Luce Line: From rails to trails

A century and more after workers carved a narrow right-of-way across part of Central Minnesota to make way for crop- and commuter-hauling trains, the ribbon of land is still an active transportation corridor.

But now it’s a popular recreation byway that accommodates people on foot, bikes, skis, snowmobiles and horseback.

The Luce Line State Trail is only about 10 feet wide, but it spans 63 miles and four counties, from Plymouth, on the Twin Cities’ doorstep, to Cosmos in the heart of rural Minnesota.

Opened in the late 1970s, the trail follows the route of the Electric Short Line Railway — nicknamed the Luce Line after founders William L. Luce and his son Erle D. Luce — which shuttled passengers and freight between Minneapolis and western Minnesota from 1908 until its demise in 1972.

Crushed limestone, gravel and granite cover most of the trail’s 1,000 acres, but this summer about 23 miles across McLeod County, from Winsted west to beyond Hutchinson, will be paved with asphalt in a long-sought upgrade that’s expected to boost use by cyclists.


Walkers and cyclists enjoy the fall colors along the Les Kouba Parkway trail, which adjoins the Luce Line State Trail in Hutchinson. Photo by Chuck Sterling


“The Luce Line is a pretty remarkable trail,” former Hutchinson mayor and veteran cyclist Steve Cook said, because it connects on the east to woodlands left over from the Big Woods and on the west takes users through the prairie and past lakes and farm fields. “It’s a really nice asset to have.”


Luce Line Engine No. 6 arrived at Watertown in 1915, the first train, according to the inscription on the photo, to reach the town after tracks were extended from Minneapolis on a roadbed that’s now the Luce Line State Trail. The Watertown Area Historical Society’s annual Rails to Trails celebration will mark the centennial of the event on July 17 and 18. Photo courtesy of the Carver County Historical Society.


Gary Lenz, an expert on the old rail line, who walks the family dog on the trail near his Winsted home every day, said the Luce Line lets users experience what’s out in the countryside. “You’re not going along at 40, 50, 60 mph. You’re there in it. You smell the smells. You don’t get that in a car.”

Managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the trail stretches westward across Hennepin, Carver, McLeod and Meeker counties, from the trailhead at Vicksburg Lane in Plymouth through Long Lake, Lyndale, Watertown, Winsted, Silver Lake, Hutchinson and Cedar Mills to Cosmos.

The eastern end of the state trail meets the Luce Line Regional Trail, managed by the Three Rivers Park District, where nearly nine miles of pavement takes users through Plymouth and Golden Valley to Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis and connections to other trails.

“You could ride from Hutchinson to downtown Minneapolis now” and then link up with other trails there, according to Cook, who has cycled the Luce Line with his wife and sons and once pedaled thousands of miles to the East Coast, Canada and back.

The state trail has been developed for biking, hiking, mountain biking, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and horseback riding. According to the DNR website at mndnr.gov, snowmobiles are allowed on the trail west of Stubbs Bay Road near Long Lake, and there’s a parallel path for horseback riding from Plymouth west to Winsted. Parking areas and restrooms are scattered along the trail.

“The Luce Line is truly like a jaunt down a quiet country road,” the DNR website says, describing it as “a preserved strip of countryside alive with many varieties of plants and animals.”

“It’s a nice, quiet ride,” Craig Beckman, DNR supervisor on the Cosmos-Winsted portion of the trail, said of biking across the stretch he manages. Many parts of it are very flat because they traverse farm fields and rural areas. “Many times you do find that you’re alone with yourself out there,” he said.


Horseback riding is a popular activity along the trail in the Watertown area. Photo by Chuck Sterling


“The stretch that I see is heavily used,” Lenz said of the Winsted leg. “You see more people walking and biking” than years ago. That’s backed up by a DNR survey that found users spent 65,733 hours on just the Plymouth-Winsted section of the trail from Memorial Day to Labor Day in 2011.

Cook said the trail outside Hutchinson doesn’t get a lot of use because cyclists find it more difficult to ride on the gravel and granite base between Cedar Mills and Winsted than on asphalt. About 2½ miles through Hutchinson are paved.

But he and Beckman expect trail use to increase among bike riders after paving of the stretch from the Carver County Line about a mile east of Winsted to McLeod County Road 115 just west of Hutchinson.

“It’s just going to be a much smoother ride for people,” Beckman said. Cook added that snowmobiles will be able to use the paved trail too, and a parallel trail for horseback riders is part of the project. Paving won’t limit trail uses, he said. “We’re just improving it so more people can enjoy it.”

Preparation work was done last year, and paving by Knife River Corp. of Sauk Rapids is scheduled to be completed by Aug. 31. When it will start wasn’t certain, Cook said. “I think when they do start it’ll go pretty fast.”

The $4.1 million project is the culmination of a several-year effort by the cities of Hutchinson, Winsted and Silver Lake with McLeod County and the DNR, according to Cook, who became involved as Hutchinson mayor from 2005 through 2014.

Attempts to improve the Luce Line trail go back to its beginning nearly 40 years ago, he said. Money for the paving project was in the state’s 2010 bonding bill, but then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed trail projects in the legislation.

The cities and county “felt we needed to put some skin in the game” and met with the DNR to ask whether, if local governments put up some money, would the DNR contribute too? The answer was yes. The cities and county chipped in $1.3 million, and the DNR came up with $1 million. Then the state approved a bonding bill last year to add $1.73 million.

“Kudos to the DNR,” Cook said. “They’ve just been a real good partner through the whole effort. I think it’s a great partnership and a good example of different units of government working together to get a project done.”

The paved trail will be another recreational asset to promote health and wellness for everyone, he said. “This is a way to get people from the city, whether Hutchinson or Winsted, … out into nature more and interacting with nature.” And it will be “another reason for tourists to come not only to Hutchinson but to Silver Lake and Winsted, and people do like to go on trails.”

The paving will be a few miles short of the original goal of laying asphalt to Cedar Mills west of Hutchinson. “Hopefully down the road there’ll be another opportunity to get on board to complete that portion as well,” Cook said.

Gary Lenz grew up in Winsted during the 1950s and ’60s, playing near the tracks and watching a single train roll through each day on the Luce Line. Now he lives less than 30 seconds from the trail and watches people walking their dogs and jogging where the trains used to rumble.

He’s been researching the railway’s history since 1987 when he was working on the Winsted centennial book and old Luce Line photos submitted by townspeople piqued his interest. Now he’s working on a book.

“I love history,” Lenz said, likening what he does to trying to find and put back together the scattered pieces of a house that’s exploded in order to see what it looked like.

The Luces of Minneapolis – William, who made a lot of money running grain elevators, and Erle, a lawyer who rose to the rank of colonel in the Minnesota National Guard — started the railway in August 1908, but Erle was the primary promoter, Lenz said.

The line was supposed to use electric trains, but no overhead wires were ever built, and gasoline-electric coaches carried passengers and pulled freight cars. The street-car-like vehicles weren’t well-suited to hauling more than a couple freight cars and had to be replaced by steam and later diesel locomotives.

The company planned to lay tracks to either Brookings or Watertown, S.D,, according to Lenz, but the line initially reached only to the Minneapolis city limits. The tracks were extended to Minnesota’s Watertown and Winsted in 1915 and Hutchinson a year later. The line reached Gluek, more than 100 miles out, in 1927. Then the money ran out and that became the end of the line.

The railway was sold in 1924 and became the Minnesota Western Railroad. It was bought by the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway in 1956 and renamed the Minneapolis Industrial Railway. In 1960 it merged with the Chicago & North Western Railway, which abandoned the line in 1972 because of declining rail traffic and removed the tracks by 1973.

The Luce Line carried the mail and two kinds of passengers, Lenz said. Rural youngsters rode the train to schools in the towns, and commuters and day-trippers traveled to downtown Minneapolis. But by World War II, commuter ridership was falling off. “They couldn’t compete with automobiles and highways.” The last passenger train rolled over Luce Line tracks on Sept. 10, 1947.

Along with lumber, grain, coal and steel, Luce Line freights hauled sugar beets from Winsted and west of Hutchinson to the Crystal Sugar plant in Chaska, pickles from Sherman Station west of Winsted to the Gedney plant in the Twin Cities, and milk and cream from Hutchinson and Watertown on the first leg of their journey to New York and Philadelphia.

But deteriorating tracks, stiff competition from the Great Northern and the Milwaukee Road and improving roads and shipping by truck ended the railroad’s freight service in 1972. By Lenz’s reckoning, the last freight shipment traveled through Winsted on April 14 that year.

The Minnesota Legislature authorized the Luce Line as a state trail in 1973, and the DNR acquired large portions of the right-of-way in 1975 with federal and state funds.

But the trail wouldn’t exist today, Lenz said, if it had been up to some adjoining farmers, who argued the land should be returned to them. Their objections caused the Minnesota Legislature to order the DNR to sell the 38 miles of roadbed from Gluek to Cosmos back to the landowners. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of the trail in a 1988 decision.

According to the Carver County Historical Society website, it was the first trail in the United States to be converted from rail to a multi-use trail, one that accommodates not just walking but all the other recreational pursuits that users enjoy.

Nearly 40 years later, the Luce Line is part of a network of 1,450 miles of developed state trails, most of them former rail lines.

#LuceLineRegionalTrail

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