Lunchtime Tourist

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April 19, 2004 // UPDATED 1:20 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Linda Koutsky
Linda Koutsky

Milwaukee Road Depot, 300 Washington Ave. S., and 225 3rd Ave. S.

As light-rail prepares to zip into town, let's stop and ponder the history of railroads in Minnesota. Everyone knows James J. Hill was the "Empire Builder," but how did it all really start? With a simple track between St. Paul and St. Anthony laid out in 1862 by Pierre Bottineau and a grizzled exploration party.

Within five years, tracks stretched 400 miles to Chicago. And in order to bring even more trains into town, Hill's massive Stone Arch Bridge was completed in 1883 -- the same year his Northern Pacific Railroad made it to the West Coast.

A competing line, the Minnesota Central Railroad, first laid tracks in 1864. Through mergers, the company became Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad, then simply Milwaukee Road.

Minneapolis' population was booming, and by the 1890s the city was served by 20 different rail lines. Imagine the commotion of 29 steam trains departing daily and pulling more than a thousand railcars. Along with a steady stream of new residents, cars held wheat, corn and materials for building a metropolis.

But all good things eventually come to an end. Individually owned automobiles afforded fast travel and stole passenger service from railroads. After Word War II, rail travel dwindled but hung on for several more years.

Then, in 1971, Milwaukee Road discontinued passenger service, and Hill's Great Northern Station, which stood at Hennepin Avenue South near the Mississippi, was demolished in 1978.

Lucky for us, the city didn't give up on the Milwaukee Road Depot. Today the 115-year-old National Register property is home to a hotel, water park, special events space and includes an ice rink under one of the few remaining long-span, truss-roofed train sheds in the country (look for the perforated star patterns on the iron supports).

The now-"Renaissance Revival" depot was designed by Chicago architect Charles Frost and renovated by Elness Swenson Graham Architects, based at 500 Washington Ave. S., and Shea, Inc., 100 N. 6th St. Frost's original architectural drawings are framed in corridors surrounding the original waiting room.

LUNCH TIP: Charley's at the Marriott in the Depot complex serves walleye fingers and regional

specialties in the lobby restaurant.

Send your tips to thelunchtimetourist@hotmail.com.