Different form of transportation follows local train tracks

By Tom Hintgen

Otter Tail County Correspondent

Many baby boomers remember riding the rails on passenger trains close to Pebble Lake and Swan Lake, southeast of Fergus Falls, and through Dalton and Ashby. This was the case until rail passenger service ended in 1971. 

Today, the rails are no longer in place but the route remains as part of the Central Lakes Trail. Many county residents think about those passenger train days when hiking or walking dogs along the trail.

Also using the trail, during the winter months, are snowmobilers and cross country skiers.

James J. Hill led the way for construction of the Great Northern railway system, from the Twin Cities to Seattle, from 1889 to 1893. The rail line was the culmination of Hill’s dream. 

Hill did much of the rail route planning himself, traveling over proposed routes on horseback. He was known as the “Empire Builder” which today is an Amtrak passenger train in honor of Hill.

When walking along the train route, a person is amazed at how much work was involved in filling in low spots or advancing through hills in order to place the rails. It was hand labor and limited earth-moving equipment in the late 1880s and early 1890s.

Just before 9 a.m. each morning, at the Great Northern railway station in Fergus Falls during the 1950s and 1960s, passengers waited to board the Red River train heading eastward to the Twin Cities, with stops along the way.

The official boarding time just north of downtown Fergus Falls was 9:12 a.m. 

The train began its journey at 6:30 a.m. in Grand Forks. After stopping in Hillsboro, the train reached Fargo at 8:01 a.m. After a stop in Barnesville, the next train stop was in Fergus Falls. 

Heading eastward, passengers in the train passed along the north side of Pebble Lake and near Swan Lake on its journey to Alexandria where the arrival time was 10:01 a.m. There were two more stops, at Sauk Centre and St. Cloud, before the train arrived in Minneapolis at 12:35 p.m. 

For those departing the train in Minneapolis, it was only a walk of about three blocks to downtown.

People could board the train for the return trip to Fergus Falls, starting at 4:55 p.m. To many, it was perfect timing, with the opportunity to purchase an evening meal in the Red River train’s dining car. 

Heading west, the train reached St. Cloud at 6:08 p.m. After departing Alexandria at 7:24 p.m., the train passed by Pelican Lake near Ashby and Pebble Lake a short while later. In 1971, the last year of train passenger service, the Red River arrived in Fergus Falls at 8:18 p.m.