Three feet below ground, workers building an addition to a Fargo specialty food store found the remains of a dream.

What they found didn't look like much — a 120-foot line of rotting wooden railroad ties buried more than a century ago during one of Fargo's greatest floods.

But those ties are nearly all that remains of the vision of a locally owned railroad line planned to connect Fargo to the markets of St. Louis and Chicago.

In 1881, its planners — 24 local businessmen — hoped to break the monopoly held by existing rail lines with the creation of Fargo & Southern Railway.

Instead, the line operated on its own for little more than a year before being swallowed by the larger Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway. Slowly, the Fargo facilities sank into disrepair, then succumbed to fire and the wrecking ball more than two decades ago.

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Now, the only remnants of the line in Fargo are a popular bike path, a small patch of track, and Tochi Products at 1111 2nd Ave. N., an organic and international foods store that made its home in the railroad's old freight house since 1978.

That's where workers digging a foundation for a north side addition to the 103-year-old building found the railroad ties May 7.

The ties were buried during the flood of 1897, when railroad officials decided to raise the track to allow the railroad to operate during the flood, said Stewart Mitchell, a railroad buff from Carol Stream, Ill., who grew up in Fargo and who worked for the Milwaukee Road, the owner of the Fargo & Southern line, from 1972 to 1977.

After the flood, the first ties were never unearthed, Mitchell said.

The Dakota boom

The story of the Fargo & Southern Railway goes back to the beginning of the city's history, when the Northern Pacific Railway - the very reason Fargo was built at all - and the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway held sway over the city and control of its freight prices.

But the NP and James J. Hill's Manitoba Railway weren't the only ones who wanted to carry Dakota Territory wheat to Twin Cities flour mills.

"It all goes back to the great Dakota boom," Mitchell said. "Every railroad wanted a piece of the Red River Valley then."

So two dozen businessmen banded together in 1881 to create the Fargo & Southern, with plans to provide connections to St. Louis and Chicago and cheaper freight prices for customers.

The idea was hailed by The Daily Argus, the predecessor to The Forum, as a "godsend," and "the greatest boom that (the) city has ever had."

Officials told The Argus a line to Wahpeton, N.D., would be built within a few months. Later, the paper discussed plans to expand the railway into Iowa and South Dakota.

The Argus predicted the company's stock would be bought quickly, and "there will be a loud and continuous wail for more by those unable to catch on."

That sentiment, though hyperbolic, didn't seem unreasonable at the time, Mitchell said. The expanding Dakota Territory seemed a place of limitless possibility.

"People back in Fargo in the 1880s thought big, because the country was so big," he said.

The reality was somewhat different - the fledgling company faced immediate financial difficulties.

Not until 1883, when a secret deal was made with the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway - the Milwaukee Road for short - to take over the line once it was built did the line have sufficient construction funding, according to an article by Mitchell published in the journal North Dakota History.

Saved by the posse

Even after the Milwaukee Road agreed to back the project, construction wasn't easy. Manitoba's Hill considered the Red River Valley his territory.

For a while, Hill ignored the new railroad while its workers toiled south, hauling materials in carts, avoiding river crossings, following the flattest parts of the Dakota landscape to save money.

The strategy worked; the railroad was built for about $16,000 per mile, Mitchell said. "This is one of the cheapest railroads ever built," he said.

But when the railroad reached Wahpeton and tried to build a crossing with Manitoba to reach Ortonville, Minn., Hill began his campaign to thwart the railway in any way he could.

First, Manitoba engineers drove off with Fargo & Southern's track building materials, but tactics quickly grew nastier, according to John C. Luecke's book, "Dreams, Disasters and Demise: The Milwaukee Road in Minnesota."

Workers derailed a locomotive and freight cars in the path of the line; used an engine to pull up the Fargo & Southern's completed track, with its ties, rails, tools, and workers; and parked sleeper cars full of laborers in the way, Luecke's book said.

Fargo & Southern's president, William Kindred, first tried to get a court to stop Hill, Mitchell said. But when the legal wheels turned too slowly, he threatened to blow up everything in the line's way: cars, locomotives, workers, all.

Kindred's laborers actually laid down the dynamite, wired charges and announced that the railroad would not be responsible for the safety of anyone in the area, Mitchell's article said.

But before Kindred could blow up the edge of Wahpeton, a court ordered Hill to stop his interference, and a Fargo posse arrived, led by a new Deputy U.S. Marshal, Luecke's book said.

Only after the entire Manitoba workforce was arrested - for throwing coal at Kindred's workers as they tried to clear the debris - did the crossing actually get built.

By 1884, the Fargo & Southern's rails covered the 117 miles to Ortonville and went no farther. That same year, the line opened its ornate two-story brick passenger station, with arched windows and a rooftop cupola, at 1101 2nd Ave. N.

Less than a year later, as planned, the Milwaukee Road bought the line for $1.95 million.

Couldn't compete

The railroad hauled grain out of Fargo and brought in "all the accoutrements of civilization," from whiskey to farm machinery to furniture, Mitchell said.

At first, the line did provide the lower rates businessmen coveted, Mitchell said. But it never threatened Hill's empire with more than modest success, he said.

In fact, the line consistently lost money - it couldn't compete with the established railroads, Luecke's book said.

Slowly, the line began to decay. The last train reserved entirely for passengers left the station in 1931. After that, travelers had to ride on "mixed" freight and passenger trains, and the station was used partially as a warehouse.

By 1961, the Milwaukee Road completely abandoned the passenger station, except for one small office. Pigeons took over the building, which languished for 10 years, until interior designer Jack Akre bought it.

Akre started a restoration project that earned national attention, turning the station and adjacent freight house into the Depo, an arts-oriented mall housing 13 businesses, while keeping the fixtures and feeling of the station.

But two days before Christmas 1974, a fire started in the basement of the building, rampaged up through both floors and destroyed the station's roof.

Firefighters prevented the blaze from damaging the freight house, but the depot's roof collapsed, and the floors beneath had severe smoke and water damage.

The fire's cause was never determined.

Akre fought to save the station, applying for a federal grant to pay half of the estimated $240,000 cost to re-restore it. But after a neighbor complained debris was regularly falling off the building, the city condemned it and ordered it torn down.

At first, Akre ignored the order, but in 1975, the 91-year-old station, which was on the State Registry of Historic Places, was demolished.

When Will Hoglund, owner of Tochi Products, bought the adjacent, surviving freight house "on the cheap" in 1978, there was still a hole in the ground where the station once stood, he said. He filled the area in with dirt, and it's now the store's parking lot.

End of the road

As the depot decayed, the Milwaukee Road, too, was faltering.

Airlines and truck lines were nibbling away at rail business, and Milwaukee's speed and service deteriorated as officials continually delayed fixing tracks, Luecke's book said.

Throughout the 1960s, the Milwaukee Road sought a merger to help it compete. But just before Burlington Northern formed a railroad behemoth out of three other railroads in 1970, Milwaukee's merger prospect backed out, Luecke's book said.

In 1977, the company went bankrupt for the third time, emerging as a 3,200-mile ghost of its former self, according to an article by Todd Jones on trainweb.org. All unprofitable lines - including the former Fargo & Southern route - were pared away before the Soo Line bought its remnants in 1985, Luecke's book said.

In Fargo, the rail lines were taken out for salvage in the early 1980s, Mitchell said.

Only a short stretch of track near Third Avenue and 16th Street North, at Lehigh Cement, remains of the Fargo route, he said.

Today, a bike trail, put in place over a number of years after the tracks were abandoned in 1980, runs along the tracks' former bed from Interstate 94 through south Fargo, but the rest - the tracks that followed Second Avenue North, then turned south at 25th Street - has disappeared under parking lots, green space and buildings.

"The tracks that you see there (at Tochi Products) are the last vestiges of the Milwaukee Road's existence in Fargo," Mitchell said. "People need to be aware that one of the reasons Fargo is the way it is, is because of Milwaukee's contribution to the culture."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Joy Anderson at (701) 241-5556