maritime transport

FreightWaves Classics: The Soo Line was founded to serve the millers and farming interests of the Twin Cities

As many railroad enthusiasts know, there were once hundreds of North American railroads. Over the decades, bankruptcies, mergers, acquisitions, etc. drastically reduced this number. There are now only seven Class I railroads in North America, and that number is expected to drop to six in the near future. Both Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway have made offers to buy Kansas City Southern Railway.

The Soo Line Railway

The Soo Line Railroad (SOO) is the principal American subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CP), controlled by CP through its Soo Line Corporation.

Early in its history, the MStP&SSM became known as “Soo” or “Soo Line” due to the phonetic spelling of Sault. Sault is a French word meaning waterfall or rapids.

Ancient history

The railroad was created for one purpose: to improve transportation options for millers in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. The Twin Towns are located along the upper Mississippi and fairly quickly became the main flour-producing region due to the St. Anthony Falls, which provided the millers with an almost unlimited source of energy.

A map of Soo Lines rail lines.  (Picture: Wikipedia)
A map of Soo Lines rail lines. (Picture: Wikipedia)

The first American presence was Fort Snelling, which was founded in 1825. Grinding began almost immediately and grew over the years. The town of St. Anthony was incorporated in 1849; Minneapolis was founded in 1867. As Milling grew, so did the region’s population. A railroad was needed to bring the flour east to the population centers of the country.

The first railroad was incorporated in 1853 but did not begin operations due to lack of funding. The Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad began construction from Minneapolis in 1871, but by November 1867 what later became the Milwaukee Road had laid tracks connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul to Milwaukee and Chicago. Additionally, Chicago & North Western and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy had also paved the way to the Twin Cities.

While it was good to have multiple train connections, there was one problem common to all of them – they all served the area via Chicago. This meant that the millers in Minnesota were beholden to Chicago interests and the freight rates they charged for hauling the freight. (This was before the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission, or ICC, by Congress, which was given regulatory authority to set railroad freight rates.)

Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Mary Railway

Consequently, several Twin Cities businessmen incorporated the Minneapolis, Sault Ste. Marie & Atlantic Railway (MSStM&A) on September 29, 1883. They were determined to build their own railroad and bypass Chicago. The owners of the new railway were mainly millers. Their plan was to ship their flour to the east coast via southern Canada. The flour could then reach Boston to be shipped across the Atlantic Ocean.

The railway was to be built to Sault Ste. Marie on the south bank of the St. Marys River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. From Sault Ste. Marie, the flour could cross into Canada via Ontario and the southern provinces of Quebec.

Because the railroad owners were financially well off, construction of the railroad proceeded quickly. It began in April 1884 and moved both west from Cameron, Wisconsin to Turtle Lake, where the railroad had rights to use the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis Railroad track & Omaha (“The Omaha Road”) to Minneapolis-St. Paul. At the same time, a path was traced to the east. The new railroad reached Rhinelander in 1886 and Sault Ste. Marie on December 10, 1887.

By late 1888, Canadian Pacific was connected to the MSStM&A from a branch line that extended from its main line at Sudbury to Sault Ste. Mary, Ontario. While this was crucial for the MSStM&A, it was also very important for CP.

Canadian Pacific was Canada’s first transcontinental railway. But it was in competition with the Grand Trunk Railroad, another railroad that mainly served the eastern provinces of the country. CP management was concerned that the Grand Trunk might reach Sault Ste. Mary first. However, CP got the gateway, and then its long history with the Soo Line began.

The MSStM&A then built a dedicated rail link from St. Croix to the Twin Cities which was completed in January 1888. The Minneapolis & St. Croix Railroad completed the gap with Minneapolis and was the last piece in a route of 501 miles through the Upper Midwest. .

The construction of western branches to bring agricultural products to flour mills had also taken place. In 1884 the Minneapolis & Pacific Railway was chartered; he reached Boynton and Bismarck, Dakota Territory in 1887. But meanwhile the Minneapolis, Sault Ste. Marie & Atlantic had financial problems.

Two Soo Lines locomotives at the head of the train.  (Photo: Wikimedia/Slambo)
Two Soo Lines locomotives at the head of the train. (Photo: Wikimedia/Slambo)

Railway “wars” of the 1880s and 1890s

There were nationwide financial upheavals during this period, as well as the consolidation of the railroads by the “Robber Barons” (particularly the Vanderbilts and James Hills). Canadian Pacific did not want its American rail connection taken over, but it also did not have the financial resources to buy the Soo Line itself.

Because CP lacked the resources to invest in the Soo line, two of its top investors financed the acquisition in April 1888. They risked their fortunes to secure CP’s American presence, which had endured for more than 130 years. .

At this point, Minneapolis & Pacific, Minneapolis & St. Croix and Minneapolis, Sault Ste. Marie & Atlantic were amalgamated by CP on June 11, 1888. The 737 miles from Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie Railway (MStP&SStM) is created. On June 3, 1889, the first westbound train for St. Paul left Boston on June 3, 1889.

CPR’s finances improved significantly in 1890, allowing the Canadian Railroad to control the Soo after obtaining the financed debt from the American Railroad. Using similar tactics, CP took control of the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railway, which carried mostly iron ore from the Duluth/Superior area to Sault Ste. Married.

As the Soo Line and other railways built their networks in the 1880s, James Hill had also built the Great Northern Railway. When completed in 1893, it ended the Northern Pacific Railroad’s monopoly in the Pacific Northwest.

Until then, the Great Northern and CP carried freight and passengers between the Twin Cities and Vancouver, which was CP’s main west coast port.

To maintain and grow this business, CP funded an MStP&SStM extension to Portal, ND, which sits along the Saskatchewan border. The project took from 1891-93. CP also built a short branch from Portal to its main line in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and a third line that terminated in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Additionally, the Soo Line built a number of branch lines to carry grain primarily from North Dakota and eastern Montana.

Like many railways, it also grew through the acquisition of a number of smaller shortline railways. But in 1909 he also acquired the Wisconsin Central Railway, which owned 1,000 miles of track, as well as nearly 2.4 million acres of land granted by the U.S. Congress.

A 1931 advertisement for the Soo Line.  (Image:
A 1931 advertisement for the Soo Line. (Image:

Significant events of the 20th century

The Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie succeeded even though it relied too heavily on agriculture and competed with a number of other railroads that also served the Upper Midwest. Like many businesses of all sizes, however, it struggled during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

At the start of the Depression, it was able to lend $2.2 million to its subsidiary, Wisconsin Central, to avoid bankruptcy. Nonetheless, Wisconsin Central went into receivership in 1933. The MStP&SStM also went into receivership in 1938, and in 1944 it was reorganized as Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Mary Railway. Wisconsin Central did not emerge from receivership until 1954.

After World War II, the MStP&SStM flourished. He replaced sections of older tracks with new, heavier rails and bought new diesel locomotives. He retired his last steam locomotive early in 1955.

Two Soo Line locomotives at the head of a train.  (Photo: Flickr/Nate Beal)
Two Soo Line locomotives at the head of a train. (Photo: Flickr/Nate Beal)

Corporate reorganizations

Canadian Pacific’s three US subsidiaries – Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie, the Wisconsin Central and the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic – had been operated as generally self-contained units. This changed on October 19, 1949 when the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railway was incorporated in Minnesota as the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railroad. Then, on January 1, 1961, the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Railroad and the Wisconsin Central Railway merged with the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railroad and the new entity was officially named the Soo Line Railroad. A shortline railroad – the Minneapolis, Northfield and Southern Railway – was added to the Soo Line Railroad in June 1982. Then, in 1985, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (known for decades as the name of Milwaukee Road) was acquired after him. declared bankruptcy.

In the decades since these changes, much of the equipment and rolling stock has been replaced or repainted in CP colors. Until 1990, Canadian Pacific held 56% of the common shares of Soo Line Corporation. That year, he bought the rest of the shares. Currently, all US subsidiaries of Canadian Pacific are grouped under the name Soo Line by the US Surface Transportation Board.

Today’s Soo Line Railway exists only on paper, but like many of the hundreds of successive railways since the 1820s, it exists in the hearts and minds of railway enthusiasts. trains.

Most of the information in this article comes from the American Rails website (, which is a wealth of information! FreightWaves thanks American Rails for their assistance.