It always amazes me how our forebears managed to find their way to Oklee, Minnesota. There were no roads, no cars, and no railroads. People from France, Norway, Sweden, and other European countries landed on the east coast, as they flocked to our country. When it became crowded, they moved west using the waterways and rivers for transportation. Much of the land was still wilderness. Many traveled up the Mississippi River and along the Red River, settling in the Red River Valley.
To stimulate growth inland, the Homestead Act was initiated. Many traveled overland by horse and wagon on rutted trails and grassland to find a plot of 160 acres of undeveloped land. They were granted title to the land if they “improved” the plot by building a dwelling and cultivating the land. After five years on the land, farmers were entitled to the property, free and clear.
By 1870, the rich Red River Valley grew more wheat than any other place in the nation. River routes were limited and some farmers settled where they were landlocked. As you know, the Lost River didn’t afford much in the way of water access to major cities. To get grain to market, farmers had to ship their harvest over 80 miles to Moorhead. To travel over land, the transportation cost was $0.15/ton for every mile shipped. The value of wheat was only $1.10/bushel. If they were lucky, farmers barely broke even. Most farmers lost money.
Soo Line Steam Engine, 1950
The cost of shipping by rail was one-tenth of that at only $0.015/ton. At this rate farmers made money and could ship all the way to Minneapolis, where the value was up to $1.50/bushel. In 1893, the Soo Line began building a railroad across the hinterlands of Wisconsin and Minnesota so they could ship grain and lumber to Minneapolis and St. Paul. It ran from Sault Ste Marie, Canada, through Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota. Originally the railroad was called the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie and didn’t get the name Soo Line until 1950.
The owners feared an Indian uprising, so they negotiated with the Native Americans and hired about 20 Chippewa Indians as part of the crews to build their main line railroad. Since towns weren’t developed yet, it was customary to build a station or stopping place about every five or six miles along the track. The mode of transportation in those days was horse and carriage, so it could take an hour to get from station to station. If the stations were much farther apart, it would be more difficult for the farmers to get to the station, which was bad business for the railroad.
Shortly after the main line was put through, the Soo Line constructed facilities at each station. This allowed townsfolk opportunities for jobs and drew many villagers to the area from nearby townships. A 24’ X 56’ wooden depot was built at most stations. The Soo Line painted them in the company colors—a bright yellow with maroon trim. Most stations also had a 24’ X 28’ warehouse attached to the depot....