a capital stock of $5,000,000. By the original act, it was to be constructed from the village of Hokah westward by the most feasible route to some point between the southern line of the Territory, and a point between township line 110 and 111, crossing the Minnesota River: Thence westward to the most feasible route to the Great Bend of the Missouri River. With privileges of branches from Hokali, via Target Lake to Eagle Bluff; alo another from Hokah to Brownsville and a third from some point on the main line east of range twelve west of Mower, Freeborn, and Faribault to the west line of the Territory. Under the new act the starting point was made La Crescent instead of Hokah, thence by Target Lake up the valley of the Root River to Rochester to a point of junction with the Transit Railroad. It was also authorized to construct a railroad from St. Paul and. St. Anthony, via Minneapolis to Shakopee, thence via Belle Plain, Le Sueur, Traverse des Sioux, St. Peter, Kasota, Mankato, and South Bend, to the southern boundary of the Territory in the direction of the Big Sioux River; also build its Brownsville branch from Hokah. By an act of the Legislature in 1857, the name of this road was changed to the Southern Minnesota Railroad Company.

The Minneapolis and Cedar Valley Railroad Company was incorporated March 1, 1856, with a capital stock of $3,000,000, to construct a railroad from Minneapolis, to a point of junction with the Root River Valley and Southern Minnesota Railroad in Dakota County, from one to six miles from Mendota, and thence in a southerly direction via Faribault, through the valley of the Straight River to the southern boundary line of the Territory. They were also to have the right to build at any time a line from the Mendota Junction to St. Paul; also a like road to Hastings.

The Minnesota and Pacific Railroad Company was to construct a railroad from Stillwater by the way of St. Paul, St. Anthony and Minneapolis, to the town of Breckenridge, on the Sioux Wood River; with a branch from St. Anthony to St. Cloud, via Crow Wing, to St. Vincent, near the mouth of the Pembina River.

This company was also empowered to locate, construct and operate a railroad from Winona up the valley of the Mississippi to St. Paul, and to extend its line of railroad from its terminal point between Big Stone Lake and, the mouth of the Sioux Wood River, to any point on the Missouri River north of the fifty fifth parallel of north latitude. The company was organized under special act of the Legislature, approved May 22, 1857. Its capital stock was fixed at $5,000,000; but it had the power to increase it, to cover the full cost of its extension; it was not, however, to consolidate with any railroad company owned or operated outside of the State, without the consent of the Legislature.

The financial embarrassments of 1857 retarded the progress of railroad building; and it also became evident that the parties who had obtained the railway charters mentioned, had neither the money or credit to complete these great highways of internal improvements. The Legislature, in the winter of 1858, listening to the demands of necessity and the siren voices of the railroad corporations, submitted an amendment of the Constitution th the people providing that the public credit be granted to the railroad companies to the amount of $5,000,000. This occasioned much uneasiness among the most prudent of the citizens of the State; and though public meetings were held denouncing the measure, it was, however, on the appointed day of a special election, April 15, 1858, carried by a large majority, there being 25,023 in favor, to 6,733 against the amendment. The measure afterward became known as the Five Million Loan Bill.

The State bonds were of $1,000 denomination, had. twentyfive years to run with interest at seven per cent, the railroad companies to pay the interest, and were to be delivered to the incorporators of the companies, when ten miles of the road was graded and ready for the superstructure. Governor Sibley being called upon by the incorporators for the issuance of the State bonds, refused to issue and deliver them unless the companies would give first mortgage bonds, with priority of lien upon their lands, roads, and franchises in favor of the State.

The Minnesota and Pacific Railroad Company thereupon applied to the Supreme Court, for a mandamus to compel the Governor to issue the State’s bonds. A majority of the court decided the Governor’s ruling was erroneous, and that the State bad placed herself by her own act, on a footing with the other holders of first mortgage bonds and could claim no exclusive priority. The majority of the Court held to this opinion, but Judge Flandrau, vigorously dissented. The Governor, though he doubted the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in the case, issued the State bonds to the railroad corporations. The Governor was then, and subsequently severely criticized for yielding the executive authority to another branch of the State Government.

The promoters and contractors having received money help in addition to their land grants, began throwing dirt, completing the superstructure; but not an effort was made to lay a foot of iron rail or bridge any of the watercourses; consequently, in a very short space of time, there were hillocks of dirt scattered along the line of the railways, not, however, being always continuous, and the people waited in vain for the solution of the rapid transit queston.

There were issued of these State bonds to the Minnesota and Pacific Railroad Company $600,000, to the Minneapolis and Cedar Valley Railroad Company $600,000, to the Transit Railroad Company $500,000, and to the Southern Railroad Company $575,000; a total of $2,275,000. The Minnesota and Pacific Railroad Company graded ready for superstructure, 62 miles, 3,213 feet of roadbed; the Transit Railroad Company 50 miles; the Minneapolis and Cedar Valley Company 69½ miles; the Southern Minnesota on it main line up the Minnesota River 371/2 miles on its Root River branch 20 miles and 1,004 feet.

On account of the financial depression of the times which made it impossible for the incorporators to dispose of these bonds to good advantage, also the general financial distress and depreciation of commerce and business, and the scant and widely scattered population of the State, which would materially lessen the traffic revenues of the railroads, the companies failed to pay the interest on the bonds and work upon all lines was suspended. The incorporators were not wholly to blame for this turn of affairs. The issuance of the bonds had led to a political controversy, which in turn led to violent agitation. Public meetings were held denouncing the bonds, and newspapers insisting they should not be paid were mailed to the financial centers of the country.



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