Historic Structures

Wisconsin Central Freight Station (Chicago Great Western), Minneapolis Minnesota

Date added: November 16, 2018 Categories: Minnesota Train Station

Because the riverfront in Minneapolis along the Mississippi River was crowded with existing railroad tracts and industrial buildings by the late nineteenth century, the Wisconsin Central Railway Company, which was desirous of trackage into the city had few choices of where to build facilities in Minneapolis. The Wisconsin Central Company, a predecessor of the Wisconsin Central Railway Company, had been operating in Wisconsin between northern Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and Chicago since 1870 hauling timber and ore from northern Wisconsin to market cities on Lake Michigan. After financial difficulties in the 1890s, it was reorganized between 1898-1900 as the Wisconsin Central Railway Company. It owned only 28 miles of trackage in Minnesota. The Wisconsin Central Railway Company had been leasing the rails of Minnesota carriers, such as the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern, to ship cattle from Montana and grain and flour from the Twin Cities through Minneapolis and St. Paul to Manitowoc, Milwaukee, and Chicago.

Although this arrangement worked well, high trackage rentals and increasing business prompted the Wisconsin Central Railway Company in 1901 to build terminal facilities of its own in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The company, therefore, acquired two Minneapolis parcels for their use near the Mississippi River. Between 1901-1903, it built a large yard terminal on Boom Island north of Nicollet Island nearby the present freight station. The Boom Island yard was improved from low swampy land in the middle of the river. Improvements included fill, a stone retaining wall around the island, a rail yard which could accommodate over 300 cars, a roundhouse, coaling plant, ice houses, and limited repair facilities.

At the same time, the Wisconsin Central acquired use of a small 30-car yard, known as the Hennepin Yard, above Hennepin Avenue on the west side of the Mississippi. They leased trackage over the Great Northern rails and shared trackage to this yard with several other railroad companies. At the small so-called "Hennepin Yard" facility they built a freight depot facing North First Avenue in late 1901.

This freight station is a replacement for the previous 1901 Wisconsin Central freight depot, which was destroyed by fire in April, 1907. This earlier depot fronted North First Avenue and was located northwest or directly upstream of the present building. After the fire, the present Wisconsin Central Railway freight station was built fronting Hennepin between May and December, 1907 at a cost of $100,000.

This new freight station, like the previous one which burned, was not a through-station. The tracks stopped within the buildings and neither of these Wisconsin Central freight-handling facilities functioned as a major bulk transfer point within the Minneapolis Warehouse District. The purpose of the 1907 freight station was to handle less than carload lots, known as "L.c.l.s" in warehousing parlance. For the ten years that the Wisconsin Central Railway Company issued annual reports, there was never a direct description of exactly what this freight station handled. Less than carload lots of goods could be anything. It is likely that the 1907 freight station was used for the same kinds of goods as their 1901 station had handled. An account of the 1901 depot fire mentioned oil, barrels of gasoline, and other combustible merchandise, general merchandise, glass, automobiles, sugar, and "incoming and outgoing freight of all kinds" belonging to "nearly every business concern in the city."

From the available information, the freight station served downtown retail and manufacturing businesses in Minneapolis and, to a lesser extent, the Warehouse District's jobbing and wholesaling houses, and possibly the flour milling area as well, but always with less than carload lots of goods and merchandise. Support for this comes, in part, from the importance attached to the driveway on the southwest side of the building when it was designed by C.A.P. Turner in 1907, and from other circumstantial information. The open interior of the building originally had "section divisions assigned to various merchants [and] designated by appropriate signs."

The freight station was on a dead-end siding in the small Hennepin Yard near downtown. One set of tracks led into the building. The location of this freight station facing Hennepin Avenue made it the nearest transfer point to downtown retail businesses and manufacturing businesses on the edge of downtown Minneapolis. In 1907, Turner described the driveway's mushroom column and flat slab construction as having been designed to "keep this [driveway] floor on a level with the adjacent streets so that it could be used as a driveway for delivery of freight." The Turner-designed driveway ramped gently up from Hennepin Avenue, allowing heavily-loaded wagons, and later trucks, access to the loading bay doors along the southwest side of the building. Wagons and trucks carrying less than carload lots figured large in the distribution of incoming and outgoing freight through the Wisconsin Central Freight Station.

Agricultural implements, lumber, and grain do not appear to have been stored in the freight station at Hennepin Avenue. The large agricultural implement businesses and their warehouses were located northwest of the present freight station on upper North First Street and west of downtown Minneapolis within the Minneapolis Warehouse Historic District. Agricultural implements were stored seasonally in large warehouses built for this purpose or in the larger freight stations of other railroad companies in the Warehouse District, according to available maps. Full carload loads of lumber and coal were stored outdoors on the ground, according to available historic photographs. Although the Wisconsin Central was a major grain hauler, there is no historical evidence that their freight station fronting Hennepin Avenue stored grain before transfer to nearby flour mills because of the cost of handling this commodity. By 1907, grain was being stored in specialized elevators in the warehousing and industrial areas of Minneapolis. The Wisconsin Central Railway Company also had the option of leaving bulk grain in the cars for several days in its terminal lot on Boom Island before sending carloads to the nearby flour mills. In this way, the railroad could avoid unnecessary handling costs.

In February, 1909, it was announced that the Minneapolis, St. Paul, & Sault Saint Marie (Soo Line) and the Wisconsin Central would combine their Minneapolis rail terminal facilities for greater efficiency and lower operating costs. All the railroads coming into Minneapolis were losing money during this time. The building formally became the Chicago Great Western Warehouse in 1912 and was later owned by the successor firm to the Chicago Great Western. Six months after the Soo Line and the Wisconsin Central combined their terminal facilities, the Chicago Great Western Railroad Company had arranged to buy from the Soo Line the leases of the Wisconsin Central.

The Chicago Great Western employees took physical possession moving their staff into the freight station on Hennepin Avenue at the end of November, 1909. But it was not until 1912, that the Wisconsin Central sold all its terminal properties to the Chicago Great Western. The Chicago Great Western Railroad Company used the building as a freight depot until around World War II. Thereafter, the building was increasingly leased to other firms for storage. The Kelling Nut Company was a lessee from the end of Word War II until 1952. Through the 1950s and 1960s, manufacturing reps and agents and other small businesses, including floor covering and electrical sales firms occupied portions of the building. In the mid-1950s, Nash-Finch Company used a portion of the building for a fruit and assembly warehouse. In 1968, the U.S. Postal Service converted part of the first and second floors to use as a warehouse and occupied a portion of the front floors until after the mid-1970s. Other small businesses used portions of the building during the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s. The building became vacant in the late 1980s.