The Steel that Connects Us
There is one thing that continues to strike me as I do more and more research. We are incredibly interconnected, both between one another in modern times and with people and events of the past. One particular example sticks out to me with the research I’ve done in the past couple days.
Back in December 2008, a westbound train struck the rear of another westbound train stopped on the tracks ahead of it outside of Dresbach, MN. This caused a major derailment with the locomotive of the colliding train falling into the Mississippi beside the tracks. Fortunately, only two people went to the hospital for treatment and were released. So all in all it was a relatively minor incident. I remember that when I heard about it, I thought it was unfortunate. However, I had never been to Dresbach before (since then I’ve only driven through it once looking for a gas station) and had no real connection to the incident, so I went on with my day like nothing happened.
As it turns out, if that train hadn’t derailed and had been allowed to continue along its track, it would have eventually passed in front of our house on the way into downtown Saint Paul. What made me recall this accident was the research I’ve done lately on the history of railroads in Minnesota and, more specifically, in the young township where our house was built and our land was farmed. The track that train was traveling on was one segment of a railroad line built by the Saint Paul and Chicago Railroad Company (one of the companies that later combined to form the Milwaukee Road) between 1869 and 1872 from Saint Paul to the state border at La Crescent. That line was the very first railroad in McLean Township and “our” segment between Saint Paul and Hastings was the first to be built in 1869. For many of the township residents (especially those that were born there or never went into town), it possibly was the first train they ever saw (the first railroad in all of Minnesota was built only seven years prior in 1862).
Back in the 1860s, and for some time after that, railroads were almost the single factor in broad economic development for an area. Having a railroad nearby meant that settlers could get to previously unreachable areas of the state, that farmers could get their wheat to the mills at Saint Anthony Falls, and that lumber and mining companies could get their respective product to distant markets. This era saw “town site fever” where wealthy land speculators would plat new town sites along proposed rail lines. Whether or not those railroads were built, and if built whether they were successful, made the difference between whether these platted towns would be settled. Whereas the very first towns in Minnesota located next to navigable rivers and the very few territorial roads, starting in the 1860s almost all cities that we now know in this state located where they did to be along a rail line.
The Zahn family, who in 1869 grew 45 bushels of wheat on the land where we and our neighbors now live, were likely able to get their wheat to the mills at Saint Anthony by rail. When most of their neighbors were still sustenance farming, the Zahns were one of the first families farming for profit in McLean Township and they were likely able to do so because of the railroad.