Many miles of track were laid across the Plains of South Dakota during the Great Dakota Boom, then again during the decade after the nation recovered from the Panic of 1893. Much of that line was constructed by the great railroad conglomerates like the Milwaukee Road and the Chicago and North Western (C&NW). Then there was the Minneapolis St. Louis (M&StL).
The M&StL would never be quite the townmaker that the big roads were, never go intercontinental or even break out of its Midwest regional confines. Though there were high hopes for a river-crossing at the booming cow town of LeBeau (now situated under Lake Oahe, more on that in in coming days), the little line saw its dreams dashed against the breaks of the Mighty Mo.
The Watertown Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway Depot
The line was founded in 1870 by Minneapolis flour millers who needed an economical means to bring in wheat and send out flour. The road’s main line ran from the Twin Cities to Iowa, then east to Peoria, Illinois.
As the Dakotas opened to homesteaders, railroad lines pushed west to haul the harvests east, and more homesteaders west. The M&StL first gained access to Watertown in 1884, in conjunction with the Wisconsin, Minnesota & Pacific (WM&P), originally a Rock Island-run road. Watertown had been platted in 1878 by the Winona and St. Peter Railroad, at the beginning of the South Dakota railroad boom. According to the South Dakota Historical society: “Of the 285 town plats registered in Dakota Territory between 1878 and 1887, 142 were platted by railroad companies or their subsidiary townsite companies.”
The M&StL replaced the first Watertown depot with the building that still stands, now occupied by the offices of First Dakota Title Company, in 1911.
Westward expansion from Watertown didn’t begin in earnest until 1906. During the next few years, the little line would leave a distinct imprint on the Plains, from the glacial lakes to where Swan Creek meets the Missouri.
Townsite agent Thomas Way looms large as the M&StL’s prairie town maker in Don L. Hofsommer’s history of the line, Tootin’ Louie.
“He set up offices in the Granite Block at Watertown, and then he moved to Aberdeen, Cresbard, and Le Beau as the process unfolded. In Way’s wake sprouted no fewer than sixteen new or renewed communities westward from Watertown — Yahota, Florence, Wallace, Crocker, Crandall, Brentford, Chelsea, Cresbard, Wecota, Carlyle, Onaka, Tolstoy, Hoven, Lowry, Akaska, and Le Beau.” Another spur ran from Conde to Leola.
At its apex, the M&StL served 35 towns in South Dakota. “Excepting Watertown and Aberdeen,” writes Hofsommer, “which would grow to be small cities, the rest were little towns, anchored hopefully on a windy tableland, giving an appearance of permanence.” Not all of them were permanent of course.
Financial problems began in the 1920s and the line went into its second receivership. In the 1930’s the M&StL began abandoning track. By 1963, what trackage remained was operated by the C&NW. No former M&StL track remains in South Dakota.
Some of the towns that sprung up along the line were as ephemeral as the iron road that spawned them, and now only exist in newspaper clippings and pictures.
A few of the village depots still remain, though they are not always easy to find. The former Bradley depot is now a storage shed behind a private home. The Selby depot was moved a couple miles outside town, and sits quietly, alone and unmarked. The Leola depot has seen better days, but still stands.
These small town stops, and the larger depots in Watertown and Aberdeen — both on the National Register of Historic Places — are all that remains of the little railroad that gave “life to villages,” some of which may have been as unlikely as its own run.
“No matter,” writes Hofsommer. “Those who had come to people these towns and to settle their hinterlands were inveterately hearty, optimistic souls, who took not the trouble of casting a backward glance.”