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Spicer and the Railroad

When E.T. and Loretta Woodcock were the county’s first settlers in 1856, they located in what is now Spicer in anticipation of the railroad following the Crow River west from Minneapolis. This was the usual practice as the grades along rivers were often suited to railroad construction. They and the other settlers of the town then named Columbia thought Green Lake would be an ideal location for the thriving city they envisioned on the railroad opening Minnesota and the Dakotas for farming and commerce. They were very disappointed and wondered at the folly of the railroad surveyors in picking another route and locating their terminal in a marsh and slough area some ten miles south.

It was more than a decade later that the railroad reached Willmar, so named after a railroad bonding representative. The railroad, the St. Paul and Pacific, promoted development of farming, timber, and grazing along its line to attract settlers, and many came. For the most part, farmers were unable to take advantage of the railroad due to the high cost of freight to the eastern population centers. The many railroads along the way were charging what they could, and it left little incentive for the farmer. This lack of farm traffic and other reasons led to the bankruptcy of the St. Paul and Pacific, which was reorganized as the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railroad under the leadership of James J. Hill.

Hill and his associates envisioned hauling farm products to Duluth-Superior, the head of the Lakes, and then shipping them by boat east at a lower cost. They already had a line from St. Cloud to Hinckley, but they had problems getting right-of-way to the potential farmlands of southwestern Minnesota and adjacent farming regions in South Dakota and Iowa. While Hill was clerking and serving as agent for river packet boats some 25 years earlier, he stayed in the Merchants’ Hotel in St. Paul. There he came to know a fellow boarder, John Spicer.

Spicer later recalled those days, and one of his favorite stories was about the day James Hill passed the hat for Margaret, the waitress at the hotel. Margaret was getting married soon, and Hill pronounced the donations hardly fit in view of Margaret’s fine service and passed the hat again. With encouragement, the donations improved, and after presenting them to Margaret he announced it was he whom Margaret was marrying!

Hill called upon Spicer to assist him in obtaining the right-of-way southwest of St. Cloud. Spicer helped organize the St. Cloud and Willmar Railroad for Hill with the understanding that Spicer would then organize the Willmar and Sioux Falls Railroad which later would be purchased by the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba run by Hill. During this period, the railroad built a terminal at West Superior with a massive elevator operated by the Great Northern Elevator Company, the first related company to have the Great Northern name. Hill also got board approval to extend the line from Hinckley to Superior and from the Northern Steamship Company, whose vessels would by-pass the Chicago-based and eastern rail lines with high rates.

After the railroad was constructed to Sioux Falls, the Willmar and Sioux Falls Townsite Company established towns along the line, many named after the Spicer family members. These towns provided the link between farming and the railroad, the farming areas of southwestern Minnesota, northwestern Iowa, and eastern South Dakota enjoyed sufficient prosperity to result in most of the farming development we see to this day.

The St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railroad consolidated with other companies led by Hill to form the Great Northern Railroad. The Great Northern pursued a program of well-managed and well-designed railroad expansion on to the West Coast. Hill’s business skills, aggressive actions, and great accomplishments justifiably earned him the name “Empire Builder.” One of his special skills was in developing a strong and loyal work force. Many families in the Spicer community identify with the Great Northern and Hill. Some worked on construction and others in operations.

E.E. Lawson, noted for his old-timer stories, recalled Sam Easton, know as “Wake,” a conductor on the Willmar-St. Cloud run. Considered a friend of Hill’s, Wake was the lord of passenger traffic, and ran a tight no-nonsense operation. One day, Tom Nelson, who farmed on Green Lake’s west side, wanted to get to an auction on a farm between Spicer and Willmar and couldn’t get a lift. He knew the noon train was due in shortly and figured he’d take the train. Depot bystanders told him there was no way that Wake would stop the train between stations, and he just chuckled. So Tom boarded at Spicer, and pretty soon Wake came down the aisle taking tickets. Tom fished through his pockets and fumbled through is papers while Wake waited. He did some more fumbling until he had about exhausted Wake’s patience. Then he allowed as how maybe he hadn’t bought a ticket after all, and Wake signaled the train to a stop and escorted Tom off. It seems the train stopped right opposite the farm with the auction, and Tom thanked Wake, noting, “Here’s where I’m going. Figured on buying a brood sow.” The crowd at the auction strained to see who the distinguished passenger was that the train had stopped for. It’s unlikely that other got the best of Wake with this ploy again.

The railroad brought passengers to and from Spicer for 64 years and carried freight for a century. The puffing steam locomotives, rolling cars, and comforting whistles were a vital part of Spicer’s first 100 years. However, other transportation routes and methods proved more cost effective over the years, and the rail line through Spicer stopped being used.

Now the tracks are gone but not the memories of meeting the noon train, visiting with friends, and getting that long awaited letter. Its right-of-way is not to be abandoned however… the Department of Natural Resources has developed it as a recreation trail.