The Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Railroad, commonly known as the Soo Line from a phonetic spelling of Sault, helped Minnesota farmers and millers prosper by hauling grain directly from Minneapolis to eastern markets.
Prominent Minneapolis businessmen founded the railroad, originally called the Minneapolis, Sault Ste. Marie and Atlantic, in 1883. But Israel Washburn, governor of Maine and brother of Cadwallader (C.C.) and William Washburn, had proposed such a railroad to the Minneapolis Board of Trade as early as 1873.
William D. Washburn was the railroad's first president and one of its founders, along with Thomas Lowry, Charles Pillsbury, H.T. Welles, John Martin, George R. Newell, Anthony Kelly, C.M. Loring, Clinton Morrison, J.K. Sidle, W.W. Eastman, William D. Hale, and Charles J. Martin. These men paid for the railroad without public money or land grants, which was extremely rare for railroads of the time. Also rare, their railroad had a reputation throughout its history as being free of corruption and irregular business practices.
The railroad's first track ran forty-six miles from Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, to Bruce, Wisconsin. It opened for business in June 1884, leasing connecting track from Turtle Lake to Minneapolis from another railroad, the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha. In 1887, the Minneapolis, Sault Ste. Marie and Atlantic Railroad reached the port of Sault Ste. Marie, allowing grain and flour to be shipped directly from Minneapolis to eastern markets by rail for the first time. Previously, Minneapolis and the surrounding area were at a disadvantage, since Chicago- and Milwaukee-based railroads controlled access to markets in the East. The Minneapolis, Sault Ste. Marie and Atlantic Railroad broke their stranglehold and set rates more favorable to farmers and millers of the Upper Midwest.
In 1888, the railroad was renamed the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie, often called the Soo Line. New track was built regularly through 1915, expanding the line across the Upper Midwest and into Canada. Canadian Pacific Railway was a majority stock owner in the Soo Line from 1888 on, but the Soo Line continued for years as a separate company, with Thomas Lowry as president.
The primary business of the Soo Line was hauling grain, but the railroad also carried lumber, iron ore, and passengers. In 1909, it took over operations of the Wisconsin Central Railway, signing a ninety-nine-year lease, to further expand its operations in Wisconsin. Both the Soo Line and the Wisconsin Central slid into bankruptcy during the Depression of the 1930s, with the Soo Line recovering first, in 1944.
The railroad continued to haul freight profitably through the 1950s but discontinued its passenger service as competition from automobiles and lack of ridership cut into profits. Local Soo Line passenger routes were stopped first, in 1959, followed by the line's summer vacation routes. The best known of these routes, The Mountaineer, stopped in 1960. The last Soo Line passenger train anywhere along the line traveled between Milwaukee and Calumet, Michigan, in March 1968.
Years before that, in 1961, the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie officially merged with the Wisconsin Central Railway and the Canadian Pacific-controlled Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railroad. They formed one new company, the Soo Line. This company made money immediately and continued to focus on transporting grain.
In 1985, the Soo Line bought one of its longtime competitors, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific (known as the Milwaukee Road). A large part of the Soo Line spun off to form a new Wisconsin Central in 1987, and in the 1990s, Canadian Pacific Railway took over what was left of the Soo Line, ending its existence as a separate company.
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In 1887, the Minneapolis, Sault Ste. Marie and Atlantic Railroad (later called the Soo Line) reaches the port of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, opening the first direct rail route from the grain markets of Minneapolis to the markets of the East.