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Council Derails Historic Designation for LS&M Railroad

Baihly Warfield
Updated: November 13, 2018 10:26 PM

DULUTH, Minn. - The City Council is temporarily derailing an attempt to have the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad tracks designated a historic preservation landmark. 

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The Historic Preservation Commission recommended councilors approve the designation, but several of them said they didn't have all of the information they need. 

Supporters who spoke to the council Tuesday night asked, why wait? They said the railroad has been around more than a century, opening in 1870.

"That was the beginning of Duluth," Lynne Hall said. 

She and half a dozen other people urged the council to pass the ordinance. Dick Winkler said that the railroad was once considered the most important event in Minnesota history.

Winkler said that Duluth has soul, and "when you lose it, it's a really big deal." 

The historic designation concerns only the rail bed and the tracks. But Councilor Joel Sipress said he feels it has become a bigger issue about what should happen with the western waterfront and the Mud Lake causeway.

"Many in our community, including the Historic Preservation Commission, want the council to send a clear message that we value the causeway," Sipress said. "And I also believe that the reason it's been delayed and the reason it's being asked to be returned to administration is that our city administration is on record saying that the causeway should not remain."

Interim Chief Administrative Officer Keith Hamre told councilors last week that a historic designation would limit the city's ability to make decisions about the railroad because it would require the Historic Preservation Commission's involvement in the conversation. 

Councilor Arik Forsman, at large, said it seems like a well intended ordinance that is coming at the wrong time.

"There's an economic impact study that's in process, the mini master plan is still in process. We don't know what the implications could be for environmental cleanup at this point," Forsman listed. "And then there are also future economic development opportunities in sight."

The council voted 7-1 to return the ordinance to city administration. They are hoping to get more clarity on where that area of West Duluth stands as a whole, including the U.S. Steel site cleanup and any plans for other trails or development. 

Historian Tony Dierckins said there is "probably no more significant landmark in Duluth than this railroad" because before the LS&M, there really was no Duluth. 

"And then Jay Cooke decided to bring his railroad here. And that opened it up. Within a year, we had 3,500 people. We became a city," Dierckins said. "We had the railroad coming in, and then we dug the ship canal."

He said that if any councilor had a question about whether the railroad was deserving of a historic designation, his answer would be an easy "yes." 

The designation could come up again in the future, but it's not likely to happen in 2018. 

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Baihly Warfield

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