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Memories of Minneapolis’ railroading past: the Great Northern Depot

The station served as an important hub for passengers of several railroads throughout the state of Minnesota for more than sixty-five years.

The front of the Great Northern Railway Depot, Minneapolis, 1914.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The Minneapolis Great Northern Depot (also called the Great Northern Station) served as an important hub for passengers of several railroads throughout the state of Minnesota for more than sixty-five years.

Construction of the Minneapolis Great Northern Depot began in 1913. The building opened for operations on January 22, 1914, at an estimated cost of $1.9 million. It was to be a replacement of the Minneapolis Union Depot, which had served railroad passengers from its location across Hennepin Avenue for thirty years.

The depot’s construction formed a part of the early-twentieth-century City Beautiful movement, which sought to establish social harmony through the beautification of architecture and civic space. The construction of the new station helped beautify its location in Minneapolis—an otherwise derelict area known as the Bridge Square.

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The Great Northern Railway built the depot according to the designs of architect Charles Frost. Frost had already designed the Milwaukee Road Depot in Minneapolis and would go on to design the St. Paul Union Depot. He also oversaw construction of Navy Pier in Chicago and a project at the Columbian Exposition of 1893.

In addition to serving trains of the Great Northern and its signature Empire Builder passenger train, the station served trains of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, including the Twin Cities Zephyr. Trains from a number of railroads originated in, terminated in, or passed through the station, including smaller lines such as the Chicago Great Western and the Minneapolis and St. Louis. The notable trains that served the station included the Twin Cities 400 of the Chicago and Northwestern and the North Coast Limited of the Northern Pacific Railway.

The depot’s construction utilized design elements of the Beaux-Arts movement. Workers used steel and brick and faced the walls with light-colored sandstone of the Kettle River variety. The front was a Doric colonnade capped on both sides by arched entry pavilions. A third floor was used as an attic space.

The interior featured a large waiting room for passengers between a pair of vestibules that led from outside to awaiting passenger trains on the concourse. The space also featured separate men’s and women’s lounge areas. The station had six elevators and six staircases, all leading to the passenger platforms. At their peak, these platforms saw around 125 trains per day.

By the summer of 1916, 174 scheduled intercity passenger trains called upon the station in some capacity. The station could accommodate twenty thousand passengers each day. The waiting area was 11,540 square feet and could handle 240 passengers.

There were eighteen telephone booths, eleven ticket windows, a newsstand, a dining room, and a barbershop. There was also a small infirmary on the premises. The two-story waiting room featured a clerestory window to allow in ample natural light. There were several large murals.

Rails to the platform entered the train shed from the southeast and continued to the northwest. They passed under Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis after crossing the Mississippi River from the southeast over the Stone Arch Bridge. Another track served the station area by serving as a cutoff and crossing the river on a smaller bridge to the east.

The increase in air travel and the development of the nation’s highway system began to impact rail travel by the 1950s. Over time, fewer trains stopped at the station as passengers began to rely on other forms of transportation. Some railroads ceased offering passenger service entirely. Amtrak, a new government entity, operated passenger service as of May 1, 1971, in most of the United States and in the state of Minnesota. A congressional act passed in October 1970 created the carrier. By that time, the depot served only a few trains per day.

The new passenger railroad relied on much smaller stations for its scaled-back service offerings, and service in the Twin Cities was consolidated to one new station on March 1, 1978. It was a modern structure built in 1978 to serve railroad passengers in the Midway area of St. Paul. When it lost its train service, the Minneapolis Great Northern Depot also lost its purpose. That year marked the end of the depot, and its demolition, after more than sixty four-years of operation.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.