Knife River's location, history and amenities could soon make it a major stop on the North Shore Scenic Railroad's summer runs between Duluth and Two Harbors, according to NSSR Executive Director Ken Buehler.
Buehler believes the unincorporated community's proximity to Lake Superior makes it an ideal location for an additional stop on the NSSR.
"The No. 1 reason folks come to Duluth is Lake Superior - that's the draw," Buehler said. "You need to have some infrastructure in place and we have that in Knife River. It's a station stop. It has to be cleaned up, obviously, but it's there."
Knife River is one of just three places along the NSSR route with beach access and is the only spot with the necessary infrastructure and amenities for riders to access once the arrive in the area. Knife River's beach and marina near the NSSR stop offer activities for families taking advantage of the line for purposes other than just the train ride.
Opportunity to draw train passengers
Buehler originally conceived of the idea a couple years ago when he tried to buy the Lighthouse at Emily's restaurant after it closed in late 2015. His plan to purchase the building fell through, but with the reopening of the restaurant under new ownership as Emily's Eatery on Knife River in 2017, the idea received a shot of adrenaline.
Rick Goutermont, St. Louis and Lake County Regional Rail Authority (SLLCRRA) chairman and Lake County commissioner, said Knife River has always held potential for expanding stops on the NSSR.
The SLLCRRA oversees the NSSR and owns the land on which any stop could be built.
"I think the Rail Authority shares Ken's thoughts on the potential there," Goutermont said. That's always been our long-term goal with the Scenic Railroad - to use that to heighten the experience of what people can do along that route. Certainly, Knife River is front and center of where people can get on and off the train and enjoy the day."
What's more, Knife River offers an opportunity to learn about its history as a railroad and fishing community. It was a stop on the former Duluth and Northern Minnesota (DNM) line that carried passengers and timber along the North Shore in the early 20th century. The railroad carried passengers as far north as Trail Center in Cook County and carried much of the timber harvested on the North Shore back to Duluth. Trains were also instrumental in getting fish caught by boats operating out of Knife River and Larsmont to processing stations in the Duluth area.
"Knife River has a railroad heritage beyond just our line and it's got a fishing history," Buehler said. "That's how the catch made it to Duluth and Chicago. They could get it from Knife River to Chicago in 24 hours because of the railroad."
The Knife River Hiking Trail, with a trailhead just a few steps from the proposed station stop, provides another amenity for riders to access from a local stop. The trail passes by the remains of the buildings used by the DNM until it stopped operating in 1923. The trail continues for about 4 miles upstream of the Knife River and offers some spectacular views of the river bed below, according to Buehler.
The biggest obstacle in the way of making Knife River a major destination for the NSSR is getting all of the stakeholders on the same page. The SLLCRA owns the land where the station stop would be and Randy Ellestad owns the building that stands on the land, the Knife River Depot. The depot building is in increasingly bad shape with a visible hole in the roof and a bevy of structural issues.
The Knife River Recreational Council has stepped forward with a plan to build a two-season shelter, which could include a fireplace for the colder days, but there is some consternation about building on land the KRRC doesn't even own. Goutermont said the SLLCRA is more than willing to work with the group.
"We certainly understand the position that they're in there and we'll work with them and come sort of agreement that will work," he said. "If they're searching for grants or something - we get it - they're not going to get grants for land they don't have control over."
Buehler, however, believes the potential benefits outweigh the risks and hopes some agreement can be reached to make Knife River an inviting destination for train enthusiasts and families looking for a day on the North Shore.
There are other possibilities beyond just the current amenities, like creating bed-and-breakfast train that would serve the area, bringing in sleeper cars and dropping them off for the night before picking them up and heading back to Duluth. The Great Northern Railroad in Spooner, Wis., and the Silverton and Durango Railroad in Colorado have had some success with bed-and-breakfast trains. Buehler believes there could be similar interest on the NSSR.
"Knife River is a perfect destination because of its distance from Duluth," he said. "It's not a long ride; it's not a short ride - it's an intermediate ride."