Earliest travel in Minnesota was by waterways or across country on foot, occasionally on horseback. The man with stout footwear and a canoe could go anywhere. Railroads however had a long time crossing the Mississippi River into Minnesota and the first went to St. Paul.
Passengers and freight and mail waited out the winter until ice went out of the river. Winona needed a railroad to bring people and supplies into the southern part of the young state. The result was the Winona and St. Peter Railroad which pushed back the frontier until in 1872, it reached the high land near Sleepy Eye Lake.
The Minnesota River had been called the St. Peter by early explorers. The Winona and St. Peter Railroad was later called Chicago Northwestern. Railroad construction was done in small sections, sometimes by a number of contractors. The tools which made the railway cuts and grades were the pick, shovel and spade, the walking low, the two-wheeled scraper drawn by one horse, the wagon with dump planks and the wheel barrow. Most of the grading was led to a contractor who then contracted with others to do short sections. The only starling thing in machinery was the pile driver used to drive big timbers down to solid ground for bridges over sloughs.
The railroad had its own system for housing and feeding their employees, a two-story frame building on flatcars to accommodate the construction crews. The upper portion provided sleeping quarters and the lower floor was a dining area. Their “hotel” traveled right along with them. In July there was a picnic on the shores of Sleepy Eye Lake to celebrate the completion. Some of the workmen on the railroad liked Sleepy Eye well enough to bring their families here and establish their homes permanently. A section foreman of the crew who laid the first rails, was Thomas Crowley, step-father of Mrs. William S. (Ada) Eastman. Bridge foreman was James B. Leary, two of whose children made their home for life in Sleepy Eye. Also on the crew was Larry Carroll, some of whose descendants are living in Sleepy Eye.
By 1882, the roundhouse and machine shops were built in Sleepy Eye and the community became a busy rail town. Area railroad stations had more than their share of bad luck. The Nicollet station was struck by lightning and burned in July of 1878. In January of 1887, the Sleepy Eye depot burned down. By June 1887, a new structure was under roof, and painted by mid-July. The Sleepy Eye depot was on the south side of the tracks, but east of the street then called Fifth Street and now known as First Avenue. Fire hit the Essig depot in 1888. It was not until 1902, that the present brick building west of First Avenue was erected. That building held a baggage room at the west end, then the men’s waiting room, then the family waiting room, and at the east end, the lunch room. The ticket office was on the north side and had ticket windows giving onto both waiting rooms. With east and west trains each afternoon and each night in the small hours, travel was easy. One could go to a neighboring town to shop, to attend a party or circus, or to view a basketball game. A trip of distance required a lunch. Usually you took along your own fruit and sandwiches and a family eating oranges could scent the entire car. You could sometimes buy something from the “train butcher” who came in at some stops to sell papers or magazines or refreshments. Dining cars were attached at meal time.
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Train aisles were wider and seats roomier than those found on buses. If three or four persons traveled together they could turn over the back of a seat so that they could face one another.
Restrooms were larger than on a bus. Another advantage was the chance to get up and walk.
Before paper cups were devised, each traveler, or at least each family, had a folding metal cup for drinking. It could be carried in a pocket or a purse. The first drinking cups were made of paper and were small flat envelopes with an open end. It took a bit of technique to drink from them.
The depot lunch room was a profitable business. Salesmen all traveled by train and often took their meals in a well-known lunch room. Operated by a good cook, the one at Sleepy Eye had a steady stream of diners. Specialty of one cook was pie, with raisin pie leading the list.