Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

This content is shared with MinnPost by MNopedia, the digital encyclopedia created by the Minnesota Historical Society and supported by the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Opened in 1908, the Ranier Railroad Bridge in northern Minnesota is still one of America’s busiest ports of entry

In 2019, traffic over the Ranier Bridge has grown to more than twenty trains a day with most pulling between 100 and 200 cars.

historical photo of ranier bridge
Photographic postcard of Ranier bridge, ca. 1910.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The Ranier Railroad Bridge (Canadian National River Bridge) was constructed in 1908 by the Canadian Northern Railway and its subsidiary, the Duluth, Rainy Lake and Winnipeg Railway. The single-track lift bridge crosses Rainy River between Ranier, Minnesota, and Fort Frances, Ontario, and is one of the busiest ports of entry for international rail freight in the United States.

The Duluth, Virginia, and Rainy Lake Railway (DV&RL) was chartered in 1901 to haul timber from northwoods forests to the sawmill in Virginia, Minnesota. Four years later, the Canadian Northern Railway (CN) purchased majority ownership in the DV&RL. CN changed the logging railway’s name to Duluth, Rainy Lake, and Winnipeg (DRL&W) and selected the newly platted town of Ranier, Minnesota, for a border crossing over the Rainy River.

Plans called for a bascule, or moveable bridge, that would allow riverboats to pass beneath it. CN contracted with Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge Company of Chicago. To open, the rolling lift span would rock upward and backward rather than rotate or pivot.

The Ranier bridge represents typical railroad architecture of the early twentieth century. The lift section features a Warren truss construction—a series of alternating, equilateral triangles with vertical support beams at the center of each triangle. The triangular framework spreads the weight of a passing train across the bridge deck; vertical beams provide extra support. The stationary section of the bridge spans nine concrete piers.

Article continues after advertisement

The first train crossed the bridge on April 28, 1908. For several years, two trains a day crossed over the river, one going north and one south. Shipments included mostly timber bound for the Virginia and Rainy Lake Lumber Company and crops from Western Canada. Steam locomotives crossing the Ranier bridge typically hauled a mix of box cars, log cars, and hoppers, with one passenger car attached. Freight was carried on CN and DRL&W tracks to Virginia. Cars bound for delivery further south were transferred to other northern Minnesota rail lines and carried to Duluth. There, shipments were loaded onto boats or other lines bound for Minneapolis or Chicago.

In 1909, the Minnesota-based line underwent another name change, reflecting its long-range goals, and became the Duluth, Winnipeg, and Pacific Railway (DW&P). It did not connect to Duluth on its own road until 1912.

A twice-daily, dedicated passenger train was introduced in 1913, connecting riders traveling between Duluth and Winnipeg. With multiple railway connections from Chicago’s train hubs, riders could board almost anywhere in the US, travel to Duluth, and board the DW&P. At Winnipeg’s Union Station, they could make a connection to nearly any city in Canada.

As northwoods forests were depleted, logging shipments declined, but grain, potash and pulp wood products increased. Refrigerated cars carried fish from the border lakes to Chicago.

By the 1930s, road improvements and increasingly affordable automobiles caused a decline in passenger ridership. US Highway 53 from Duluth to International Falls, completed in 1935, provided more flexible travel across northern Minnesota than trains offered. In 1956, DW&P averaged just five passengers per trip, and in 1959, the company lost nearly $160,000 on passenger service. The last passenger car crossed the Ranier bridge in the early morning hours of July 1, 1961.

Meanwhile, developments in technology, trade, and transmodal shipping have kept the Ranier Bridge busier than ever. The shortest sea routes to North America from many Asian ports cross the Pacific Ocean to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, where shipping containers are loaded onto Canadian National trains. Loads destined for the United States pass over the Ranier bridge to Duluth for transfer onto Great Lakes ships, trucks, or other rail lines.

In 2019, traffic over the Ranier Bridge has grown to more than twenty trains a day with most pulling between 100 and 200 cars. As one of the busiest freight border crossings in the United States, the town of Ranier comes to a halt multiple times each day while trains roll over the bridge at speeds of less than ten miles per hour. At the US Customs Port of Entry, southbound cars are scanned for explosives, weapons, drugs, and other contraband. Boxcars, hopper cars, and tank cars still travel the line, but every CN train is dominated by flat cars or well cars holding double-stacked shipping containers.

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