Monday, December 29, 2014

Urban Hike: Disputed Tracks

I sometimes wake in the night and listen for a distant train, a steady rumble as locomotives pull a mile of freight cars. Oil from North Dakota, coal from Wyoming or Montana, grain from Minnesota or North Dakota.

I'm standing next to the railroad. The first snow of winter has melted, fresh snow is falling. It's time to follow these tracks before they becomes impassable on foot. The hike will take me on track where deep snow can hide ankle-twisting cavities, control equipment, and levers.

This is Cedar Lake Junction, just west of downtown Minneapolis. Two lines meet here in what was once a switchyard. Running east/west is the BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe). Peeling off to the southwest, is a line owned by Hennepin County and operated by the TC&W (Twin Cities and Western). A roaring propane heater keeps the track switch free of ice and masks Interstate 394 behind me.

This is a controversial place.

Some residents close to the TC&W want the line removed, and the freight rerouted to another line in St. Louis Park, a first-ring suburb. The people living close to the St. Louis Park line disagree.

Planned light rail transit (LRT) adds to the concerns of neighbors and users of the adjacent trails. I’m near what will be Penn Avenue light rail station. Trains will then travel southwest beside the TC&W.

Two sets of walking and bicycling trails meet here, shadowing the railroads: the North Cedar Lake Regional Trail beside the BNSF and the Kenilworth Trail beside the TC&W. This is my start and finish point.

Interactive Map

BNSF, North Cedar Lake Regional Trail
I'm walking west beside the BNSF on the North Cedar Lake Regional Trail. This section is the nation's first "bicycle freeway" with one-way bicycle paths and a separate pedestrian path.

Prairie grasses and other native plantings surround me. Over the years invasive species have been replaced by native species. A noticeboard lists out 6 types of native grass and 29 types of native plant.

I hear one of my favorite sounds of winter: eerie otherworldly chirping from the frozen surface of Cedar Lake as it flexes in the breeze. Not only do I feel I've left the city, but for a moment I've left the planet.

When I ride this trail on my bicycle I like to imagine it's 100 years earlier. I'm on a transcontinental train heading west on James J. Hill's Great Northern line to Seattle. My daydreams get interrupted by long oil trains pulling volatile Bakken crude at 40 miles (64 kilometers) per hour east towards downtown Minneapolis, under the 39,000-seat baseball park, and across the Mississippi.

I leave the trail for coffee and a pastry.

Refreshed, I walk back to the railroad. This time I reject the trail and the stern "No Trespassing" sign, and walk beside the track on BNSF land.

I continue under Highway 100, then past an Abra auto body paint shop and a former Nestlé healthcare nutritional products factory. When the weather was hot I could identify this area blindfolded. Ventilation fans running full blast, pumping out paint, chocolate, and vanilla fumes.

Up ahead a rickety railroad trestle and bridge is the inspiration for my walk today. I've often passed under this on trips to points west and wondered where the line went. Today, I'm going to find out.

I have never seen a train on this trestle, but today a train whistle is growing louder. I pause as a double-headed Canadian Pacific freight train crawls over the trestle.
MN&S Line

The whistle recedes, I climb up the embankment onto Canadian Pacific's MN&S (Minneapolis, Northfield and Southern). I see the BNSF track beneath my feet through the expanded metal surface. I am thrilled to finally walk above the trail I know so well.
I feel safe walking on the right-of-way. Trains run at 10 miles (16 kilometers) per hour, and I've just seen one of the average of two daily trains.

Initially I have no choice but to walk on the railroad ties. If I step off, I will slide down the crushed stone ballast to the steep, slippery embankment to a pond.

Further south the embankment ends, giving me space to walk beside the track. I see low-rise apartment buildings then back yards of single family homes.

A lawn sign declares "No Reroute" perhaps triumphantly as it seems additional freight trains will not be rerouted through this neighborhood. The people around me have probably won the argument.

The area gives way to light industrial enterprises, useful places that keep money in the community.
An old building has a welding workshop at street level and stairs on the outside to apartments above. I know this place: I've brought a wrecked aluminum backpack frame and a rusted iron flower tower here to be fixed by the sole proprietor. The braze and weld are still holding, stronger than the originals.

I walk to the bridge over busy Highway 7, passing yet another "No Trespassing" sign. I feel vulnerable here: maybe I've been spotted and someone has called 911. I imagine feigning confusion when I'm intercepted by a cop. I decide I will just be polite because I do not want to be taken to the nearest emergency room. Up ahead is Methodist Hospital where people know me.

I reach another bridge and trestle, book-ending my MN&S walk.

TC&W Line, Cedar Lake Regional Trail, KenilworthTrail

I'm clambering down the embankment to the Cedar Lake LRT Regional Trail. I'm about to follow the TC&W freight line which is also the route of the future light rail.

I cross Highway 100 for the second time today. Lines of chimneys at the Nordic Ware kitchenware factory emit a faint whiff of hot plastic. I imagine industrial ovens behind those walls curing microwave utensils and handles for pans. This company invented the aluminum Bundt pan, then made over fifty million of them with local labor.
A TC&W train slowly overtakes me, pulling general freight towards the Kenilworth corridor. "NO CO-LO" is scrawled on the trail, a reminder of the debate over the co-location of light and freight rail.

Tall apartment buildings begin to pop up. I walk past a strip mall that's actually useful: a Whole Foods, a liquor store, a garden store, a hairdresser, some restaurants. I'm starting to get hungry but resist as I have a better plan for lunch.

I reach a fork in the trail. In warmer weather I meet a friend here to go exploring the trails on our bicycles. A public bicycle maintenance station marks the spot, a selection of tools dangles on steel cords.
I turn northeast onto the Kenilworth Trail towards Cedar Lake Junction, my starting point almost 3 hours earlier. Had I missed this turn, I would have continued on the Midtown Greenway, past Lake Calhoun, through Uptown, Midtown, all the way to the Mississippi.

Just ahead, I reach a squeeze point: townhomes, the TC&W, the future LRT, the trails, single family homes. Last summer, signs called for rerouting the freight line and putting the LRT in a deep tunnel.

Despite the opposition, the freight line will remain, which leaves no room for all these trails and rails. The LRT will run in shallow cut-and-cover tunnels under the trails.

My nephews know this section as the scooter trail. In warmer weather I chase after them as they speed ahead on their scooters until they reach a playground coming up on my right.

Two years ago, we were at this playground when we heard a mechanical cacophony approaching along the railway. We rushed over to see what was happening.

Machines were removing the old track, positioning and attaching new continuously welded track, then adjusting the ballast. One line of machines, one continuous process.

With spikes flying, a foreman told my 4-year-old nephew to stand back. He reluctantly complied, then slowly edged back towards the projectiles. I bribed him with a promise of ice cream at Lake Calhoun to get him to leave this scene.

Cedar Lake comes up on my left, only to be hidden by houses. I can't think of any other Minneapolis lake of any size where lakeshore housing is permitted.

Neighbors oppose the freight line and the future LRT. There was probably no local debate when the railroad was first built: the original keepers of this land had lost the genocidal US-Dakota War of 1862.

The railroad was already here when the area was platted around 1887. I'm grateful for this railroad because without it the land I am walking on might have been platted. Instead of a trail, I could be walking along residential streets.

I pause above the channel connecting Cedar Lake with Lake of the Isles then continue past a few more houses until the land to my left gives way to park.
At a cross-street I leave the trail and walk a few blocks to The Kenwood, a lovely neighborhood restaurant. Sometimes I walk here with my partner, Dwight, for dinner so I'm not too surprised when my server asks if I want my usual Fulton Sweet Child of Vine IPA. I hesitate then order this Minneapolis microbrew to accompany a classic pulled pork sandwich.

Back on the trail I walk the remaining half mile to Cedar Lake Junction where I started this morning. Back through prairie plantings, back through country in the city, back to a meeting of different trails.

I'm boarding a train near Cedar Lake Junction.

I roll my bicycle to a rack as the train runs through a tunnel. We briefly come up for air to cross the channel between the two lakes, then dive into another tunnel. Back in daylight I see a freight train chasing us on the next track. Then the back of Whole Foods, the kitchenware factory, the trestle bridge, across the inner rings of the southwest metro.

I get off in Eden Prairie then follow the line back home on my bicycle.

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