Local view: Before 'saving' the LS&M, we first need a viable plan for its future
August is a historic month for the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad. Its final spike was driven Aug. 1, 1870, and passenger service between St. Paul and Duluth began three weeks later.
August 2017 finds Duluth's civic leaders considering the future of a 5.2-mile stretch of the railroad — all that remains of the original 154-mile track — as the city moves forward with the St. Louis River Corridor Initiative.
The city owns the track. Current plans include shortening it to about four miles, terminating at Mud Lake where a causeway carries the railroad over the water. For the last 37 years, the city has allowed a small group of volunteers, organized as a nonprofit called the "Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad," to operate sightseeing tours on the road.
The modern LS&M, described by railroad historian Aaron Isaacs of the Heritage Rail Alliance as "a rather frail operation with an aging volunteer base," is a modest affair. Its rolling stock consists of three cars pulled by a 1946 switch engine, and neither the cars nor the locomotive represent the era of the original LS&M (1863—1877). The train offers twice-daily trips on summer weekends, and volunteers estimate it serves up to 5,000 passengers a year. According to Isaacs, that is very low ridership for a heritage railroad.
Many believe the railroad should be saved because of its historic significance, and there is no arguing its place in Duluth's history. The original LS&M together with the Duluth Ship Canal made Duluth the city of destiny at the head of the Great Lakes. Simply put, the LS&M is essential to Duluth's creation story. And although it contains no original rails, ties, nor spikes, what remains of the LS&M qualifies for listing on the National Register of Historic Places as a "railroad corridor historic district."
I'm a big supporter of preserving important pieces of our past and have argued to retain several historic Duluth buildings. Those efforts lead me to the conclusion that it's not responsible to save a landmark without a well-financed plan in place for its successful renovation and future.
For buildings that means adapting the structure's interior for modern reuse and securing financing for not only the renovation but moreover the building's future maintenance and operation. The idea is to not simply save the landmark but to also get it back to serving the community.
So it's not enough to simply save a portion of the road. There must also be a plan to adapt it for future use. In this case, that would mean turning the LS&M into an authentic heritage railroad that would contribute to the local economy by drawing significant numbers of visitors to Duluth.
Creating such a railroad would be expensive. It would include purchasing historic rolling stock, moving it to Duluth, and likely renovating it. A proper depot and train shed would be needed to protect that investment and create space for a gift shop and exhibits. Such a facility would require ample parking and restrooms and handicap accessibility and may require purchasing real estate for new buildings — and, of course, liability insurance.
Moreover, operating a full-sized locomotive to pull a historic train on the existing line would require replacing all of the track beyond the Tate & Lyle chemical plant in Riverside, still in use by Burlington Northern Santa Fe. The remaining road, which Isaacs reports consists of 1890s-era 67-pound rail atop cinder ballast, is unsafe for the operation of a full-sized locomotive and train. In fact, the rail bed's current condition already limits the LS&M's current locomotive to a speed of about five miles per hour.
The city already is financing a ski hill and an aquarium, neither of which it owns, while trying to pull the public golf courses it does own out of the red. It sure doesn't need to get into the heritage railroad business, too, especially when Duluth already has a world-class heritage railroad and railroad museum in the North Shore Scenic Railroad and Lake Superior Railroad Museum. (Together they hosted 154,000 visitors in 2016; in 2015, their two "Thomas the Train" weekends alone added more than $8.5 million to the local economy.)
So it would fall to the volunteers of the LS&M — hobbyists who currently struggle to cover the cost of diesel fuel — to finance the railroad's renovation, infrastructure expansion, and safe ongoing operation and maintenance well into the future.
And even then, the city, as owner, would remain liable for the railroad — and operating a railroad is dangerous work. When considering the railroad's condition, it is surprising Duluth ever allowed anyone to use it, let alone that the city is considering saving a portion of it for train operation.
Even if the railroad was safe, retaining the causeway also would add to future environmental costs. The railroad's ties, with an expected working life of 40 to 50 years, need replacing. Wooden railroad ties are soaked in creosote, a toxic, carcinogen-laced byproduct of oil refinement used as a water and insect repellent. Placing such ties over the causeway would leach carcinogens into Mud Lake and subsequently the St. Louis River.
Currently millions of dollars are being spent cleaning up environmental disasters at the nearby former U.S. Steel site and the St. Louis River. Retaining a causeway that leaches carcinogens runs completely counter to those efforts. Alternatives to wood-and-creosote ties include concrete and imported ironwood, both of which would add significant cost to the project.
So the questions for our city leaders boil down to these: Can Duluth afford the costs, financial and environmental, of retaining all or some of the historic LS&M railroad and adapting it for safe, long-term modern reuse that contributes to the community? Is the volunteer LS&M up to the task of raising tens of millions of dollars to support that investment by creating a viable historic attraction?
Or, if we retain the existing rails and allow the LS&M to continue operating, how long will the LS&M use the railroad? Because if that group dissolves, then Duluth would be stuck with several miles of unused railroad along the river — industrial complex in an otherwise natural setting — when it could have spent less money creating a multipurpose trail that serves a much larger portion of the community year-round.
I appreciate the passion today's LS&M volunteers have for the historic LS&M and personally would be very happy to see both survive. Heck, if it were feasible, I'd love to see the railroad rebuilt all the way to Fond du Lac. But I also feel that retaining the railroad without investing in its adaptation for a successful future would be irresponsible.
Whether all, some, or none of the original LS&M is retained, Duluth can and should celebrate the railroad's history with, at the very least, interpretive signage along its historic path. And if portions are removed, Duluth will have literally tons of salvaged historic rails, raw material local artists could use to create a fitting memorial to the railroad that made Duluth the city of destiny at the head of the Great Lakes.
Could rail bikes save the railroad?
There might be a way to retain and reuse the historic rails of the Lakes Superior & Mississippi Railroad, but it would not include the operation of a diesel or steam train.
The historic lightweight rails may not be able to handle a full-sized train, but they could certainly handle rail bikes: four-wheeled, pedal-driven vehicles that actually ride on the rails. They are fast becoming popular at heritage railroads across the U.S.
These two- to four-passenger rigs can operate individually but are more often hooked together to form "bike trains." Not every passenger has to peddle, so small children, the elderly, and the other-abled also could enjoy riding along the historic rails from Riverside to Mud Lake.
Rail-bike train excursions also could create a start-up business or help an existing operation such as The Duluth Experience expand its offerings. Guides could share not only the railroad's history but also the history of shipbuilding in Riverside, the company town of Morgan Park, the Minnesota Steel Plant, the St. Louis River, and many other topics related to our history.
But even rail bikes would not resolve the environmental and financial issues surrounding the causeway over Mud Lake, and the railroad bed still will need renovation and maintenance. And if it turns out the rail bikes aren't popular enough to sustain a successful operation, once again Duluth would be faced with the question of what to do with the railroad.
Duluth author and historian Tony Dierckins is publisher of Zenith City Press, which celebrates historic Duluth and western Lake Superior at zenithcity.com. For more information about rail bikes, Dierckins suggests: atrrm.org/blog/2017/01/trend-spotter-rail-bikes.