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In June, I wrote about exploring the Skally Line, Duluth’s first railroad. Completed in 1870, the Skally Line connected Duluth to St. Paul and opened the way for Duluth to grow from an “insignificant hamlet” (as one contemporary newspaper put it) into a city. I started at Chambers Grove Park and followed the Skally Line up the St. Louis River to the Thomson Hydro Station powerhouse. That section of the railroad closed in 1949. Since then, it has been hit with so many mudslides and washouts since then that it looks as if it has been abandoned much longer. Along the way, I found retaining walls, a vintage 1870 sandstone culvert, old railroad ties, small causeways, and the remains of a trestle, among other treasures.
This month, I have been exploring the Skally Line above Thomson Hydro. More than once, I doubted I would ever find it. This section of the line closed in 1897, and 120 years of neglect have taken their toll. The grade is completely gone in places, swept away by floods and replaced with yawning washouts. But it still exists in other places, chugging merrily along on its death-defying course above the river, sometimes choked with brush and deadfalls, at other times emerging straight and open and weird in the middle of nowhere.
There are a number of short sections of the Skally Line, particularly around Jay Cooke State Park headquarters, where the 150-year-old railroad grade has been repurposed for modern use, such as hiking trails or Nordic skiing trails. The park makes no mention of this history—and, in fact, I have never found a single interpretive exhibit in the park that mentions Duluth’s first railroad, which runs right through it.
Finds that I made on the latest exploration include (1) another 1870s-era culvert made with sandstone blocks and keystone architecture; (2) 22 trestle footings made of sandstone blocks where the line crossed two gorges; and (3) an old telegraph pole, with wire still attached, lying across one of the footings.
My ultimate goal is to work out the Skally Line from Chambers Grove Park to Carlton, a distance of about 6 miles. I’m a little over halfway there.