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Stearns County Railroads
Written by:  Tom Steichen

Railroads in Stearns County

Prior to 1866, travel to and within Stearns County was by riverboat, stagecoach, wagon, horse or foot.

The first railroad “to” St. Cloud was completed in 1866, coming into East St. Cloud (in Sherburne County) from St. Paul and running along the east side of the Mississippi River. It was not until 1872 that rail was actually laid within Stearns County, crossing the river into St. Cloud and extending to Melrose during that year, with stops at St. Joseph, Avon, Albany, Oak (now Freeport), and Melrose. In 1878 the line was extended through Sauk Centre and continued northwest toward Alexandria. A branch line was built from Sauk Centre north to Browerville (in Todd County) in 1882. All of this eventually became part of the “Great Northern” system. Great Northern’s predecessors also built a line up the west side of the Mississippi River, from Minneapolis to Clearwater and into St. Cloud in 1882. Then in 1885-1886, they built a line from St. Cloud to Rockville, Cold Spring, Richmond, Zion (now Roscoe), Paynesville, and then southwest to Willmar (in Kandiyohi County).

A competing “Northern Pacific” line was laid from Little Falls (in Morrison County) in 1881, stopping at Spaulding (in Melrose Township at that time), Sauk Centre, and Stiles Station (in Ashley Township) 

The “Soo” line, passing through Kimball Prairie (Kimball), Paynesville, Georgeville (Crow River Township), Belgrade and Brooten, was built in 1886. The last mainline railroad built in Stearns County was also a “Soo” line. It was built in 1907 and branched off the existing line near Brooten, passing through or near Elrosa, Greenwald, New Munich, Albany, Holdingford, then northeast toward Duluth.

All of these tracks remained in place with little change until recent times. Their presence was so important to our ancestors that towns often flourished or failed based on access to the rail. Some towns even picked up and moved their buildings to sites nearer the rail and others gave concessions to the railroad company to ensure passage through their town. For example, the pioneer village of Maine Prairie ceased to exist when the railroad was laid but a few miles south through Kimball Prairie and its buildings were moved there, and Fair Haven lost much of its vitality to newly founded South Haven, which sprung up directly south but on the coveted tracks. Half of the platted town of Melrose was ceded to the rail company in exchange for routing a line through town, while Freeport came into existence and Albany flourished because of that decision. Waite Park grew almost exclusively due to the railroads, as most of the early workers in town were employed in the railroad industry. Paynesville (on the Great Northern line) lost out to New Paynesville (built on the Soo line when it came through), though its name was retained for the surviving village.

©2002-2018 Thomas Steichen
and used with permission


Page last update: 12 Oct 2018