The Cannon Valley Railroad War

The Cannon River in eastern Minnesota was the site of a near railroad war between the upstart Minnesota Central Railroad, and the much larger Milwaukee Road, who owned virtually all freight traffic in the area, and wished to keep it that way.

Red Wing on the Milwaukee's River Division. Image: "Township and railroad map of Minnesota published for the Legislative Manual, 1874.", Library of Congress.

In the 1870's, Red Wing, MN was cut off from railroad traffic as the Milwaukee had built a line between the Twin Cities and Chicago via Northfield and Faribault, leaving Red Wing without any service west, although the River Division ran through the town. Red Wing petitioned the Milwaukee Road to connect to the town via Cannons Falls, but as they owned all the rail traffic in the area, they were uninterested in expansion.

That was until the Minnesota Central Railroad was incorporated in 1881, intending to connect Red Wing to Mankato in 1883. It was at this point that the Milwaukee announced they were building a competing line, hoping to prevent the railroad from even building in their territory. 

The Minnesota Central nonetheless continued to build, and each company attempted to curry favor from villages and towns nearby. The MC had an easier time constructing their route, and completed theirs first. 

While actual fights have erupted in railroad wars throughout the United States, this war did not result in any physical skirmishes between crews, but did amount to plenty of litigation. Both railroad completed their routes and competed for the same traffic. 

This example of building a competing line to prevent competition from taking hold was extreme, but not without precedent, before or after the Milwaukee built their line, and is one reason why so much of the Midwestern United States was overbuilt with railroads in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Cannon Valley Railroads. Data: FRRandP Maps in the vicinity of 44.5683, -92.73853

The Milwaukee Road abandoned their section east of Northfield, MN in 1937; while the Minnesota Central would become the Chicago Great Western Railway. The line passed down to the CGW successor Chicago & Northwestern, but was abandoned soon after, ending service entirely in the 1980's. 

Today, the southern grade is the Cannon Valley Trail. Thanks as always for reading!


  1. The line between Northfield, MN and Cannon Falls, MN was abandond in 1918. The Milwaukee had a spur runing about 5 miles east of Cannnon Falls to bring coal and other goods to an Asylum for sick people.


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