In its early years, Proctor was synonymous with its sprawling rail yard; in fact, these back yards – built to sort and provide a venue to maintain railcars – is the entire reason for Proctor’s existence. Still present and ever-evolving, Proctor’s back yards likely hold the best insight into the Proctor community – its past, its present, and its future.
It was as if the earth stopped, setting things spinning in every direction, the day iron ore was discovered in the small village of Mountain Iron in 1890. It was shortly after this that the Duluth, Missabe and Northern Railway (DM&N) gobbled up a corridor between the Mesabi Range and Duluth, flat land atop the St. Louis River Valley was identified as the ideal location for the future railway’s maintenance yards, and – in 1891 – Proctor began.
The call for rail laborers brought hundreds to what soon would become known as Proctor. Some traveling up the hill from Duluth, most striking canvas tents on-site, these workers rushed to build an expansive, 240 acre rail yard designed to hold 2,000 cars along 36 miles of tracks. Less than two years later, the yard and rail lines were complete, and on a brisk day in October 1893, 500 people gathered to see the first train of ore leave the Proctor yards for the docks of Duluth.
Improvements were soon to follow at the hastily-built rail yard. By 1910, as population around the back yards grew exponentially, expanded yards, an enlarged storehouse, yard utilities, a new oil house, new administrative offices, a depot, and massive maintenance shops were added along the rail line, drastically changing the face of the Proctor community. However, 1916 saw even more substantial improvements in the yards. Engine terminal operations were transferred from the original facilities in the South End to new, state-of-the-art facilities in the North End, which included a concrete roundhouse with 30 stalls, a 100-foot turntable, a coaling tower with a 1,000-ton capacity, and 15 new miles of yard track, bringing the total yard mileage to 80. In addition, the DM&N also received eight new locomotives – six Santa Fe type locomotives, and two additional Mallets – to haul heavy loads up and down the hill to the Duluth harbor and back.
These expanded facilities were not built in vain. In peak periods, as many as fifty 65-car trains passed through Proctor daily. This was aided by trains being dispatched down to the harbor as often as every 15 minutes after a shipment of ore was received in the yard.
With economic benefits to boot, the rail yards and their prosperity couldn’t be contained, spilling over more than occasionally to the Proctor community through the years. Though the Railroad built parks, schools, community facilities, and more for community use, likely one of its most profound gestures came in a time of need – the Great Depression. It was in the early 1930s when coal would mysteriously fall off the trains, leaving boys to gather up the pieces and bring them back to their families to stay warm. Local churches would also find bags of coal on their doorsteps on chilly mornings. Though the Railroad provided even more practical support during those days (it kept the First National Bank of Proctor open with its payroll service), the whimsical image of coal being sprinkled for community children to gather is something magical.
Prosperity continued into the next decade, when the capacity and use of the Proctor yards was unparalleled in the early 1940s. World War II brought unyielding demand for steel, which required the transport of iron ore from the Mesabi Range straight through Proctor. Between 1941 and 1942, approximately 82 million tons – 75% of all the iron ore used to make steel during World War II – was shipped to, sorted, and shipped out of town, making Proctor the largest iron ore sorting yard in the world during that time. This may or may not have been linked to the ingenuity of the Missabe Misses, the Proctor women who filled the labor gap on the Railroad when fathers, husbands, and sons were recruited for the war efforts.
But living with a Railroad in the center of town didn’t just entail collecting money every time a train passed ‘Go.’ A majority of people who lived in Proctor worked for the Railroad, which meant a good deal of labor and filth. A notorious activity among both workers and their families was ore steaming, a method of infusing steam through big hoses into rail cars to thaw frozen iron ore so it could be unloaded in Duluth. While the need to steam ore meant good money, it also meant a brownish haze that permeated the farthest reaches of Proctor and left a thin layer of ore dust on kitchen counters, cars, and everything else. It meant that a steam whistle blew four times each day, signaling the end of three working shifts and curfew at 9 p.m. And, of course, it meant inconveniences were met with a rail line running through the middle of the community.
Through the years, changes have been a consistent part of the back yards. First, the Railway itself has changed hands multiple times. As the DM&N, the railway was incorporated in 1891 under Duluth’s famous Merritt family, but it was sold in 1894 to John D. Rockefeller, who in turn sold it to USS in 1901. USS also owned and operated the Duluth and Iron Range (D&IR) Railroad, which ran separately from the DM&N until the two roads merged in 1938. This merger famously created the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway (DM&IR). After a substantial run, DM&IR was sold in 2004 to Canadian National (CN) Railway, which merged the DM&IR into Wisconsin Central in 2011.
Physical changes in Proctor’s back yards became noticeable after the 1960s. Following a switch from steam engines to diesel engines, the railroad needed less space for maintenance, in comparison to the room needed to maintain steam engines. The back yards were also affected by a slowing demand for iron ore.
One by one, notable features started disappearing from Proctor’s yard. After 46 years and 2.5 million tons of coal, the coal dock stopped operations in 1962, and was then torn down in 1970. Steam-powered locomotives, including the massive Yellowstone engines, were retired from duty. The Proctor Depot sat empty for years only to be torn down. The yard’s old black water tower was removed. And the maintenance shops were taken over by other businesses. Despite these losses, the railway and many of the yard’s buildings still remain active components of the railroad today.
Shaping development, community, and the lives of people around it, Proctor’s back yards were truly the building block of the Proctor community. Evidenced by the yards’ continued presence in the heart of Proctor, this truth will not soon be forgotten – and should forever be remembered.