Pennington County: A Railway Center

Railroad Map

by Stuart J. Nelson
(Excerpted from the April 2002 PCHS Newsletter)

Railroads in this day and age are almost entirely bulk movers of goods. Although people may hear a whistle or get blocked at a crossing, most have little contact with them. In an earlier day, however, the railroad touched the lives of almost everyone in a substantial manner.

Nearly every town had a depot of some size or description which generated a great deal of activity. There always seemed to be someone waiting for trains, conducting business, or just “hanging around,” watching what was going on. It was interesting to be at the depot at train time just to see who got on or off the trains. The public had contact with many different types of railroad employees: agents, telegraph operators, office clerks, train crews, and track workers. A ritual of handwaving developed between the people living along the tracks and the train crews and track workers. There were also many employees working behind the scenes, repairing cars, locomotives, buildings, bridges, and communication lines.

The railroad was an important part of the business activity of the community. Some type of passenger train was operated–important limiteds, locals, or at least a mixed freight and passenger train. Some offered coach seats, sleeping accommodations, parlor cars, and diners. They carried the U.S. mail and also served a forerunner of UPS and Federal Express. Most passenger trains also transported milk and cream in five-, eight-, and ten-gallon cans to distant creameries. Freight trains hauled everything–small packages, perishables, livestock, merchandise, machinery, and bulk loads of such loose products as poles, grain, fertilizer, sand, gravel, and ore. Since railroads were on their own rights-of-way, maintenance trains were needed to unload rock and gravel, plow snow, and handle wrecked machinery.

The most visible representative of the railroad was the depot agent, who handled many services. He sold tickets for the passenger trains and processed express shipments of packages, important documents, money orders, and small live animals. He sent and received telegrams and handled freight shipments ranging in size from one small box to many carloads. He also played an important role in controlling the movements of trains to insure their safety.

Because of the Timetable and Train Order method of controlling trains, there was the need for a telegraph operator at these depots. Since the operator was using the telegraph for train orders, he handled telegrams of a commercial nature also. Many depots had living quarters, either on the first floor or upstairs, so the agent-telegrapher would be close by. While living in depots could be rather peaceful on lightly traveled branch lines, it ranged from exciting to downright frightful on a busy main line. Imagine raising small children with trains going by at all hours!

Who can forget the steam engines? They were big and smoky and had such interesting sounds. Rather than the constant hum or drone of modern internal combustion engines, they sounded as though they were alive. And the whistles! They could be lonesome and mournful, or they could demand your attention. “Look out!”

There are many memories, pleasant and otherwise, of being near the rails.

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One Response to Pennington County: A Railway Center

  1. Lawrence Dexter says:

    When did Pennington become a county, and why? Apparently, after the Railroad Map on this page, since the county does not exist on the map. Perhaps there is an interesting story here, as to why and how Thief River Falls got to be the seat of a new County carved out of some other County – – maybe politics and power or something… I’m curious because it’s such a small County in an area where counties are rather large.

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