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Old Depot Museum - Dassel, Minnesota
Annandale History Club
October 6, 2008
Tour Guide: Howard Page

Fifteen members of the Annandale History Club visited the Old Depot Museum in Dassel. Tour guides were Old Depot Museum owner, Howard Page, and two very knowledgeable museum docents.
Note: Howard Page closed the Old Depot Museum in September 2010, and the railroad collection was sold at a four-day auction.

In 1862 the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad Company built a line from St. Paul to St. Anthony.  On June 22, 1862, the "William Crooks," the first locomotive in Minnesota with a train of cars traveled from St. Paul to St. Anthony.  The right of way through the Big Woods was cleared in the winter of 1866-67, and the line was completed to Wayzata in 1867, to Cokato, Dassel and Darwin in July1869, and to Willmar later in 1869.  Breckenridge on the Red River of the North, 217 miles from St. Paul, was reached in October 1871.  (History of Wright County, Minnesota, Vol. I.) 

In early 1869 Smith Lake (three miles east of Cokato) was the end of the railway line.  A depot was built in the spring of 1869.  There was a side track with a turntable to swing the engine around for the return trip to Minneapolis. Smith Lake became a town of some importance. The last merchant went out of business during the early part of WWI and the school closed in 1941. Today there is no trace of the town which was located on the north side of the lake called Smith Lake (about mile north of the intersection of U.S. Highway 12 and Wright County Road 5).

The St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, which reached Smith Lake in early 1869 and extended to Cokato in July 1869, provided market access for crops grown by farmers in French Lake and Albion Townships.  The rail line was extended from Smith Lake to Darwin and the first train traveled through Cokato and Dassel to Darwin on July 4, 1869.  Not until December 9, 1886, did the first train (Soo Line) roll through the future Annandale. 

In 1878, James J. Hill and associates gained control of the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad and renamed it St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway Company.  In 1890 the lines were leased to the Great Northern Railway, which had been organized in 1889.  In 1970 after a merger of several lines, the name became Burlington Northern. Burlington Northern and Santa Fe merged December 31, 1996, and the name officially changed to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway in 2005. 

The "William Crooks," the #1 engine for the St. Paul & Pacific, was named for William J. Crooks, a West Point engineering graduate and the first engineer for the St. Paul & Pacific. Crooks laid out the route for tracks through Cokato and beyond.  The "William Crooks" engine is now at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth, Minnesota.

The earliest steam engines burned wood and could travel only a short distance before refueling and adding water.  In the late 1880s steam engines could go about 50 miles before needing coal and water.  The earliest trains didn't have cinder catchers.  Passengers were advised to bring an umbrella so that their hair didn't catch on fire and to wear dark clothing because when the windows were open to catch a breeze, smoke also came through the cars.  By 1960 diesels had replaced all steam locomotives in service in the United States.

A new Dassel depot was built in 1911 to replace the first depot.  When the Dassel Depot closed, it was cut in half and moved somewhere near Collinwood Lake.

There were two other buildings which served as the Cokato depot before a new depot with separate men's and ladies' waiting rooms and bathrooms was built in 1913.  This building was in use until the Cokato railway depot was closed on July 5, 1974.  There had been no scheduled stop at the Cokato depot since May 1960.  Dassel businessman Howard Page purchased the depot in 1985 and moved it in July that year to a site on U.S. Highway 12 in Dassel.  The depot had to be cut in half to facilitate the move.  Howard Page started buying railroad memorabilia and eventually filled the depot including the freight room, a basement under the entire building, and two boxcars, with railroad treasures.  Visitors can also climb aboard and explore a 1920s caboose.

The Old Depot Museum has had many international visitors.  In our two-hour visit, the Annandale History Club members couldn't take the time to look at everything as carefully as they would like.  There is just so much to see.  Following are a few of the interesting items at the Old Depot Museum.

Waiting room benches - The long wooden benches had dividers, presumably to give each passenger his own space, but also to prevent passengers from stretching out for a snooze. Other items in the waiting room were a scale, community telephone, and a potbelly stove.

Depot office - There was a display of seals, sealing wax and stamps. The Railway Express Agency was the safest way to send packages.  Interesting items in the depot office were the telegraph, a switchboard, a ticket window that locked, old Oliver typewriter, and a flyswatter made out of animal skins.      

Photos of James Jerome Hill (1838-1916) - Young and old images of Hill hang in the depot agent's office.  Hill was a short man.  It is said that he could lay track with the best of his men and he also took a turn shoveling snow from the path of trains on which he traveled.  James J. Hill earned the name "Empire Builder" for his work in developing the area of the United States between the Great Lakes and the Pacific Northwest.

The first transcontinental rail line was completed across the U.S. in 1869 from Omaha to Sacramento.  James J. Hill's transcontinental railway, completed in 1893, combined existing lines and new construction and ran from Lake Superior to Puget Sound, Washington.  It was the northernmost continental route and was the first transcontinental rail line built without government aid.  Hill later founded a steamship line offering the first direct transportation between the United States and the Orient.

Conductor's punches - Every punch was different.  Each conductor developed his own shape so he could recognize his punch and not be cheated.  Other railway employees could identify which conductor punched a ticket.  The conductor was the "boss of the train."

Rocky the Goat - Rocky's image appeared on signs, advertising, playing cards, etc., as the symbol of the Great Northern Railway.  Another frequently used image on calendars and playing cards was that of Blackfeet Indians, especially for advertising the lodges and hotels in Glacier National Park built by James J. Hill.

Lanterns - There are hundreds of lanterns at the Old Depot Museum. Each color was used to signal a different situation.  A red lantern meant "stopped train ahead."  A blue lantern or blue flag meant "working on the train; don't move it."  If the train stopped unexpectedly, the brakeman would light flares.

Train artwork - Currier and Ives, Norman Rockwell, framed railroad ads, depot paintings, hobo pictures, and technical drawings of engines and railroad cars, are just a few of the types of artwork represented at the Old Depot Museum.

Date nails - These were two or three inch long nails with the year stamped on the head. They were installed in new railroad ties.  If the tie rotted or broke, the crew could tell how long the tie had been in use.

Link and pin coupler - This was a very dangerous device for connecting cars.  People lost their limbs and lives using them.  In 1893 Congress passed the Railroad Safety Appliance Act, which required railroads to install automatic couplers and air brakes on all trains. 

Spittoons - There was a brass spittoon in the men's waiting room and a porcelain spittoon with dainty floral design in the women's waiting room.  The following sign was posted:  "Spitting on stations platform and approaches, being a misdemeanor, is punishable by $500 fine, a year in prison, or both. Sanitary Code Sec. 194, Penal Code Sec. 15 -- by order of the Board of Health."  Sanitation was especially important because of tuberculosis and cholera.

These are just a few more of the items on display:  Hand pump car, section car, ore cart, union badges, railroad china, bells, steam whistles, wigwag signal, conductors' uniforms, locks, trunks, headlights, buttons, patches, station signs for many towns (some original and some reproductions), railroad history books, baggage carts, dining car menus, adding machines, model train, railroad tools, jacks, oil cans, and much more. 

Note:  Other web searches to try are Great Northern Railway, Lake Superior Railroad Museum, James J. Hill, and James J. Hill House.

Great Northern Railroad
Newspaper Articles

October 23, 1885, Litchfield Saturday Review - Take the afternoon train Our people going to the cities should by all means go on the afternoon train if they can do so.  At present, the morning train, which is the through train from Winnipeg, is crowded with persons returning east from that country.  There is difficulty getting seats and the air in the cars is foul to a sickening degree.  Besides, it is not pleasant getting out in the morning to catch a 4 o'clock train.

June 24, 1908, Cokato Enterprise - This month it is 40 years ago since the railroad tracks were laid through the village and on the 4th of July, 1868, the first passenger train passed over the same from St. Paul, carrying the principal officials of the then St. Paul and Pacific Railway.  They were Wm. B. Litchfield, Bernhard Dassel and Alonzo Delano, and in honor of these three officials these towns have grown and prospered.  (Note:  This newspaper article may have appeared one year too early, as all other sources indicate July 4, 1869, as the date the first train passed through Cokato and Dassel.)   

September 10, 1908, Cokato Enterprise - Fully 100 less tickets to the Twin Cities were sold at the Cokato station this year during state fair week than a year ago.  It can be accounted for in only one way, that the populace is altogether too busy just now to look to pleasure.

Train orders on the Great Northern Railway between Willmar and St. Paul are now transmitted by telephone.  The change enables the railroad company to lay off telegraph operators if they seem so disposed.  Stations with an operator and an agent, the pay of the operator has been cut from $60 to $45 a month, but where a telegraph-agent only is employed, no reduction is made.  Consequently, Cokato station pay is not affected.  The service is being extended to Breckenridge.

September 17, 1908, Cokato Enterprise - Rasmus Christenson, section foreman at this place with the Great Northern, was tendered an invitation by his superiors to attend a surprise birthday anniversary on James J. Hill, which took place at St. Paul Wednesday this week.  Mr. Christenson has been with the company continuously for 35 years, and hence his invitation to attend as only "old timers" were considered.

September 24, 1908, Dassel Anchor - New Train:  News has been received here at the G.N. office that a fast through mail train is to be put on some time next month between Chicago and Seattle, the train to run through here from St. Paul.  We understand that it has not yet been definitely decided upon, but if it comes at all, it will be the fastest and finest equipped train running between Willmar and the Cities. Willmar Tribune.

November 19, 1908, Dassel Anchor - A lucky road:  The annual report to the Railroad and Warehouse Commission has just been made by the Great Northern.  The road did not kill a passenger during the year ending June 30, but 46 were injured.  The number of employees killed was 52.  This company operates over 6,000 miles of road in the United States, and 2,000 of which are in Minnesota.

November 19, 1908, Dassel Anchor - 44 carloads:  Up to Friday afternoon last at four o'clock, 44 carloads of farm produce were shipped from this station.  The cars were loaded with hogs, corn, sugar beets, hay, etc.  There is not a station along the line that can beat Dassel on out-going freight in carload lots.  Last spring, nearly 45 carloads of potatoes were shipped from here.

November 26, 1908 Dassel Anchor - The test train was recently run over this division of the G.N. to determine whether or not they will run their fast coast train over this route.  The record was 25 miles in 22 minutes.

Wrecked:  Passenger train No. 4, which passes Dassel about 4:30 a.m. ran into the rear end of a freight train near Clontarf yesterday morning.  The engineer and fireman of the passenger train were so badly scalded that they are not expected to live, and a mail clerk and baggage man were killed.  Their bodies had not been recovered up to a late hour yesterday.

About five carloads of seed corn were shipped from this station this week to Albert Dickenson & Co., the Minneapolis seed merchants.

September 13, 1924, Litchfield Saturday Review - Old engine to be here Great Northern engine No. 1, the "William Crooks" and the old sleeper car No. 9, the first to be used on the Great Northern, will be in Litchfield on Friday of next week between 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.

The engine was originally a wood burner, the tender holding only two cords of wood which often gave out before another wood lot was reached, forcing the crew to often replenish the wood supply from fences along the rail route.  The appearance of the William Crooks, which last was operative in 1908, should prove of interest to young and old.

October 22, 1933, Litchfield - New trains to make first run Two new passenger trains to be installed by the Great Northern will make their first runs Sunday afternoon.  Going west, the train will leave Minneapolis at 4:30 p.m. and will depart Litchfield at 6:24.  Going east, the Litchfield departing time will be 1:31 and the arrival in Minneapolis 3:30.  The only regular stops between Litchfield and Minneapolis are Cokato and Delano.  The new trains will have a fast schedule with about two hours between Litchfield and Minneapolis.

May 22, 1958, Cokato Enterprise - The use of steam locomotives on the Great Northern Railway has come to an end.  Not since last August has a steamer been seen on a Great Northern line.

January 1, 2008 - Enterprise Dispatch - When passenger trains came through Dassel three times a night - Doug Olson, Dassel, submitted the photo of the Empire Builder to the Enterprise Dispatch thinking readers might be interested in the way it used to be in the Dassel and Cokato area. 

Doug's father Fred Olson was the station agent in Dassel from 1920-1960.  He had worked for Great Northern Railroad for approximately 50 years.  Doug worked for the railroad for about a year in 1939 and 1940 when he was in high school.  Three trains came through Dassel each night, and Doug sold tickets to passengers and put the mail on the train three times each night.  He would go to the post office, pick up the mail to go on the train, and then deliver the mail that came on the train to the post office.  Doug remembers he was paid $25 a month.