'Minnesota Zephyr' route purchased for trail use

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STILLWATER, Minn. – The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Thursday purchased the 5.9-mile former Northern Pacific route once used by the Minnesota Zephyr Dinner Train. By acquiring the line, the department can now develop the trail into downtown Stillwater, a popular recreation and tourist destination along the St. Croix River. The new trail will connect with another trail on a former Soo Line right-of-way from St. Paul.

DNR purchased the line from the Zephyr’s owner, David Pardeau. It was originally part of Northern Pacific’s 12.7-mile branch from White Bear Lake, Minn., to Stillwater. NP successor Burlington Northern abandoned in 1982, and donated the last six miles to the Minnesota Transportation Museum to run tourist trains. Restored Northern Pacific 4-6-0 No. 328, once on display in Stillwater, powered some MTM trains. As suburban growth increased, the operation drew the ire of local residents, who objected to the noise from the weekend trains and persuaded local government to place severe limits on MTM operations. The museum moved its operation to Wisconsin Central track at Osceola, Wis., in 1992 and sold the line to Pardeau, whose slow-moving Zephyr didn’t raise as many objections. He constructed a large depot in downtown Stillwater for the dinner train, which included two dome cars powered by a pair of F7s. Paradeau first approached the DNR in 2006 about purchasing the line, and shut down the dinner train on New Year’s Eve 2008.

The department said it estimates 75,000 people annually might travel on what will be known as the Brown’s Creek State Trail, named for a waterway that parallels part of the route. The department plans to remove rails and ties, redevelop a bridge over St. Croix Trail/State Highway 95, and start paving the trail at Laurel Street East/Stillwater Depot this year.

The dinner train, which has been sitting at the Stillwater Depot since 2008, is for sale, but any buyers would have to truck the equipment out, since there is no longer a rail connection at Stillwater. – Steve Glischinski
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