Railroad museum preserves downtown history

Minot traces its early days to the railroad and the downtown. So it’s appropriate that a railroad museum in downtown Minot is preserving some of that history.

The museum offers a look at trains, tools and technology over the years, but it also offers a section of maps and written histories of various aspects of the city’s early business districts and neighborhoods.

The Railroad Museum of Minot organized in 1986, establishing its first office in Town & Country Center. In 1996, the museum purchased a former lumberyard building between the tracks of Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Canadian Pacific Railroad tracks in downtown Minot.

The building was vacant when acquired by the museum, which cleaned and renovated before opening to the public in 1998. The museum board has attempted to portray the building as historically as possible, said facility manager Roger Burchill. There’s also been a move toward interactive and visitor-friendly exhibits.

“When I first came here, it wasn’t kid-friendly at all. Now it’s more hands-on,” Burchill said. “We want to get more activity in here. We want to draw more people in.”

The museum has hosted a wedding reception, and a caboose is being refurbished to handle birthday parties.

Space has been prepared in the entry for a simulator that will enable visitors to view a train ride from an engineer’s perspective. Burchill said it is uncertain when the simulator might be added, but the board is working on it.

The museum has displays throughout its entry and main floor and has begun setting up displays on a second floor. More recent additions include a children’s room and model train display.

In 2011, a stairway, original to the building, was reopened for public use. It is lit with lanterns from the 1920s obtained from a former bank.

Other improvements also lie ahead. The museum hoped to finish over winter a new street scene display to include a Northern Pacific baggage cart from about 1920. It plans to exhibit signal towers once their tall masts can be restored at a height to fit into a room with only a 14-foot ceiling.

There’s always a need for energetic volunteers to assist with the physical labor in renovating space and helping with displays, Burchill said.

Next year, plans are to turn a storage area into office space and archives. Another area is scheduled to become a board room, but for now it is the site of a rummage sale each Saturday. Proceeds go to repairing the Magic City Express, the flood-damaged 2/5 scale model train that the museum operates in Roosevelt Park, giving visitors rides during the summer.

Burchill said the museum has millions of items, many of them waiting to be prepared for exhibit. The museum has received donations of memorabilia representing more than 100 years of steam and diesel railroading. It also has a research library and a rotating, monthly display area for collectors to show their items railroad-themed or not.

The building’s exterior also is scheduled for future work. Plans are to remove the facade from the front of the exterior to restore the building to more of its original look.

The building was constructed in 1911 by Piper-Howe Lumber Company, which merged with Midwest Lumber and added on in 1933. In 1948, the company sold to Great Plains Supply Co. From 1963 until the 1990s, Dakota Drug operated out of the building. Mon-Dak Chemical, a second-hand store, boat store and a karaoke stage also were part of the building at various times.

The museum, located in one of the oldest sections of downtown, has a display of maps showing downtown Minot from 1918 to 2011. A popular section of the museum, the maps are accompanied by binders filled with information and photos related to downtown’s former theaters, auto dealerships, lumberyards, fires and more.

The most memorable fire occurred in 1947 at Westland Oil, located on Third Street Northeast. The heat was so intense that it blew a tanker car into the air, sending it crashing into the neighboring Bridgeman Creamery.

“The burning oil actually got down into the sewer line and went into the river. The river was burning all the away down to the zoo,” Burchill said.

But the 1928 fire at International Oil at 101-2nd St. NE was an even bigger fire, he said. Other fires included an opera house in 1923, the Waverly Hotel in 1943, the Grand Hotel in 1960, Peavey Flour Co. in 1966 and Robertson Lumber on Christmas Eve in 1975. The cause of the Robertson fire, suspected as arson, remains unknown to this day.

In some cases, new buildings sprang up from the ashes. As the downtown changed, some older buildings were removed to create parking lots. Businesses also started moving away from downtown, beginning with lumber companies in the 1960s and several auto dealerships that all were gone from downtown by the 1980s. The 1980s began to toll the death knell for downtown.

In 1982, the downtown lost Woolworths, Montgomery Ward and Ellison department stores. Penney’s had left a few years before and Sears had been gone since 1966.

Preserved images displayed at the museum show a different downtown, with awnings hanging from store fronts along Main Street and trees shading the sidewalk at intersections. In the 1960s there were stores such as Bader’s and Buttery’s for women’s clothing, Jay’s and Shark’s men’s stores and S.S. Kresge, the forerunner of Kmart. Many of the downtown stores had lunch counters, frequented by business people, shoppers and high school students on their lunch breaks, Burchill recalled.

Today’s downtown favors specialty shops and professional offices. To the observant, there’s still signs of the old days on buildings sporting faded lettering of business long gone. And the trains still rumble by.