Trails to Rails



Overland trails became the routes of railroads that provided critical links between farms and markets. In the 1920s and 1930s, Grandpa George (the son of the homesteaders) shipped cattle to Chicago from a siding called Midland located in Iowa about three miles southeast of the farm. Sometime during those same years, Grandma Daisy (the Civil War veteran’s daughter who also grew up along Kanaranzi Creek) took her daughter and son to New York City to visit relatives. The children and grandchildren of the homesteaders depended on railroads as critical infrastructure.



The first railroad in the area was built by the Sioux City and St. Paul Railroad Company. In 1871 the route for the first track was surveyed through the tall grass prairie by horse-drawn buggy (Crippen, 2016, p.34). By 1871 the railroad had reached Worthington (Rose, 1911, p. 70) and plans projected a route west to Sioux Falls, SD, through Luverne. This 1874 map from the Minnesota Historical society shows the proposed route relative to the Farm. Track was laid to Luverne by the Centennial Year of 1876 and completed to Sioux Falls in 1878 (Rose, 1911, p. 85).

This was in the Gilded Age and the oligarchs who owned the company built huge personal fortunes as well as railroad corridors. Land grants from the state extended up to 20 miles on either side of the right-of-way. That meant that every other section of land (odd-numbered parcels of 640 acres each) was owned by the Company all the way south to the Farm on the state line. The sale of this land was intended to finance construction of the railroad.

However, in addition to the lucrative land grants, the Company also demanded and generally received direct cash payments from counties, townships, and towns. Rock County voted to issue bonds to meet a Company request for $50,000 (that’s over $1.2 million 2020 dollars) in April of 1876. The three southern townships, including Kanaranzi Township where the Farm is located, voted against issuing the bonds, but the rest of the county voted to approve (Rose, 1911, p.86). Unfortunately, many railroad bonds in the area only returned 25 cents on a dollar when they came due several decades later (Heikes, 1995, p. 32).



Eventually in 1884, a second company, the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, laid track from Ellsworth in adjacent Nobles County through Kanaranzi (Rose, 1911, p. 101) which was located about five miles north of the Farm. That company also built a branch from Ellsworth through Midland, Iowa, to Rock Rapids. This 1917 map available from the Minnesota Department of Transportation shows the grid of routes, as well as the location of the Midland railroad siding near the Farm. In contrast to these overland routes, a branch known as the “Bonnie Doon” followed the Rock River parallel to an earlier trail between Rock Rapids and Luverne. This branch went through Ash Creek located about five miles west of the farm and was built by the company that serviced Luverne.

However by then, the Sioux City and St. Paul was known as the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Omaha; it would become the Chicago, and North Western and eventually the Union Pacific. Meanwhile, the company that serviced Ellsworth, the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy, changed its name to the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific (Crippen, 2016, p. VII). This evolution in name changes reflected mergers and acquisitions through changing times. But, it also contributed to the confusion around earlier land grants and issued bonds. The oligarchs obviously benefited from this lack of transparency about their business transactions related to this critical infrastructure.

So in 1917, the Farm was located about equal distances from three railroad sidings that could provide access to the nationwide system. That transportation system would eventually be replaced by roads and highways, but railroads were an early example of infrastructure that life on the Farm needed and utilized. And like railroads, these systems generally depended on public money to incentivize private enterprise. I don’t know what year the telephone came to the Farm, but I was alive when electricity came in the mid 1940s and when rural water came in the late 1990s. And of course there’s the Internet. The relatively recent installation of fiber optics in Rock County was the product of cooperation between the public and private sectors. Dispersed populations in rural areas usually cannot pay enough to deliver the services, so a public-private partnership was needed to build the network for Internet connections in the same way that the infrastructure of railroads came in to support the farm economy almost 150 years ago.

Growing up on the Farm in the 1950s, I remember hearing an early morning train whistle. It was the train from Ellsworth to Rock Rapids that passed through Midland. However, the elevator and stockyards that Grandpa George used were gone by then. In the 1960s and 1970s most of the tracks in the area were taken up and the raised roadbeds were flattened out. Now those right-of-way corridors have been returned to land owners and the depots have been converted to museums or torn down. Now we use a different set of systems to provide critical infrastructure.

Here again, are two invitations:
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About Lone Tree Farm on Kanaranzi Creek

Recovering academic, earth scientist in phased retirement, farm manager by default, son, husband, father, grandfather.
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