Goin' to the end of the line

Posted by Andy Cummings
on Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Minnesota Northern picks up cullet at WarroadThe towns along Minnesota Northern Railroad’s Warroad Subdivision could form the backdrop for Garrison Keillor’s stories, or provide set locations for the Coen Brothers’ movie Fargo. Tall gray grain elevators provide the only vertical relief; each fall, they fill with the bounty of the fields that stretch north into Manitoba, and south until they transition to marshes on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. In summer, Warroad sees its share of visitors in the form of boat-towing Twin Citians who make the eight-hour trek to fish for walleye on Lake of the Woods. Across the lake lies the Northwest Angle, the northernmost point in the lower 48 states, which would be part of Canada but for a surveyor’s mistake.

I got to know this part of the world in summer 2002, when I worked as an intern reporter for the Thief River Falls Times and Northern Watch newspapers. The area intrigued me. Far from any city, the towns of Roseau (pop. 2,758) and Warroad (pop. 1,656) seemed to thrive. Roseau is home to all-terrain vehicle manufacturer Polaris, while Warroad hosts Marvin Windows and Christian Hockey, a major manufacturer of hockey sticks.

One sticky July day, I got an invite from Minnesota Northern’s general manager, George LaPray, that I couldn’t turn down: He asked if I’d like to ride the line on a rare mileage special as a guest of the railroad. George was hosting the special for Clark Johnson’s High Iron Travel, and he didn’t have to ask me twice. My friend Bill Becker, then a Thief River Falls-based CP engineer, followed me in his truck to Warroad. We spotted my car there, returned to Greenbush, and boarded the train.

Now, I can see where, for some folks, crossing one of the most obscure branch lines in the country at 10 mph might be boring. But I love obscure branches, and with car Montana’s superb open observation platform, Bill and I got to ride with a gentle breeze blowing across our faces. We waved to passing cars at crossings and enjoyed conversing with people who’d come from across the country to bag “mileage” on the Warroad Sub.

The Warroad SubAfter I climbed off the train at Warroad, engineer Howard Devine and conductor Tim “Brock” Broekemeier cut away from the observation cars and coupled to a loaded cullet car that Marvin had released. After I snapped this photo, Bill and I followed the “mixed train” back to Roseau, where it tied up for the night. It was a magical July day, one I’ll never forget.

I only tell the story today because, about a month ago, I wrote this story for TRAINS News Wire on the railroad’s application to cut the line back from Warroad to Roseau, a 20-mile retrenchment. Traffic has been falling, with just 49 cars moving to Warroad last year. Fortunately, Roseau is home to a unit-train-shipping elevator, which will hopefully keep the surviving part of the branch vital for years to come.

My generation of railfan has been lucky, in that most of the rail lines we’ve gotten to know and love, if anything, have been upgraded since we were young. As the industry has gotten stronger and more profitable, trains got longer and rails got heavier. Still, there are lines just like the Warroad Sub all across the country that gain and lose traffic with the vagaries of the marketplace. Do you have one of these in your back yard? What will its future be? Will there be a role for 10-mph branches at all two decades from now?


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