As Duluth residents continue to debate the future of an endangered scenic railroad, the Duluth City Council took up a proposed ordinance Monday night that could designate the rail line a local "heritage preservation landmark."
The Duluth Heritage Preservation Commission unanimously recommended the council bestow that status on the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad, but that effort has met with resistance from what might seem like an unlikely party.
"At this time, the property owner - which is the city for a portion of this area - is not supportive of this nomination," said Keith Hamre, the city's interim chief administrative officer, at a council agenda session Thursday.
A large stretch of tracks will need to be removed to allow for the cleanup of riverfront property that was once home to the former U.S. Steel mill. Because of pervasive contamination, the area has been designated a Superfund site.
The city has developed a plan, supported by Mayor Emily Larson, that would shorten the 6-mile-long scenic railroad, trimming 1½ miles from the westernmost end of the route. If implemented, the plan would have the train line ending at Mud Lake instead of the Oliver Bridge, where it does today. A recreational trail would share the railway's right-of-way for most of the route and would replace it for the remaining portion.
The Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad opened in 1870, introducing rail service to Duluth for the first time and fostering the city's growth. When it ceased commercial operation, much of the line was conveyed to the city of Duluth. It has operated in recent years as a completely volunteer-run scenic railroad, and letters from supporters of the service have poured in to city councilors in recent weeks, beseeching them to save the rail line in its current form.
But Hamre noted that that past city councils have respected the wishes of property owners when deciding whether to designate local landmarks. He pointed to St. Peter's Church as an example. In 2015, the Duluth City Council unanimously denied a request to declare the shuttered St. Peter's Church a landmark, when its owner - St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish - objected out of concern that it could complicate efforts to sell the property.
However, that parallel drew questions from 2nd District City Councilor Joel Sipress, who challenged Hamre's assertion that "the city" opposed the nomination.
"Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that the 'city administration' is not supportive of this?" he asked.
"Because it would seem to me that if the City Council ... was supportive of this, then, in fact, that means the city, as the property owner, is supportive of this," he said.
Hamre acknowledged Sipress' point, saying: "You're correct. City administration is not supportive of this."
Mike Poupore, chairman of the Duluth Preservation Commission, suggested the city administration's claim of ownership and its efforts to block the landmark status for the railroad are misplaced.
"The bottom line is that you and I and every resident of Duluth owns that railroad," Poupore said.
"And the city administration can't dictate what happens to that without due process."
Sipress asked Hamre what bearing the "preservation landmark" status would have on the city's ability to do as it wishes with the railroad.
As for the prospective implications of the proposed designation, Hamre responded: "Does it limit our choices? That is a hard one to answer. I think it creates another step in a process that is very arduous to begin with."
The railroad already is recognized as a historic resource, so Hamre said the city will need to consult with Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office, an entity that will consider any adverse impacts the pending cleanup could have on the rail corridor.
He called the landmark status "redundant."
"I think it would create additional work that is probably not necessary," Hamre said.
Poupore said the "preservation landmark" status would require the city to run any proposed changes to the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad past the preservation commission. While the commission can make recommendations, he said it lacks any enforcement authority, leaving the city at liberty to disregard its guidance if it wishes.
"All it does is give more recognition to the property itself," Poupore said.
"Not only will this give some notoriety to the railroad and the excursion train, but it will be kind of a catalyst," he said, noting that the landmark status could bolster the case for the railroad to be included on the National Register of Historic Places.
The ordinance to recognize the railroad as a landmark should receive a second reading on Tuesday, Nov. 13, and that date is the soonest it could go to a vote.