Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Donate
Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Memories of Minneapolis’ railroading past: the Great Northern Depot

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

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.

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.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Carrie Preston on 07/05/2016 - 12:57 pm.

    Memories of another depot

    In my original posting, I mistook the GN depot in Mpls for the St Paul Union depot in St Paul.

    I can remember going with my mom to pick up dad who worked at the St Paul depot in the late 60’s. It seemed so big to us kids. A great place to burn off some energy and of course ring the bell of the train inside the front doors.

    My grandfather worked at the Union depot in the 40’s/ 50’s and had been a conductor all his working years. Sadly on his very last day of service before he retired, he slipped off one of the trains and lost his life.

    Growing up I heard many great stories about both the St Paul and Minneapolis Depots.

  2. Submitted by Moira Heffron on 07/05/2016 - 12:04 pm.

    Memories indeed

    Thanks for this piece. As someone who rode the Northern Pacific into this depot many times, I was sad when it was demolished. Whenever I visit the Twin Cities Model Railroad Night Trains exhibit http://www.tcmrm.org/location-hours/exhibits-events/night-trains/ I am reminded of it.

  3. Submitted by Joyce Mellom on 07/08/2016 - 02:36 pm.

    Great Northern Depot

    After losing Penn Station in NYC in 1963 and the massive Gateway District demolition in Minneapolis beginning in 1959 and including the demolition of the Metropolitan Building in 1961, the preservation movement was well under way by 1978. The GN Depot could easily have been saved and retooled. Perhaps you could research for us the impact and influence of the Federal Reserve Bank in demolition of the Depot and taking the GN Depot site. Was there any attempt to save the GN Depot by the city? Was there any push by Mayor Albert Hostede and the city council to have the Federal Reserve find another site and save the Depot?

  4. Submitted by Britter Ritter on 04/03/2018 - 10:48 pm.

    Great Not

    Those were not days of preservation of buildings, no matter how grand, no matter how much civic pride they created. We need a new City Beautiful movement. Little since that movement has added any beauty to a city.
    One of the great features of the Great Northern depot was that it was relatively warm. The Milwaukee Depot was freezing cold, because the doors to the street and to the tracks faced each other, so when they both were open, the winds blew straight through, and the heat never got a chance to recover. The draftiness belied the beauty of the Milwaukee Road trains that used it.
    But it could not match the drama of the Great Northern depot, with its powerful trains standing alongside the mighty Mississippi river, like a river of iron rails above a river of water. Indeed, they were a gateway to a vast complex of railroad yards, lines criss-crossing each other, and the river, across Nicollet Island, Boom Island, and heading north, west, southwest, and northeast. From there we could go to Duluth in a train with a dome car, or head west on any number of trains. My father would talk about trains to Winnipeg, Kansas City, Omaha, Des Moines, causing me to wonder why anyone would want to go to those places rather than the wondrous Twin Cities. Duluth I could understand, it was the most beautiful place on earth to me.
    I can still remember, as a tiny toddler, standing by the enormous wheels of a steam engine, as my mother boarded the train, by herself, to visit her sister in San Francisco. I was heartbroken, sure she would never return, until she finally did, ending such misery in the home.

  5. Submitted by Patrick Weibeler on 04/08/2018 - 02:04 pm.

    Memories

    As a student in the early/mid-‘60s at De La Salle H.S. across the river on Nicollet Island, the Great Northern Depot was a welcome relief from the cold after crossing the bridge from the island in winter…entering the north door, strolling the length of the beautiful waiting room and exiting out the south door.

    If I recall correctly, it was in the early ‘60s that the grey, sooty façade was sandblasted to a startlingly bright, pale buff sandstone with the exterior window frames and doors painted a complementing medium peach shade. Seemingly overnight, all the magnificent detail reappeared and the depot was once again a grand addition to the street. Also the interior was cleaned /repainted and the huge mural of a Rocky Mountain scene was restored.

    I remember hearing that with its half dozen platforms, the station was originally designed to later also accommodate commuter rail, should that ever become a reality in Minneapolis.

Leave a Reply