KEYC - The Story Behind The Ruins On The Minnesota River

The Story Behind The Ruins On The Minnesota River

Posted: Updated:

Between St. Peter and Kasota lie ruins of a bygone era in the middle of the Minnesota River. You've probably spotted them while driving along Highway 169 from Mankato toward St. Peter. Beside a few peeks between the trees along the highway, the stone structures on the river lie mostly in obscurity.

Ruins to the world around them.

For most of us, they stand against the current in mystery, their story unknown.

Working off of the extensive Minnesota railroad history written by John C. Luecke, guidance from Bob Sandeen at the Nicollet County Historical Society and with the help of Jerry Vetter at Vetter Sales and Service in Kasota for filming, let's find out.

In the 1850s, the United States couldn't expand fast enough. They wanted access to the raw materials the frontier could provide, and they needed a way to get it back east. Getting a railroad to connect southern Minnesota's wheat to Winona was vital, because from there it could get to the grain trading capital of the world in Chicago.

Minnesota, only recently having become a state, issued huge land grants and bonds to developers. Though the planning stages began in 1858, construction didn't get going until 1862, starting in Winona and heading toward St. Peter along the route we know as U.S. Highway 14. Fittingly, the company doing the work called itself the Winona and St. Peter Railroad Company.

It would take almost a decade to reach its namesake destination, with the company being purchased by Chicago and North Western Transportation Company along the way.

Construction continued, with the first train crossing the Minnesota River into St. Peter on May 6th, 1871.

The connection to Chicago was made, and the trains running between Winona and St. Peter were bustling, bringing in new settlers, and sending back fresh wheat, with the 2500 foot behemoth bridge, upgraded to an iron swing bridge in 1880 to allow steamboat traffic on the river, serving as a central cog in the process.
"That's a lot of freight. A lot of passengers. The Mayo brothers came up from Rochester to work with patients at the state hospital. That was a vital link," Sandeen said.

A vital link... so what happened to it?

What always happens. Things change.

Steamboat traffic disappeared on the Minnesota River about the same time the bridge was upgraded to accommodate them. North Western would end up being broken up and sold off to Canadian Pacific and Union Pacific. But the demise of this bridge came long before that.

St. Peter was not the end of the line. The railroad would continue another 200 miles to Watertown, South Dakota. And it turns out that the Minnesota River was just too big of an obstacle to deal with. Massive trestle bridges are massively expensive to maintain. A better, cheaper route was found. Instead of crossing the river twice, why not just a straight shot over to New Ulm.

St. Peter could easily access the rail by crossing what is now the 99 bridge, and the cities on the interior... Traverse, Oshawa, Nicollet, and Courtland, never developed enough to demand rail access, if at all.

Without the demand, there's no need to keep it going.

Rail was put down to the south of the river between Mankato and New Ulm by 1900, rendering the section to the north effectively useless.

It would languish in obscurity for another 50 years, though North Western would finally get permission to end service in 1954, and the bridge was taken down in 1957.

Only the Kasota Stone pillars are left behind. And the Minnesota River, and nature herself, are tearing them down as we speak, at their own pace of course.

The river has shaped our region for millennia. It continued to shape how we traveled in the century and a half since pioneers founded cities and made Minnesota a state. Shaping how we traveled shaped how we traded, and that shaped how we grew.

Things are moving faster now... a completed bridge spanning between Kasota and St. Peter is still a thing of living memory.

But the dinosaur bones left behind - in the form of abandoned bridge pillars - contain within them the story of how we came to be.

-- KEYC News 12.