By Michael Mitchell
In the mid-1800s, this part of the state was known as the Big Woods.
In 1866 the right-of-way for a railroad was mapped out to run west from Minneapolis. The St. Paul and Pacific Railroad was constructed and reached the town of Howard Lake in 1869.
Because of the area being known as the Big Woods, and the availability of water from the lakes and rivers in the area, towns were planned along the route. The engines were steam-driven so they needed to be frequently replenished with wood and water to keep the trains running.
The St. Paul and Pacific Railroad went into foreclosure in 1879 and the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railroad Company was formed. Later, in 1889, the Great Northern Railway Company was organized.
The railroads were needed to keep these small towns alive. The towns became small hubs for shipping and receiving goods and mail. Railroads also became a source of transportation for these towns.
While growing up in Howard Lake in the late 1940s, I remember the trains that were pulled by steam engines stopping at the Howard Lake Depot to load and unload goods such as lumber and farm equipment.
I also remember the mail trains going through town. A mail sack would be taken from the post office down to a pole which was near the depot. This pole was called a catching post. The mail sack would hang from this catching post. When the train traveled through town, the mail car extended an iron arm that snatched the mail sack from the post, then pulled the arm back into the mail car where the mail was sorted. Mail was also dropped off at the depot. That was done by simply throwing the mail sack from the moving train as it continued on its journey.
I remember in the early 1950s, a mail train went through town and it was unable to throw the mail sack off by the depot because there was a freight train parked on the side track blocking the depot. The mail sack was thrown out on the lake side of the track. Not wanting the mail sack to go into the lake or down the steep embankment, it was merely dropped out the side door of the mail car. It bounced back onto the track and was run over and torn apart by the steel wheels of the cars behind the mail car.
Mail was flying everywhere. Some of it blew into the lake. A group of local kids and adults were rounded up to help search for and pick up the mail that was scattered everywhere. In the 1960s, the mail trains were replaced by trucks.
In the 1940s, the passenger trains were still operating through Howard Lake on the Great Northern system, but were not stopping at each town. Anyone that wanted to get off in Howard Lake had to let the conductor know so he could slow the train down. The passenger would then jump off at their own risk.
During the Depression, many rode the rails in freight cars, seeking work in towns along the rail system. The railroads usually overlooked these hitchhikers who were frequently homeless and penniless. Many of the people made the rails their home.
When the trains first started operating in this area in 1869, there were five men who were responsible for running the train. They were the engineer, the fireman, the conductor and two brakemen. Their jobs were extremely hard and dangerous.
The locomotives weighed about three ton. Because they were steam-driven, many times they blew up, often killing anyone in the locomotive. The trains did not exceed 35 miles per hour. Trains were also likely to break or become uncoupled, and jumped off the tracks.
The brakemen were responsible for hitching and unhitching the cars, as well as slowing the train by manually turning a wheel which operated the brakes on each individual car. No matter what the weather, they had to go outside the rail cars and manually turn the wheel to slow each car down one by one.
Many were crushed or run over by the trains when they were performing their job. By the end of the 1880s, most trains were equipped with reliable and efficient Westinghouse air brakes. The automatic couplers along with the new air brakes, saved many rail workers lives.
All trains were equipped with a caboose which was usually the last car of the train. The caboose was also called a "crummy." It usually had eight wheels and inside were bunks, lockers, a stove, table, and a desk for the conductor, along with other supplies.
The caboose was the rail workers' home away from home. This is where they ate, slept, played cards, did their paper work, and where they watched for hot boxes. Hot boxes were when a wheel would run out of grease and throw sparks, sometimes igniting grass fires, sometimes starting a box car on fire.
I remember one of the town characters showing me and some buddies a penny that had been flattened by a train. For the remainder of one whole summer, while playing along the lake shore and railroad tracks, we would put pennies on the rail as a train was approaching, in an attempt to have it flattened. After the train had passed, hours were spent looking for the pennies that magically disappeared. I don't think we ever did find one of them.
We would even place pennies in front of the wheel of a train that was stopped and wait for it to leave and then search for the flattened penny to no avail. Once the penny got into the rocks around the track, they were impossible to find.
Today the way the trains go through town, my best advice would be to stay off the tracks and to play in the park.
More HL trivia
The answer to the trivia question about the Rabinowitz store is that it was a clothing store, mainly men's clothing. It was located in the Scanlon Building, (recently torn down) next to Joe's Sports Shop. The store reportedly had the best prices in town. The family lived above the store.
Mary Robinson called to tell me that she had gotten the information from another local lady, Ardis Munson, who remembers buying a pair of shoes at the store.
The trivia question for this week is: after prohibition ended, where was the first Howard Lake Municipal Liquor Store located, and what was the name of it?