“Save the Depot: The Impact of Railroads on Northfield,” by Anonymous

The United States did not always conduct business on such a large scale. Before railroads flourished across the country, businesses were forced to remain local, which also placed less strain on the environment. However, route lines sprang up throughout the country, promising high market demands and low operating costs.[1] With the installation of railroads across the country, cities started to flourish alongside, altering the landscape of the country. Railroads brought more efficient means of transportation for people and goods, which allowed cities to expand and grow at an incredibly fast pace. Even Northfield, the city of “colleges, cows, and contentment,” relied heavily on the railroad to prosper. Railroads are a major part of Northfield’s history, but today the railroad depot is no longer used; passenger travel came to a halt in 1969.[2] Although this old depot is essentially abandoned, many Northfield residents are banding together in an attempt to save the depot from demolition, arguing that it holds historical significance. In this paper I will explain how railroads played a role in the founding of Northfield, how it relates to broader trends in environmental history, and why the people of Northfield feel the need to save the unused depot today.

The land where Northfield was built attracted settlers for several reasons. The soil quality is excellent, there are many sites for farmers to choose from, and the rivers provide ideal sites for mills due to the vast water resources.[3] John Wesley North, the man who first became interested in the area, noticed the land’s assets.[4] However, the area’s location proved to be the main “selling point”. He wanted to have a railroad running south to Iowa and eventually, beyond.[5] He realized that without the transportation that a railroad provides, the good qualities of the local land meant nothing. He needed a way to ship goods to make a profit and provide a way for people to come and go. Based on his hunch that the area would be a great spot for a railroad, he decided to found the city of Northfield there in 1855.[6] Much to North’s dismay, installing his dream railroad proved to be a difficult task.[7] In 1858 work began on the Minnesota and Cedar Valley Railroad, but unfortunately this directly coincided with a major national economic depression, and the railroad became deeply in debt to suppliers.[8] By 1859 the line went bankrupt, bringing all work to a screeching halt.[9]

Finally in 1865, a line built by the Minnesota Railway Company, later the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad, reached the city of Northfield.[10] This came just in the nick of time, for more than 800 farms occupied Rice County by 1860.[11] These farmers had access to many mills located in the city, but without the easy transportation that railroads provided, they were forced to do much of their business locally, minimizing their potential profits.[12] With the introduction of railroads into the community, Northfield flourished, growing dramatically.[13] This is a trend that we can see occurring across America at this time in history. For example, with Chicago as a central metropolis of the country, its steady, reliable market provided business for many in surrounding rural areas.[14] With many of these farming communities located in close proximity to railroad routes leading to Chicago, they became successful cities. [15]

With this growth of the city came the alteration of the environment. New mill construction blossomed on the west side, population increased, and farmers could occupy larger plots of land now that customers resided around the country.[16] This increasing construction and utilization of land for farming caused many trees to be cut for agricultural use. Prairie land was also plowed under.[17] Today there is less prairie land in the area than even Big Woods.[18] The only places where prairie lands can currently be found are in areas that are unable to provide economic profit because they cannot be plowed or grazed.[19]

Nevertheless, railroads were vital not only for the city of Northfield to thrive, but also important for surrounding cities who received goods from the lines that ran through Northfield. Northfield was a hinterland itself to the Minneapolis area, but surrounding areas also served as Northfield’s hinterland for the grain that was milled in the town.[20] This location and the installation of the railroads allowed Northfield to link the Twin Cities and the rest of the United States to the rural hinterland.[21] The cheap and easy transportation allowed local businesses, such as the Ames mill, Malt-O-Meal, lumber and coal yards, and farms, to prosper on a national level.[22] The hinterland and the city are dependent on one another; neither can exist without the other.[23] This is true not only for Northfield, but for the entire country. The people in the cities cannot survive without the resources purchased from the hinterlands, and the people in the hinterlands cannot make a living without selling to those in the cities. [24]

This idea of interdependence is the basis for central place theory, which Cronon talks about in his book Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. [25] This theory talks about how market hierarchies evolved, which eventually led to giant metropolises.[26] Without railroads, metropolises may be nonexistent today, for they provided the link between hinterland and city. The railroads followed this economic power. [27] They predominantly passed through towns with many farmers that produced high yields, rather than through communities with farmers who owned small amounts of land with less to sell. Because of the pressure to produce large amounts, specialization occurred. [28] This affected not only the economy, but the landscape as well.[29] In the past, the prairie hosted a diverse number of species, but today farmers focus on the most economically profitable species, for they can ship them in bulk across the country. [30] Unfortunately, this idea of monoculture is detrimental to the land, decreasing the biodiversity, creating a larger pest problem, and decreasing the fertility of the soil.[31]

Although the railroads were detrimental to the environment in many ways, nature fought back at times. When uncontrollable weather occurs, such as snowstorms, the trains are unable to run, which caused a milk famine in Minneapolis multiple winters in a row in the early 1900s.[32] This proves the extraordinary ability of nature to alter the ways of humans. Although in many instances humans can manipulate nature to their benefit, nature still possesses tremendous power that can render the human race helpless.

Despite these troubles brought on by the railroads, they still made a large impact on the success of the city. People used the railroads primarily for the shipment of goods, but also for transportation. With the founding of two colleges, St. Olaf College and Carleton College, many students relied on the train system to get to and from the schools for move in day and long breaks.[33] The transportation of people ended in 1969, but even without passenger use, an average of ten trains pass through Northfield on most weekdays.[34] Today, Malt-O-Meal remains the sole active rail shipper in Northfield.[35] When passenger transportation ended, the depot was abandoned. It is now in danger of being demolished.[36]

Some Northfielders want to keep the history of their city alive, and to do this they are petitioning to save and restore the depot. Although use of the depot lasted for only 80 years, they argue that it is important for historic preservation of the city, beautification of the town, education of the community, and to the sustainability of life in Northfield; restoring buildings instead of tearing them down simply to build new ones uses fewer resources. To save the depot, the committee must relocate it. The Canadian Pacific Railroad insists that it will tear it down if the building is not moved off their property. The Save the Northfield Depot organization agreed to move the depot and recycle the parts that cannot be moved in order to conduct a sustainable, environmentally friendly project. The current plan for the renovated depot is as a visitors’ attraction and community gathering place, which would promote opportunities for social interaction and public events as well as be beneficial to the environment by using resources responsibly. In fact, simply by banding together to save the building, to promote sustainability and history, it is building community spirit.[37]

Projects such as “Save the Depot” have occurred in other areas as well, with positive outcomes. For example, the depot in Hopkins, Minnesota serves as a student-run coffee house, in Wadena, Minnesota, the depot currently functions as a visitor’s center and museum, while in Faribault, Minnesota, the depot has been restored to served as a Bar and Grill restaurant.[38] There are also restored depots all across the United States that provide a historical point of reference as well as a space to foster community in places such as Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Dows, Iowa, and many more.[39]

These varied issues surrounding railroads throughout the nation’s past reflects the broad, national effect that trains possessed in our recent history. The railroad that runs through the city played an important roll both locally and nationally, providing ways to efficiently conduct business buying and selling resources, and also a mode of travel. The Northfield depot is a symbol of the city’s past. It is an indicator that the city overcame struggles, for the installation of a railroad through Rice County did not come easily or immediately. The railroad kept the city afloat and there are townspeople who are trying to bring a sense of pride to the railroad depot as a historical building. If the railroads failed to reach the city of Northfield, it is very probable that the city would be significantly less prosperous today or may be absent altogether. We need to remember and appreciate this history, and restoring a major symbol of Northfield’s past will help to do just that.


[1] Lynn Carlin, Continuum: Threads in the Community Fabric of Northfield, Minnesota (Northfield, MN: The City of Northfield, Minnesota, 1976).

[2] “Save the Northfield Depot.”  http://www.northfielddepot.org/.

[3] Lynn Carlin, Continuum: Threads in the Community Fabric of Northfield, Minnesota Northfield, MN: The City of Northfield, Minnesota, 1976), 6.

[4] Lynn Carlin, Continuum: Threads in the Community Fabric of Northfield, Minnesota (Northfield, MN: The City of Northfield, Minnesota, 1976), 23.

[5] Lynn Carlin, Continuum: Threads in the Community Fabric of Northfield, Minnesota (Northfield, MN: The City of Northfield, Minnesota, 1976), 41-42.

[6] Lynn Carlin, Continuum: Threads in the Community Fabric of Northfield, Minnesota (Northfield, MN: The City of Northfield, Minnesota, 1976), 23.

[7] Lynn Carlin, Continuum: Threads in the Community Fabric of Northfield, Minnesota (Northfield, MN: The City of Northfield, Minnesota, 1976), 43.

[8] Lynn Carlin, Continuum: Threads in the Community Fabric of Northfield, Minnesota (Northfield, MN: The City of Northfield, Minnesota, 1976), 43.

[9] Lynn Carlin, Continuum: Threads in the Community Fabric of Northfield, Minnesota (Northfield, MN: The City of Northfield, Minnesota, 1976), 43.

[10] Clifford Clark, Carole Zellie, Scott Anfinson, Scott Richardson, Dan Rogness, and Steve Swanson, Northfield: The History and Architecture of a Community  (Northfield, MN: Northfield Heritage Preservation Commission, 1999).

[11] Lynn Carlin, Continuum: Threads in the Community Fabric of Northfield, Minnesota (Northfield, MN: The City of Northfield, Minnesota, 1976), 43.

[12] Clifford Clark, Carole Zellie, Scott Anfinson, Scott Richardson, Dan Rogness, and Steve Swanson,

Northfield: The History and Architecture of a Community  (Northfield, MN: Northfield Heritage Preservation Commission, 1999).

[13] Clifford Clark, Carole Zellie, Scott Anfinson, Scott Richardson, Dan Rogness, and Steve Swanson, Northfield: The History and Architecture of a Community  (Northfield, MN: Northfield Heritage Preservation Commission, 1999), 7.

[14] Cronon, William, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991).

[15] Cronon, William, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991).

[16] Clifford Clark, Carole Zellie, Scott Anfinson, Scott Richardson, Dan Rogness, and Steve Swanson,

Northfield: The History and Architecture of a Community  (Northfield, MN: Northfield Heritage Preservation Commission, 1999), 24.

[17] Lynn Carlin, Continuum: Threads in the Community Fabric of Northfield, Minnesota (Northfield, MN: The City of Northfield, Minnesota, 1976), 7.

[18] Lynn Carlin, Continuum: Threads in the Community Fabric of Northfield, Minnesota (Northfield, MN: The City of Northfield, Minnesota, 1976), 7.

[19] Lynn Carlin, Continuum: Threads in the Community Fabric of Northfield, Minnesota (Northfield, MN: The City of Northfield, Minnesota, 1976), 7.

[20] Lynn Carlin, Continuum: Threads in the Community Fabric of Northfield, Minnesota (Northfield, MN: The City of Northfield, Minnesota, 1976), 41.

[21] Lynn Carlin, Continuum: Threads in the Community Fabric of Northfield, Minnesota (Northfield, MN: The City of Northfield, Minnesota, 1976), 41.

[22] Clifford Clark, Carole Zellie, Scott Anfinson, Scott Richardson, Dan Rogness, and Steve Swanson,

Northfield: The History and Architecture of a Community  (Northfield, MN: Northfield Heritage Preservation Commission, 1999), 19.

[23] Cronon, William, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 264.

[24] Cronon, William, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 264.

[25] Cronon, William, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 282.

[26] Cronon, William, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 282.

[27] Cronon, William, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 268.

[28] Cronon, William, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 267.

[29] Cronon, William, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 267.

[30] Cronon, William, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 267.

[31] Steinberg, Ted, Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), 276.

[32] “Northfield Southern’ Opens City Terminal: Quick Freight Service Will Operate from Seventh Street Beginning Tomorrow Passenger Trains to Begin Using Downtown Station Next Week,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, Nov 17, 1918.

[33] Clifford Clark, Carole Zellie, Scott Anfinson, Scott Richardson, Dan Rogness, and Steve Swanson,

Northfield: The History and Architecture of a Community  (Northfield, MN: Northfield Heritage Preservation Commission, 1999), 3.

[34] “Save the Northfield Depot.”  http://www.northfielddepot.org/.

[35] “Save the Northfield Depot.”  http://www.northfielddepot.org/.

[36] “Save the Northfield Depot.”  http://www.northfielddepot.org/.

[37] “Save the Northfield Depot.”  http://www.northfielddepot.org/.

[38] “Save the Northfield Depot.”  http://www.northfielddepot.org/.

[39] “Save the Northfield Depot.”  http://www.northfielddepot.org/.

 

Works Cited

Carlin, Lynn. Continuum: Threads in the Community Fabric of Northfield, Minnesota. Edited by Lynn Carlin.  Northfield, MN: The City of Northfield, Minnesota, 1976.

Clark, Clifford, Carole Zellie, Scott Anfinson, Scott Richardson, Dan Rogness, and Steve Swanson. Northfield: The History and Architecture of a Community.  Northfield, MN: Northfield Heritage Preservation Commission, 1999.

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West.  New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1991.

“Northfield Southern’ Opens City Terminal: Quick Freight Service Will Operate from Seventh Street Beginning Tomorrow Passenger Trains to Begin Using Downtown Station Next Week.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, Nov 17, 1918.

“Save the Northfield Depot.”  http://www.northfielddepot.org/.

Steinberg, Ted. Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Wigley, Griff. “Is Northfield’s Train Depot Worth Saving?” In Locally Grown Northfield, 2009.

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