Burnsville's Railroads

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Reprint from Burnsville 1976 Some additions/changes).

The St. Paul & Sioux City Railroad

Historians often focus on transportation when telling the story of a city's development. The progression from water to rails to highways is familiar, and it aptly applies to Burnsville. Along the northern border we have the Minnesota River, the railroad running alongside to the south, and just a little further south, Highway 13 paralleling both up on the bluff. The route of Highway 13 follows in significant part an old trail used by the Dakota, for important villages were located along the river.

This article focusses on the railroad. Modern travelers seldom think much about it as they enter Burnsville from the north. Some are aware that until early 2015 it carried coal to the Black Dog Power Plant. Perhaps they learned this while waiting at the Cliff Road crossing after Walmart opened. In any case, questions arise from time to time about its origin and use.

The following passages are excerpted from The History of the St. Paul & Sioux City Railroad, 1864-1881, by Gen. Judson W. Bishop.

The Minnesota Valley Railroad Company was organized in 1864 under an act of the Minnesota Legislature approved March 4th, 1864. The act granted to that company all the "lands, interests, rights, powers and privileges" granted to the then 
Territory of Minnesota by and under the 
so-called Land Grant Act of Congress 
approved in1857, and which
 were conferred on the then so-called 
Southern Minnesota Railroad 
Company by act of the 
Legislature approved 
May 22nd, 1857, 
pertaining to the 
proposed line of
 railroad from 
St. Paul via 
points named 
to the southern boundary of the state in the direction of the mouth of the Big Sioux river, where Sioux City now is.

“Congress had granted to the state six sections of land per mile of the railroad as a bonus for its construction; and a subsequent act granted four additional sections per mile which were duly transferred to the Minnesota Valley Railroad Company by act of Legislature approved March 2nd, 1865. “In 1865 the road was located and constructed from Mendota to Shakopee, 22 miles; and in 1866 it was expended eastward from Mendota to West St. Paul, 6 miles, terminating at South Wabasha street and was extended westward from Shakopee to Belle Plaine, 19 miles, making then, in all, 47 miles of completed road.

“Successive extensions were completed to LeSueur in 1867, to Mankato in 1868, to Lake Crystal in 1869, and to St. James, 122 miles from St. Paul, in 1870.

“Meantime, in 1869, the Minnesota Valley Railroad Company and the Minnesota Central Railroad Company joined in the construction of the bridge over the Mississippi river, and of the line from Pickerel lake (two miles east of Mendota) to the site of the present Union Depot in St. Paul, so arranged on the river side as to exchange freight with steamboats, there being then no direct railway connection at St. Paul for the east or south.

On the 7th day of April, 1869, the name of the company was changed from the Minnesota Valley Railroad Company to the St. Paul and Sioux City Railroad Company, the road in that year having run out of the valley at the south bend of the river, and having reached the open prairie at Lake Crystal on its way towards Sioux City.

“The Minnesota river in those days…. was navigable and therefore a competitor for April, May, June, and July, as far up as Mankato, and a part of the time to Fort Ridgely and the Redwood and Yellow Medicine Indian agencies.

“During the spring and summer of 1867, the terminus of the road being at Belle Plaine, we arranged with the steamer "Mollie Mohler" to make a round trip daily, leaving Belle Plaine on arrival of our morning train from St. Paul, to Mankato and return, to connect with our afternoon train to St. Paul. Other and larger boats made frequent trips whenever they could find a paying load, and at that time the railroad wanted and needed all the business the country afforded.

“…. The country between Mankato and Sioux City, a stretch of nearly two hundred miles, was in 1871 and 1872, when the road was under construction, a naked prairie, almost as destitute of trees as of human inhabitants. As during those and the following years the lands were being taken and occupied by actual settlers, the company by precept and by example tried to encourage the planting of trees; and, for ten years, young trees, cuttings, and tree seeds were transported to every station free of charge. The beneficent results of this policy are now apparent to one who sees the splendid groves surrounding the comfortable farm houses and shading the parks and streets in the villages and cities, and who remembers the utterly blank landscape of thirty years ago.

Imagine it’s 1870!

Imagine living in Burnsville and taking a train to Mankato in 1870 or so! Glancing at the map you would see that your route would take you through the following towns along the way, beginning at...

Nichols station (Burnsville) Hamilton (renamed Savage in 1901)
St. Lawrence
Belle Plain
Le Sueur

An 1865-style locomotive needed to take on water about every 20 miles! Normal best speed was between 15 and 20 mph