From Past to Present: The Evolution of the Midtown Greenway

Minneapolis was a young and emergent city in the 1880’s. The flour milling industry was booming and the population was growing in leaps and bounds. Rail was the most efficient way to ship products at the time and area rail companies like the Milwaukee Road saw the quickly developing business center as potential for a more efficient route to the Mississippi River. Their Hastings and Dakota division’s tracks ran through Mendota then and the company knew that tracks through Minneapolis would provide a shorter, more cost-effective shipping route. Before long, the Hastings and Dakota tracks of the Milwaukee Road Line were laid along Minneapolis’ southern border of 29th Street that ran parallel to Lake Street. The development of these tracks would ultimately ignite a debate in the City of Minneapolis that would last for nearly a decade, and change the city indefinitely.

The availability of shipping trackage spawned new business development along the rail route and the city began to grow at an exponential rate. The railroad sidetracks provided these businesses with direct connections to major transportation routes. But the communities surrounding the tracks were mostly residential, outside of the commercial node of Lake Street, and the rail line was beginning to disturb this balance. Residents quickly saw their neighborhoods becoming increasingly industrial and were not happy. The grade crossings across the tracks were also extremely dangerous and responsible for numerous deaths. 

Brewing Controversy
By 1905, the neighborhood residents began to vocalize their discontent. Petitions calling for the removal of the crossings circulated among residents, and were eventually brought before the City Council. The growing dilemma posed a question that would plague the city for years: Should the tracks be elevated or depressed? The answer was in the hands of the City Council and the representatives of Milwaukee Road. Communication between involved parties was slow and broken and progress moved at sluggish pace, as Milwaukee Road officials were reluctant to assume any responsibility for redevelopment of the tracks. Without any reachable agreement between the parties, the City Council tabled the issue in 1908.

The Minneapolis Journal prompted debate to continue with controversial dialogue that forced the Council to resume discussion. Neighborhood residents were infuriated by the Council’s lack of action to this point. By 1909, the issue was back on the Council’s agenda presenting the same quandary of how best to eradicate the crossings. Under pressure, Milwaukee Road officials eventually proposed a plan to elevate the tracks. The proposal was poorly received by the City because it called for the closing of nearly two dozen main intersecting streets. The City rejected the proposal and asked Milwaukee Road to present the Council with a more feasible plan. The City even offered to assume half the costs.

The Resolution
Finally in early 1910, the Railroad presented a $1.3 million plan to depress the tracks with project completion in two years. The Railroad would incur all costs and would require no street closures. Unfortunately, the proposal now negatively affected the businesses along the tracks that relied on the sidetracks (which were to be removed) to transport their goods. As tensions began to mount, the Council pondered whether there was a solution that collectively served the needs of the railroad, private business and the residents. 

The three-way battle that ensued was excruciating for all involved. The debate of how to handle this problem was already more than five years old. The City took matters in to their own hands and passed an ordinance requiring the immediate depression of the tracks. Milwaukee Road complied and preparation for the depression began in April 1911.

The businesses affected by the ordinance quickly mobilized opposition. Stating that their interests were not being served and that they had not received fair notice of the ordinance, they refused to comply. Thirty companies joined together to obtain an injunction against the City to halt the project. Their case was heard in October when a judge ultimately denied their claim and ordered Milwaukee Road back to work. In January 1912, disgruntled and impatient, the businesses changed their strategy and filed a new lawsuit against Milwaukee Road. 

The companies argued that the City had gone outside its authority and that no railroad could alter its track in a way that would affect the businesses on that line without the permission of the State Rail and Warehouse Commission. But the City’s ordinance had already passed and the Railroad had the right to terminate any side trackage contracts within sixty days of written notice, which had been given. 

In July 1912, the Minnesota Supreme Court intervened. The Court found that the City had exercised its rights within the law and therefore the ordinance would be upheld. It was also determined that the Railroad and Warehouse Commission had no legislative or judicial authority to interfere with the City’s rights of police powers to protect public safety. Work to depress the tracks and build the more than three dozen bridges that would serve as crossings, began immediately and was completed by 1916. 

A New Beginning
The depression of the Hastings and Dakota tracks created what is today, the Midtown Greenway Corridor. The site is still considered one of great opportunity and its redevelopment is again a high priority for private business and local government. This time the key stakeholders are working in partnership. 

The Greenway has now evolved from an industrial railway to a developing urban corridor that envisions mixed-income housing, multi-modal transportation and open space designed to reflect the many faces, cultures and classes that lie within its borders.

Facts for this article provided by The Twenty-Ninth Street Tracks: From Neighborhood Activism to City Power, by Eden Spencer and the Minneapolis Journal, 1905-1914.