November’s end marked the close of a long journey for Minnesota Commercial Railway (MCR), owner of the nearly century-old rail spur serving Hugo’s Bald Eagle Industrial Park and other businesses and industries in the Hugo and White Bear Lake area, according to Wayne Hall, MCR chief operating officer.
“That date saw completion by us of all work required to completely rebuild and renew the spur,” Hall said. The effort saved it from possible abandonment and assures years of continuing service to several of the area’s largest employers, among them JL Schwieters, Loadmaster Lubricants, Polar Plastics and Northern Pallet, all located in Hugo.
“It was a dire situation for the entire local community when MCR announced nearly four years ago it would be forced to shut down the aging rail spur because it could not economically justify or afford the cost of repairs,” said Tom Snell, executive director of the White Bear Area Chamber of Commerce. “The loss of daily rail service would have forced some of these companies to leave Hugo and relocate their operations somewhere else, perhaps even to another state, putting hundreds of local jobs at risk and leaving empty buildings behind.”
Civic leaders and members of the business community, alarmed and led by the chamber, mobilized to pursue what they concluded was the only feasible solution — a request for direct financial help from the Minnesota Legislature. Local legislators joined the effort, providing bipartisan support and leadership at the Capitol. However, it still took lobbying and testifying through three separate legislative sessions to finally win a $1.5 million appropriation in 2017.
“That investment by the State of Minnesota paid off in spades,” said Snell, who pointed to a $20 million plant expansion by JL Schwieters and investments in new equipment and lab facilities by Loadmaster as examples.
“Not only were hundreds of existing local jobs saved and the city’s property tax base preserved, but as of today nearly 100 new jobs have been created,” he noted.
According to Hall and Rob Bagaus, MCR’s chief maintenance of way officer, what the state’s investment purchased (along with an additional $200,000 provided by the railroad) can be seen all along the spur’s 6.5 miles of track. “We’ve replaced more than 8,500 old ties with new ones at a cost of $60 apiece, replaced a thousand feet of rail, and spread 52 cars of ballast rock, 5,400 tons in all. It’s almost a brand new track, and (it) should last another quarter of a century.”
Bagaus added that MCR’s employees worked tirelessly over three summer construction seasons to complete the project.
The Hugo line was originally a Northern Pacific-Burlington Northern (BN) rail line and the very first to connect the Twin Cities with Duluth in the 1880s. With the merger of BN and other railroads in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and the bankruptcy of the Milwaukee Road, the line was no longer needed as a direct route, and traffic was rerouted over other BN lines. BN abandoned the line to Hugo around 1990, when it was acquired by Minnesota Commercial Railway. The line was a critical component in the development of Hugo’s Bald Eagle Industrial Park, launched in 2000 and now home to numerous businesses and industries, many of them drawn to the park by the ready availability of rail service for receiving raw materials or shipping finished goods.