The Duluth Union Depot was built in 1892, served seven different rail lines, and accommodated 5,000 passengers. In 1973 it re-opened, housing the Duluth Art Institute, Lake Superior Railroad Museum, St. Louis County Historical Society, and five performing arts organizations. Between 1977 and 1985 it served Amtrak’s Arrowhead (Minneapolis–Duluth) and North Star (Chicago–Duluth) rail lines. Renovations to the Duluth Depot have been proposed to serve the Northern Lights Express rail service from Minneapolis to Duluth.
The Depot in Service
This building is actually the second depot built on this site. The first was built in 1869 and was a small wooden building. That same year a large group of Swedish immigrants arrived in Duluth. They traveled here for a chance to work on the construction of the first railroad line in Duluth, the Lake Superior and Mississippi. The First passenger train arrived in Duluth the following year. Within the next twenty years the population of Duluth grew and number of railroad lines served the area. In 1891 ground was broken for the Duluth Union Depot the Depot you see today.
In its heyday the Depot served seven different railroad lines and housed the railroad offices, a newsstand, barber shop, parcel room and lunch room. By the turn of the century the building handled 26 trains a day. Passenger service began to decline in the middle of the century and the building saw its last train in 1969. The Depot was then slated for demolition but was saved by the people of Duluth and was placed on the national register of historic places in 1971.
Amtrak started passenger service departing from the Duluth Depot in 1974, offering daily service to St. Paul. This service was extremely popular and continued into the mid 1980s, when political restructuring and other cutbacks in service ended Amtrak’s 10 year stay in the twin ports. The last Amtrak passenger train left Duluth on Easter Sunday, 1985.
Celebrating 124 Years in the Northland
Built on the site of the original wood-framed Depot of 1870, this magnificent building sprung up on the edge of the lake, and opened its doors to the world in 1892. Not only does this Union Depot serve 7 rail lines, with up to 50 trains arriving and departing daily, it also becomes a temporary haven to the early immigrants arriving from distant lands.
Architects, Peabody & Sterns of Boston, designed an elaborate French Norman-style building using many local materials quarried at the time such as granite, sandstone and yellow brick. The magnitude and influence of the railroad industry is evident with the dramatic towers and steep roof design seen on many other grand stations of the day.
The historical elements of the era all come together in the building’s design with architectural concepts to depict Duluth’s emerging population: strong, adventurous individuals who travel the seas to arrive in a rugged, but beautiful area to establish a new life. With a castle-like appearance and style – the Depot was designed to greet its guests with a romantic and impressionable welcoming.
Construction took nearly two years, at the cost of $615,000. The original wooden depot remained throughout construction, resting in the center of the tracks under the train shed, until operations could safely be transferred to the new station. It was then disassembled. The original depot location is now home to the LSRM model railroad building.
The first train departed the new Depot in March of 1892, and it continued to serve seven railroads: Duluth & Iron Range, Duluth Missabe & Northern, Duluth Superior & Western, Great Northern, Northern Pacific, St. Paul & Duluth, and the Duluth South Shore & Atlantic until the last train departed in 1969. It ended a century-long era of sky’s the limit development & rail transportation.
The Depot will eventually be placed on the National & State Register of Historic Places, after it survives potential demolition, and is saved by the citizens of Duluth. It will become home to many historical and performing arts organizations and be valued by the community forever.
Reinventing the Duluth Depot
In the winter of 1969 a lone BUDD Rail Diesel Car, with less than ten people on board, departed Duluth’s Union Depot on its final run to meet the Northern Pacific’s North Coast Limited in Staples, MN for the latter’s run to the West Coast. None of the people on board that train would continue on, they just wanted to say they were the last to ride a passenger train out of Duluth. While AMTRAK later ran trains from Duluth, this was the last of conventional railroad service that began for the Depot when it first opened in 1892.
By 1969 local passenger trains of the SOO Line, Omaha, Milwaukee Road, DM&IR and Great Northern had all faded into what composer Steve Goodman wrote, in “The City of New Orleans”; “This trains got the disappearing Railroad Blues.” Arlo Guthrie and others would make that song a hit in the same year that AMTRAK was formed, 1971.
A year earlier, on March 2, 1970, the Great Northern merged with the Northern Pacific the CB&Q and the SP&S to former the Burlington Northern Railroad, today’s BNSF. That meant that the building which is now the St. Louis County Heritage & Arts Center, the Depot, instantly became “surplus property” and was meant for disposal.
Between the coming of AMTRAK and more railroad mergers, there was no shortage of “surplus property” that the railroads were looking to unload to get off the tax rolls. Communities across America were offered everything from Depot’s to Freight Houses, to cabooses and even old office buildings. The only questions was; what to do with them?
Four people in Duluth figured it out. They were Don Shank, Vice President and General Manager of the DM&IR, his assistant and railroad historian Frank King, Wayne Olson, who was a railroad enthusiast and worked for the City of Duluth and a local attorney, Leo McDonnell, who would become the St. Louis County Attorney.
They envisioned a place where the area’s finest Arts, Culture and History Organizations could move into and live rent free, allowing them to use valuable resources to better serve their missions to grow and become the heart and soul of Arts, Culture and History in our area. The free rent would be possible because of public support and because guest/visitors, then called tourists, would pay to see what these men, and early volunteers like them, would build into a world class railroad museum, originally named the Lake Superior Museum of Transportation, it is today’s Lake Superior Railroad Museum.
Working with long time Congressman John Blatnik, Mayor Ben Boo and St. Louis County Commissioners, the work began. First they had to own the building. Duluth’s Junior League undertook a Twin Ports and County wide campaign to raise the quarter million dollars that the building, which was in excellent condition, and for the time being, was still being occupied by the railroad, would cost. It was a bargain!
Once that was accomplished the founders raised $4.7 million dollars in grants to start the refurbishing of the structure and start building the train shed for the Railroad Museum. The work was not easy and it easily overshot their budget. Many local, regional and national companies rushed in to help finish the dream any way they could. They donated railroad equipment, they restored that equipment, and railroads sponsored train trips on their lines and brought in First Class equipment from their remaining passenger fleets to operate these excursions. They contributed large amounts of cash, employee time and in-kind services. All the money went to build out the Depot and establish the Museum.
These founders, and there were many of them not mentioned by name, like Marilyn Persch, who contributed time, talent and treasure to the project. However, none of them were thinking about that day, those months and years or their time, they were thinking about the future and what the Depot would be like and represent twenty, thirty years in the future.
Today the Depot is a Community Treasure on the National Register of Historic Places, a beautifully restored building used for a wide range of events, over a quarter of a million people come here a year!
The Depot houses four Museum’s including a world class Railroad Museum and is home to America’s longest, continuous running Community Playhouse and has the training and coaching studios the nationally acclaimed Minnesota Ballet. The Duluth Art Institute is one of only two FREE art galleries in the Twin Ports. The St. Louis County Historical Society is the Northeastern Minnesota’s most valuable attic. The Arrowhead Chorale and Matinee Musicale offer a wide range of musical selections.
Simply put, the Duluth Depot is the Heart and Soul of Arts Culture and History for our region!