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FreightWaves Classics: The Soo Line was founded to serve Twin Cities’ millers and ag interests

As many railroad buffs know, at one time there were hundreds of North American railroads. Over the decades bankruptcies, mergers, acquisitions, etc. have shrunk that number considerably. There are now only seven Class I railroads in North America, and that number is likely to shrink to six in the near future. The Canadian Pacific Railway and the Canadian National Railway have both made bids to buy the Kansas City Southern Railway.

The Soo Line Railroad

The Soo Line Railroad (SOO) is the primary U.S. subsidiary railroad of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CP), controlled by CP through its Soo Line Corporation. 

Early in its history the MStP&SSM became known as the “Soo” or “Soo Line” because of the phonetic spelling of Sault. Sault is a French word that means waterfall or rapids. 

Early history 

The railroad was formed for a single purpose – to improve transportation options for millers in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. The Twin Cities are located along the Upper Mississippi River, and they grew rather quickly into the key flour producing region because of the Falls of St. Anthony, which provided millers a source of power that was almost limitless.  

A map of the Soo Lines rail lines. (Image: Wikipedia)
A map of the Soo Lines rail lines. (Image: Wikipedia)

The earliest U.S. presence was Fort Snelling, which was founded in 1825. Milling began almost immediately and grew over the years. The town of St. Anthony was incorporated in 1849; Minneapolis was founded in 1867. Milling grew, and so did the area’s population. A railroad was necessary to move flour east to the country’s population centers. 

The first railroad was incorporated in 1853 but did not begin operations due to a lack of financing. The Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad began construction from Minneapolis in 1871, but in November 1867 what later became the Milwaukee Road had laid track that linked Minneapolis and St. Paul with both Milwaukee and Chicago. In addition, the Chicago & North Western and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy had also laid track to the Twin Cities.  

While having several railroad connections was good, there was one common issue with all of them – they all served the area via Chicago. That meant the Minnesota millers were beholden to Chicago interests and the freight rates they charged to move freight. (This was prior to the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission, or ICC, by Congress, which was given regulatory authority to set railroads’ freight rates.)

Creating the Minneapolis, St. Paul &  Sault Ste. Marie Railway

Therefore, several Twin Cities businessmen incorporated the Minneapolis, Sault Ste. Marie & Atlantic Railway (MSStM&A) on September 29, 1883. They were determined to build their own railroad and to bypass Chicago. The new railroad’s owners were primarily millers. Their plan was to ship their flour to the East Coast via southern Canada. The flour could then reach Boston for shipment across the Atlantic Ocean.  

The railroad was planned to be built to Sault Ste. Marie on the south bank of the St. Marys River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. From Sault Ste. Marie the flour could move through Canada via Ontario and southern Quebec provinces.

Because the railroad’s owners were financially secure, construction of the railway moved quickly. It began in April 1884 and moved both westward from Cameron, Wisconsin to Turtle Lake, where the railroad had rights to use the track of the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railway (“The Omaha Road”) into Minneapolis-St. Paul. Concurrently, track was laid eastward. The new railroad reached Rhinelander in 1886 and Sault Ste. Marie on December 10, 1887.  

In late 1888 the Canadian Pacific linked to the MSStM&A from a branch line that extended from its main line at Sudbury to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. While this was crucial for the MSStM&A, it also proved very important to the CP.

The Canadian Pacific was Canada’s first transcontinental railroad. But it was competing against the Grand Trunk Railroad, another railroad that primarily served the country’s eastern provinces. The CP’s management was concerned that the Grand Trunk would reach Sault Ste. Marie first. However, CP was awarded the gateway, and its long history with the Soo Line began then.

The MSStM&A then built a dedicated rail link from St. Croix to the Twin Cities that was finished in January 1888. The Minneapolis & St. Croix Railway completed the gap into Minneapolis and was the last piece in a 501-mile route across the Upper Midwest.  

Construction of western branches to bring agricultural commodities to the flour mills had also been taking place. In 1884 the Minneapolis & Pacific Railway was chartered; it reached Boynton and Bismarck, Dakota Territory by 1887. But during that time the Minneapolis, Sault Ste. Marie & Atlantic had financial issues.   

Two Soo Lines locomotives at the head of a train. (Photo: Wikimedia/Slambo)
Two Soo Lines locomotives at the head of a train. (Photo: Wikimedia/Slambo)

Railroad “wars” of the 1880s and 1890s

There were nationwide financial upheavals during that period, as well as railroad consolidation by the “Robber Barons” (particularly the Vanderbilts and James Hill). The Canadian Pacific did not want its American railroad connection to be bought out, but it also did not have the financial resources to buy the Soo Line itself.

Because the CP did not have the resources to invest in the Soo Line, two of its major investors financed the acquisition in April 1888. They risked their wealth to secure the CP’s U.S. presence, which has lasted more than 130 years.

At that point, the Minneapolis & Pacific, Minneapolis & St. Croix and Minneapolis, Sault Ste. Marie & Atlantic were merged by the CP on June 11, 1888. The 737-mile Minneapolis, St. Paul &  Sault Ste. Marie Railway (MStP&SStM) was created.  On June 3, 1889, The first train westbound train for St. Paul left Boston on June 3, 1889.  

CP’s finances improved significantly by 1890, which allowed the Canadian railroad to control the Soo after it secured the American railroad’s funded debt. Using similar tactics, CP gained control of the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railway, which primarily hauled iron ore from the Duluth/Superior area to Sault Ste. Marie.  

While the Soo Line and other railroads were building out their networks in the 1880s, James Hill had also been building the Great Northern Railway. When it was completed in 1893 it ended the Northern Pacific Railroad’s monopoly into the Pacific Northwest.   

Up until then the Great Northern and the CP had transported freight and passengers between the Twin Cities and Vancouver, which was the CP’s key West Coast port. 

To keep and grow this business the CP financed a MStP&SStM extension to Portal, North Dakota, which is along the Saskatchewan border. The project took from 1891-93. CP also built a short branch from Portal to its main line at Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and a third line that ended in Winnipeg, Manitoba. 

In addition, the Soo Line built a number of branch lines to primarily haul grain from North Dakota and eastern Montana.  

As many railroads did, it also grew through the acquisition of a number of small short line railroads. But in 1909 it also acquired the Wisconsin Central Railway, which owned 1,000 miles of track, as well as nearly 2.4 million acres of land grants that had been awarded by the U.S. Congress.

A 1931 advertisement for the Soo Line. (Image:
A 1931 advertisement for the Soo Line. (Image:

Key 20th century events

The Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie was successful even though it was over-reliant on agriculture and competed against a number of other railroads that also served the Upper Midwest. Like many businesses of all sizes, however, it had difficulties during the Great Depression during the 1930s.  

Early in the Depression it was able to loan its subsidiary, the Wisconsin Central, $2.2 million to prevent its bankruptcy. Nonetheless, the Wisconsin Central entered receivership in 1933. The MStP&SStM also went into receivership in 1938, and in 1944 it was reorganized as the Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie Railroad. The Wisconsin Central did not exit receivership until 1954.

Following World War II, the MStP&SStM  prospered. It replaced sections of older track with new, heavier rails and purchased new diesel locomotives. It retired its last steam locomotive in early 1955.

Two Soo Line locomotives at the head of a train. (Photo: Flickr/Nate Beal)
Two Soo Line locomotives at the head of a train. (Photo: Flickr/Nate Beal)

Corporate reorganizations

The Canadian Pacific’s three U.S. subsidiary railroads – the Minneapolis, St. Paul &  Sault Ste. Marie, the Wisconsin Central and the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic – had been operated as generally autonomous units. That changed on October 19, 1949 when the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railway was incorporated in Minnesota as the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railroad. Then on January 1, 1961, the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Railroad and the Wisconsin Central Railway were merged with the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railroad and the new entity was officially named the Soo Line Railroad. A shortline railroad – the Minneapolis, Northfield and Southern Railway – was added to the Soo Line Railroad in June 1982. Then in 1985 the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (known for decades as the Milwaukee Road) was acquired after it declared bankruptcy.

In the decades since these changes, most equipment and rolling stock has either been replaced or repainted with the CP colors. Until 1990, the Canadian Pacific had owned 56% of the Soo Line Corporation’s common stock. That year it purchased the remainder of the stock.At this time, all of Canadian Pacific’s U.S. subsidiaries are grouped under the Soo Line name by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

Today’s Soo Line Railroad exists only on paper, but like many of the hundreds of railroads that have come and gone since the 1820s, it exists in the hearts and minds of train lovers.

Much of the information for this article came from the American Rails website (, which is a treasure trove of information! FreightWaves thanks American Rails for its assistance.

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.