To walk along a set of train tracks is to follow its path into the past. Locomotives have rules which do not burden cars and ships. These 200-ton diesel engines can’t U-turn at an intersection, nor can they raise their sails to catch a change in the wind. They move along two distinct paths: where you’re going, or where you just came from. The main line that cuts through Osseo and runs along County Road 81 through Maple Grove is a conduit connecting the steam-powered runners of the past to the long-nosed diesel freighters of the present.
According to the Maple Grove Historical Preservation Society (MGHPS), the first Maple Grove station was located in Dayton Township, just off of Territorial Road. This combination passenger and freight depot was built in 1909, and was serviced by James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railway. MGHPS member Jim Weber chronicled the history of his own family and the part the railroad played in their daily lives: “My parents moved to Maple Grove in 1920. Their farm buildings were one-fourth mile from the depot. My mother told me she would take the afternoon train to Rogers for dental appointments with Doctor S.E. Dick.”
Automobiles were still a luxury in 1920, and a two-car family was nearly unthinkable. If the Webers didn’t own a car, or Mr. Weber needed it for business that day, the passenger train may have been Mrs. Weber’s only mode of transportation.
These days, the railroad has reversed course and hauls the goods to the people. Great Northern Railway became Burlington Northern Railroad, which then purchased the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway purchased this Burlington Northern (BN) in 2009, and it is the mighty BN that now owns the main line through Maple Grove.
Following the twisting tracks through Osseo, one can speculate the industry tracks snaking in to Phoenix Packaging and Conagra Foods buildings are awaiting a BN delivery of grain hopper cars to load up and haul to the BN switching yard in Northtown.
The Great Northern Railway once carried cross-country travelers from Maple Grove west past Rogers and Monticello, into St. Cloud and through Grand Forks and Devil’s Lake in North Dakota. They could catch a train and chase their dreams all the way to the Rocky Mountains, or further yet to the Pacific Coast. The exuberance of hopping on a train, uncertain of its destination has all but dissipated from the collective American spirit. That is, unless you’re a freight engineer on the railroad.
Former Union Pacific engineer Steve Beattie reminisces on that nearly forgotten spirit of riding the rails: “My favorite times running a road train were those quiet moments when your conductor is asleep and you can only hear the roar of the engine. The snow is so deep that you can’t see the tracks, and it’s your chance to be with your thoughts and to focus on the task at hand.”
That task was delivering grain to Grand Forks so North Dakota families have a meal to eat. It means moving crude oil tankers through the Twin Cities safely, so they can reach the Rosemount refinery and become the fuel which heats Minnesotan homes. Railroaders are curators of the past, and caretakers of the future. Little did Mrs. Weber know, as she was pulling away from the Maple Grove station to visit the dentist, that the promise of progress was pulling itself alongside the track right beside her.
About the writer: James McManis, above with Steve Beattie (left), began his post-graduate career at Union Pacific as a switchman. He soon gained the skills to switch out 100-car trains coming north from Kansas City or going south to Iowa in the South St. Paul switching yard. His favorite jobs were delivering cars to Hazel Park and loaded auto-racks to Western Avenue on the overnight shift. Although the freight engine is no longer his office, he can still be spotted wearing steel-toed Red Wings on winter walks with the dog in Maple Grove.
For more information on the history of the railroad in Maple Grove, visit the Maple Grove History Museum on the second Sunday of every month from 1-4 p.m.