North Shore Scenic Railroad marks 30 years

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Soo Line FP7 2500A pulls a train on the North Shore Scenic Railroad at Palmers, Minn., on Sept. 6, 2019.
Steve Glischinski

DULUTH, Minn. — The Lake Superior Railroad Museum marked 30 years of operation of its North Shore Scenic Railroad at its volunteer appreciation dinner in November. NSSR operates 27 miles of former Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Railway track between Duluth and Two Harbors.  This year the railroad is on track to carry over 100,000 passengers. Inaugural ceremonies took place June 8, 1989, in Duluth when the railroad was dedicated by Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich.

The Duluth & Iron Range Railroad built the line in 1886 as its Lake Division. It carried several passenger trains, including commuter service that operated from 1886 to 1892 when it was replaced by electric streetcars. The Duluth & Iron Range and neighboring Duluth, Missabe & Northern were acquired by U.S. Steel in 1901, and in 1938 were consolidated to form the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range.

While the “Lakefront Line” linked cities where DM&IR had ore docks, it was never a regular route for iron ore. It was the last line DM&IR line to see passenger service, a Rail Diesel Car service between Duluth and Ely/Winton that ended July 15, 1961. In later years the line hosted a local which carried pulpwood and ferried locomotives from Two Harbors to the shops at Proctor, west of Duluth. Regular operations ended in 1982. The last Missabe Road trains to operate were passenger specials July 28-29, 1984, to mark the 100th anniversary of the first rail shipment of iron ore in Minnesota. Eventually the Missabe sought permission to abandon the line.

The line’s potential for a tourist operation was not lost on museum leaders and local governments. Prodded by former DM&IR Vice President and General Manager Donald B. Shank, one of the museum founders, the St. Louis & Lake County Regional Rail Authority was formed on July 14, 1986, to purchase the line. In 1988 the authority purchased the line for $1.8 million, using a state grant and contributions from the cities of Duluth and Two Harbors. Operations could not commence until 1990 because Interstate 35 freeway construction had severed the line in several places. The first revenue train to Two Harbors was a special chartered by the Minnesota State Bar Association on June 29, 1990, with regular operations commencing June 30. By the end of the first season 37,000 passengers had ridden NSSR trains, 20% more than original estimates.

For its first season the railroad was operated by Shank’s Duluth & Iron Range Co. until a permanent operator could be found. In spring 1991 the rail authority awarded a contract to EJ Railroad, formed by cousins Ellen and John Goldfine, who operated a fleet of excursion boats in the Duluth/Superior Harbor and had interests in several hotels and motels.

The Goldfines discovered they could not turn a profit using their business model and after five years pulled out of North Shore Scenic operations. In 1996, the Lake Superior Railroad Museum took over using locomotives and cars from its collection. The first year LSRM ran the railroad with paid staff, but this turned out to be a huge drain on museum finances. The following year the museum implemented a plan to run the tourist railroad with volunteers. Today the North Shore Scenic is operated 100% by volunteers, save for two managers, and paid ticketing and cleaning staff during the summer months. Although run by the museum, the railroad is a separate corporate entity. The track is owned by the railroad authority, which contracts out maintenance. NSSR pays an annual rental/maintenance fee to the authority to use the line.

The operating season typically begins in April and winds up in late December with short Christmas City Express and Bentleyville Holiday Light Shuttle Trains in Duluth. The railroad also derives revenue year round by providing storage for rail cars for both leasing companies and Class One railroads.

Over the years a variety of locomotives have pulled NSSR trains including five steam locomotives: Duluth & Northern Minnesota 2-8-2 No. 14, Duluth & Northeastern 28/DM&IR 2-8-0 No. 332, Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 No. 261, Soo Line 2-8-2 No. 1003 and Soo 4-6-2 No. 2719. Motive power today comes from the museum collection, and includes DM&IR SD18 No. 193, Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic RS1 No. 101, Erie Mining F9A 4211, Great Northern NW5 No. 192 and SD45 No. 400, Soo Line SW1 No. 320, GP30 No. 700 and FP7 No. 2500A. On tap for future operation are Northern Pacific GP9 No. 245 and SD45 No. 3617.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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