DULUTH-Efforts to preserve the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad received a boost this week, when the Duluth Planning Commission voted 8-0 in support of designating the line a local historic resource.
The future of the volunteer-run scenic railway has been thrown into question by a pending cleanup of the former U.S. Steel mill site in Gary-New Duluth. The Superfund project likely will necessitate the removal of tracks from the area, and it remains unclear whether sufficient funding will be provided to restore rail service to the area.
Parks Manager William Roche said his department has taken no position either for or against the historic nomination, but he did request the Planning Commission hold off acting on the proposed designation until the anticipated 2019 completion of a mini-master plan for Duluth's Western Waterfront Trail.
Nevertheless, the Planning Commission registered its support of the historic designation Tuesday, opening the door for the Preservation Commission to send its recommendation to the Duluth City Council for consideration.
Roche said many uncertainties about the proposed cleanup remain.
"The city has not yet reached terms with U.S. Steel. So we cannot confidently say A or B will happen. If the U.S. Steel project did not include the restoration of the rail, it is unclear how the city would fund that within its own means or from any granting source," he said.
The rail corridor running along the banks of the St. Louis River belongs to the city of Duluth, and there has been discussion about possibly reusing it to extend the Western Waterfront Trail.
Mike Casey, chairman of Friends of Western Duluth Parks and Trails, said many residents favor a rail-plus-trail option.
"The community has spoken loudly and clearly that the rail corridor is important to us. The trail is also important to us," he said. "Both of them are important. Let's not jeopardize either."
Mike Poupore, chairman of the Duluth Heritage Preservation Commission, spoke of the important role the rail line played in Duluth's development when it began service in 1870.
"This is the first original rail line into Duluth, and this is what built this city and nothing short of that," Poupore said. "We're making efforts to try save our history."
Dick Winkler, an LS&M Railroad volunteer, also described the rail line as instrumental to Duluth's growth, saying: "That's what made Duluth come alive, way back when."
Lynne Hall, another railroad volunteer, credited the line for breathing life into Duluth.
"That's when commerce started and Duluth started being a city," she said.
Poupore said the proposed designation of the railroad as a local historic resource would provide recognition but likely little defense of the line.
"Even if it is locally designated, it doesn't protect the rail from being destroyed. The city or any other entity could still take the track down and not put it back. So it's more of an honor to the railroad itself to recognize it at this point in time. It doesn't hamstring anybody or tell them what they can and can't do with it," he said.
But Poupore said the local designation potentially could help the railroad gain national recognition.
Casey warned against allowing the line to slip away.
"We are losing our history in western Duluth. It's where the city began. It's where all the money was made in this town, besides the Range," he said.