The First and Last Soo Line Passenger Trains

Apr 17, 2019

For this week's A Northwoods Moment in History, Gary Entz tells us about the Soo Line Passenger Trains.

The Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Railroad, more commonly known as the Soo Line, formed in 1884 and became a significant part of Northwoods history.  Although the company was primarily a freight railroad and was never one of the nation’s great passenger railroads. It nonetheless provided passenger service to the Northwoods with a branch of its Laker passenger train.

The Soo Line reached Rhinelander in 1886 and pushed on rapidly to Sault Ste. Marie, reaching that terminus late in 1887.  In Rhinelander the Soo Line built a depot, water tank, and roundhouse east of Thayer Street. The Soo Line offered Northwoods residents passenger service to Minneapolis-St. Paul with connections available to Chicago.  The first passenger train pulled in to Rhinelander from Minneapolis at 3:00 pm on November 23, 1886.  It was a special train of two locomotives pulling six Pullman cars and a dining car for 42 dignitaries.  The railroad representatives were welcomed by a civic committee, a band, and a crowd of several hundred people and then whisked off by sleigh to view the mills and to a fine reception at the Rapids House.

Seventy-four years later, the last Soo Line passenger train passed through Rhinelander, and the contrast with the first train was striking.  Automobile culture had overtaken the United States after World War II, and fewer people were relying on passenger trains to get around.  In the 1950s small carriers like the Soo Line suffered heavy financial losses on their passenger lines, and by the end of the decade the writing was on the wall.  The Soo Line applied to the Interstate Commerce Commission to discontinue its passenger service through the Northwoods, and in 1960 the request was granted.

At 1:40 am on March 6, 1960, a small handful of people braved the sub-zero cold to watch the last train pull in from Sault Ste. Marie.  Train No. 7 was running late, but when it arrived it consisted of a single locomotive, a mail car, a baggage car, and a single coach.  A woman and her daughter got off the train in Rhinelander while a lone man headed for Minnesota boarded.  A second ticket out of Rhinelander on this last Soo Line passenger train was punched for Woodboro, but it was never used as it was purchased by a railroad memorabilia collector in Iowa.

As the last Soo Line passenger train departed the Thayer Street depot at 1:55 am on that frosty March morning in 1960, there was no civic committee and no band.  Only three railyard workers and a few residents were on hand to witness the end of seventy-four years of Northwoods railroad history.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. The photo above is used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.