Editor's note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared Feb. 16, 2008.
WORTHINGTON — I drove east on 60 one of these February mornings to get a winter glimpse of that two-mile railyard Union Pacific developed between Worthington and Brewster through the summer past.
I kept the speedometer at 60; I didn’t want to dawdle in Highway 60 traffic. Still, three semis rolled around me, loose snow flying.
Zoom! Zoom! Zoom!
No doubt those truckers had choice words for a Sunday driver on a weekday morning. I said, “Hey! You watch your language!”
Beyond the main line, there were three strings of grain cars along three railroad tracks where never in this Earth’s history were there railroad tracks before. Any one of those strings of cars would have made a full train in a time gone by. We are seeing some of the most substantial rail traffic our region has ever seen.
I watched through the summer while those UP men and their machines carved that yard. It appeared the men were eating more than pork and beans, coffee and brown sugar day by day. Dried apples and rice on some days. That was the total menu for the 600 men who first built our railroad, from St. James to Sioux City. For water — for making coffee — the men dug shallow wells as they went along, or they drank from flowing springs.
Those 600 men worked six months, May to November. They came up short. A November blizzard stopped them in their tracks. Literally.
The workers were divided into nine crews, each crew at a two-mile interval. Each man worked a 10-hour day for $1.75, or 17.5 cents an hour. At each month’s end, each man paid back $4 for his pork and beans, coffee and brown sugar.
There was a gimmick. The men laying the tracks between St. James and Worthington were employed by the St. Paul & Sioux City Railroad. The StP&SC was given 855,200 acres of U.S. prairie land for its efforts. The crews at the opposite end — the men laying track from LeMars to Worthington — were employed by the Sioux City & St. Paul Railroad. The owners were the same, but the names were switched. That qualified the SC&StP for another 230,000 acres of land.
One million acres plus 85,200 acres of southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa farmland. What is more, some of those acres could be divided into town lots and sold in small parcels.
To begin with, all the land was tax exempt. Legislatures are not always foolish. The railroad considered sitting on its lands as prices went up; lawmakers slapped on a land tax. Land in the local area — today up to $3,000 and more an acre — went on the market for $5 to $8 an acre.
By August 1870, “our” railroad still went only as far as Madelia. A writer for The New York Times made the Madelia run:
“Our trip down the Sioux City Road was made on Saturday. Conveyed to the (St. Paul) depot in carriages, we found a ‘special’ or, as they call it out here, a ‘wild’ train waiting for us. Besides our own party, quite a number of ladies and gentlemen belonging to St. Paul took part … among the latter being Gov. Austin, Ex-Gov. Marshall, Gen. Sibley …
“The day was bright and beautiful, and the road in first-rate running order. … We halted at Mankato for a few minutes, and from there progressed slowly to Lake Crystal …
“Hitherto no trains have run further than this, but the track having been completed as far as Madelia … we made for that point, running slowly and cautiously for fear of accidents.
“We arrived at Madelia about 1.30 p.m. and pending the preparation of lunch, some of us amused ourselves by watching the process of track-laying about half-a-mile further on, an operation which progresses at the rate of only about half-a-mile a day, iron not arriving fast enough to proceed more rapidly.
"All this (route to Sioux City) has been graded … the bridge to cross the Watonwan River has been framed at St. Paul and will be carried up the line today …
“When this road is entirely built there will be a continuous railroad between Lake Superior and San Francisco …”
The birth of our region was but months away.