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All aboard for a history of railroads to Winsted
Jan 16, 2012
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By Linda Scherer
Staff Writer

The Luce Line Trail is a legacy of railroads that traveled from Minneapolis through Winsted to Gluek in the 1900s

WINSTED, MN – For more than half a century, trains blew their whistle while rumbling into Winsted on the Luce Line, named after the Luce family of Minneapolis.

William Luce, a successful grain trader, and his son, Earle D. Luce, were responsible for getting the Electric Shortline Railway to Winsted Feb. 13, 1915. Later, in 1924, after a reorganization of the company’s bond holders, the railroad was renamed the Minnesota Western Railroad, which laid track to Gluek, where the Luce Line ended.

Railroad enthusiast Gary Lenz, a 1970 Holy Trinity graduate, grew up in Winsted and enjoyed watching the trains.

“What kid doesn’t like trains? I was interested from little on up,” Lenz said. “As a kid, I used to play down there when the trains would come through.”

Lenz’ fascination with trains led him to do years of research on the Luce Line, and he has become an expert on its history.

He has given presentations to various organizations including the McLeod County Historical Society, and plans to write a book sometime in the near future, which will include photos and history of the Luce Line.

Recently, after searching for more than 20 years, Lenz was ecstatic when he found a 1915 Winsted map at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

“There is an incredible amount of history on maps,” Lenz said.

The map Lenz found confirms stories he has heard from one-time railroad employees about the Luce Line’s tracks ending in Winsted for approximately one year.

Because the tracks ended in Winsted, the Electric Shortline Railway had a system to turn the train around, which shows on the map as an inverted “Y.”

The railroad also made accommodations for making layovers in Winsted. This included, close to the “Y” switch system, a water tank (which Lenz believes to have been located where the old blue Sterner Lighting building is), a stockyard, and a car shed.

“My theory is that the railroad put in on that “Y” a car shed for storing the gas electric and steam locomotives, a stock yard for cattle, and the water tank which would be able to provide water to the livestock, as well as water for the steam engines,” Lenz said. “Remember, Winsted didn’t have a water system in 1915, and if you’re going to store cattle, you have to provide them with something to drink.”

The map is just another piece to what Lenz calls a large puzzle that makes up Luce Line history, pieces he has been trying to put together since 1987.

That was the year he was working on Winsted’s Centennial book, and people would come to him with photos and information on the Luce Line.

Even after the centennial book was published, Lenz continued to do research on Luce Line history. A number of one-time railroad employees who Lenz interviewed were able to fill in some of the missing pieces of his puzzle.

Men like Francis Littfin who was the depot agent in Winsted from 1928 until the depot closed in 1967, and former train conductor, Gerald Lewis.

From all of his research, and indicated on another map he found at the National Archives, Lenz discovered branch lines from the Luce Line north to Howard Lake and south to Lester Prairie and New Auburn.

“So, Winsted was intended to be a major railroad terminal, at least for awhile,” Lenz said.

However, the only line that did progress went west. First, the Luce Line had tracks laid to Hutchinson which were completed in 1916.

In 1927, the Luce Line was within 12 miles of Montevideo, where investors had planned to end the Luce Line, but they ran out of money. The Gluek family, known for its brewing company, had been investors in the Luce Line, and received the honor of having the town at the end of the line named after them, according to Lenz.

Railroad employees referred to Gluek as the coast, something that Lenz finds amusing.

“If you have ever been to Gluek, it’s out in the middle of the prairie. There probably isn’t even a creek that runs near it,” Lenz said.

Lenz said he has considered “The Coast” to be the title of his book on the history of the Luce Line, but has other ideas for the title, as well.

“If I had tried to write this book 15 years ago, I wouldn’t have the knowledge of the Luce Line like I have today,” Lenz said.

He said the story of the Luce Line will be different from the story of the Great Northern Railroad, a successful business.

“The Luce Line basically is considered a failure as a business,” Lenz said. “Obviously they were going to go broke several times.”

But it was a success if you think of the many businesses that were able to flourish because of the transportation provided by the railroad, Lenz said.

“The first major businesses located near the Luce Line were the Farmers Elevator and Green Giant. Each went up within a couple of years of each other and needed the railroad,” Lenz said.

Lenz also listed Littfin Lumber, Pure Milk, and Sterner Industry, which were all dependent on the railroad for transporting goods.

“Lumber, coal, steel – Millerbernd got huge sheets of steel off the train,” Lenz said. “We used to see these forklifts drag huge sheets of steel down streets, that were dirt and gravel. It sounded like someone scraping their fingernails down a blackboard.”

“I remember when Winsted’s gas lines were put in, in 1964 or 1965, and all of the pipe came in on the train, and the beams for the Holy Trinity gymnasium,” Lenz said.

At one time, the train brought passengers and mail to Winsted, as well.

“As the roads were getting better in the country, the importance of the railroad dwindled,” Lenz said.

Several influential men were responsible for keeping the line operating until the last freight train rode the Luce Line in 1972.

Harry Pence, who was associated with Win Stevens of Win Stevens Buick, gained control of the Minnesota Western in 1927. He also operated the Minneapolis Northfield and Southern Railroad. He operated both railroads together because they met in Golden Valley by Highway 55. The two lines merged and then ran on one track into downtown Minneapolis, where Target Center is today, Lenz said.

Then, the Cargill family bought the Minnesota Western because they were building a big grain terminal in Savage, which is still there today, according to Lenz. Cargills purchased the railroad for about $100,000 in 1941, and it remained the Minnesota Western.

The Cargills owned the Minnesota Western until 1956, when it was sold to the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad, founded by the Washburn family, with ties to General Mills. It was renamed the Minneapolis Industrial Railway in September 1959.

Soon after, the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad was merged into the Chicago Northwestern, and the Minneapolis Industrial Railway became known as the Chicago Northwestern.

It was the Chicago Northwestern Railroad that abandoned the Luce Line and removed the tracks in 1972 and 1973.

“The Luce Line is a testament to the people of 1915 and 1916, who donated their property and invested their money because they needed transportation,” Lenz said.

Lenz is hoping that this article on the Luce Line and his newly-discovered map will help others recall something regarding the railroad and they will e-mail him at Gary.Lenz@gdc.com.

Some additional facts about the Luce Line

• In 1928, there were two passenger trains a day that used the Luce Line.

• The last passenger train was the Minnesota Western, Sept. 10, 1947. After that, the tracks only carried freight. The exception was in March 1958, when a diesel locomotive passenger special ran from Minneapolis to Hutchinson.

• In 1946, more than 1,000 carloads of freight was shipped through the Winsted depot.

• The fastest train on the Luce Line could get up to 40 miles per hour.

• The Luce Line was built over Winsted Lake because the original plan had been to build a high speed railroad, and curving the track around the lake wouldn’t allow the train to go at high speeds.

• The trestle built across Winsted Lake was 600 feet long.

In October 1955, the instability of the trestle across Winsted Lake caused one of the rails to come loose, which caught a wheel and brought the train to an abrupt stop. Called draft action, according to Lenz, all of the other cars were still trying to go forward. The cars smashed, lifted, and started falling in the lake.

The train cars that fell into the lake in 1955 included one car of cheese, seven cars of corn, and two cars of oats. The locomotive was on the east side of the lake, and the caboose was on the west side, and neither fell into the lake. No one was hurt.

It took two weeks to extend the track around the lake, and the railroad was back in business again.

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