Letter to the editor: Silver Creek resident weighs in on roundhouse demolition
By: From W.A. Stokinger, Silver Creek, Lake County News Chronicle
Having never explored the Two Harbors Duluth, Mesabi & Iron Range roundhouse complex nor having ever met John Ilse, I readily admit I am accepting on faith Mr. Ilse’s contention that the bulk of the Two Harbors roundhouse is structurally sound. Based upon his reported engineering expertise, he presumably speaks from strength about: the building’s general structural condition; the practicalities of hazardous materials remediation; the economic feasibilities of site restoration/renovations; the development of a business plan and the securing of funds to preserve a solid portion of this historic landmark.
From a historical perspective, the roundhouse facility’s surviving 1888 section is probably, as a guess, among the oldest 25 structures standing in Two Harbors. For a town whose relatively recent origins date to circa 1883 this should be a matter for pause, especially for a town whose current motto touts “It All Start Here” —- be it Grandma’s Marathon or Minnesota’s iron exports.
The Lake County’s Historical Society’s April 2012 newsletter describes the current roundhouse complex as consisting of three extant sections primarily dating 1888, 1912, and circa 1941 which serviced a grand cross-section of steam locomotives. Cursory research in Trains Magazine indicates there are probably less than 200 roundhouse structures surviving above ground in the United States. Assuming some additional roundhouses do survive, Two Harbors’ circa 1941 purpose-built Yellowstone locomotive bays are nonetheless a highly unusual, if not unique, surviving treasure of American railroad architecture, being erected for brawny machines that for their time were rated as the world’s most formidable steam-powered railway engines in terms of their iron ore-hauling tractive locomotion.
As to historical status, the Two Harbors DM&IR ore docks rail yard complex appears definitely eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Under Criteria A: Events, for its roles in supporting a multi-faceted company town’s local development as a transportation hub and in Minnesota’s iron mining history.
Under Criteria B: Persons, for its association with the D&IR pioneers like Thomas Owens – Two Harbors’ “First Citizen”. And under Criteria C: Design/Construction for the facility’s distinctive characteristics and its embodiment of evolutions in roundhouse design, a linkage unusually enhanced by the presence of the D&IR’s original “Three Spot” and the DM&IR’s #229 Yellowstone mallet locomotives built roughly 60 years apart by Baldwin Locomotive Works. Upon evaluation, the structure’s area of historical significance on local, state and national levels may include categories like: transportation, architecture, engineering, industry, maritime history and invention among others.
The importance of the DM&IR roundhouse complex in American transportation history is already evidenced in the 2001 documentation project initiated by the National Park Service’s Historic American Engineering Record program (HAER Mn-99) in response to the city’s then proposal to demolish the facility. Field data and record photographs are archived at the Library of Congress and at Minnesota Historical Society, being one of only 38,600 such federal Heritage Documentation Programs efforts undertaken nationwide since 1933, and only one of 38 surveys currently including a roundhouse component.
As a contributing element to a de facto historic district, the roundtable complex along with the D&IR ore docks, Edna G, the DM&IR depot and its locomotives, the lighthouse compound, breakwatered bay, etc would help reinforce the marketable tapestry that is Two Harbor’s history, while meeting the over-arching, sated intent of Item 10. In the Economics Goals section of the March 2011 Two Harbors comprehensive Plan to “Redevelop JJ Castings and roundhouse for industrial use”.
As recently as 2009, the Minnesota DNR’s Two Harbors Safe Harbor pre-design report proposed employing an unspecified part of the roundhouse/backshops structure for winter boat storage as a rental stream to help sustain the long-proposed marina, the roundhouse being envisioned “…..to supply substantial revenue generation for the Marina – ideally this will cover yearly operating and maintenance expenses, and provide the profit margin not available from a non-storage facility.” The proof of strong municipal leadership is its ability to adapt to, and capitalize on, changing developmental opportunities, with a multi-faceted offer in hand usually proving better than hints of future prospects as regards public fiduciary responsibilities.
In occupying only 7 acres of the city-owned 22 acre parcel, it would seem in Two Harbors’ interest to allow Mr. Ilse a year’s grace to try to realize his proposal, given its potential benefits in job creation, historic preservation and fiscal savings for both city & state taxpayers, especially since 15 acres remain for contemporary flat box, single-story industrial development. Like every other demolished industrial archaeology site, once a piece of local history is obliterated it irrevocably eliminates a tangible connection between past, present and future generations. The heritage and future of Two Harbors deserve better.