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Sad Ending For ‘Little Railroad That Couldn’t’

March 29, 1985

HAYFIELD, Minn. (AP) _ Like ″The Little Engine That Could,″ the Hayfield Northern Railroad climbed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won a legal battle for its right to exist. But in the end it succumbed to torn-up tracks and mounting legal bills.

Friday’s closing of Hayfield’s biggest shipper ended the four-year efforts of a few businessmen to restore rail service to this town of 1,200. They beat the Chicago & North Western Railway in court but never got to the point of owning any trains or track, and finally ran short of money.

″It just reached the point of diminishing returns,″ said businessman and railroad backer Bill Reese. ″We spent too much. If we had all the money we spent on the legal battle we’d have a railroad here.″

The Power Span factory, which used to employ 40 people making 92-foot concrete utility poles, shut down partly because there was no railroad on which to ship the poles, General Manager Dennis Thome told the Minneapolis Star and Tribune.

″The rest of us put together didn’t ship as much as Power Span,″ said Steve Becvar of Century Plastics, another manufacturer in this southeastern Minnesota town. ″It just wasn’t practical for us to continue the battle. It would have cost another $100,000 to pursue getting the C&NW to put the track back in.″

Becvar said Hayfield Northern spent nearly $150,000 winning the right to acquire 19.2 miles of abandoned right of way connecting Hayfield with three nearby towns.

The story began in 1981, when the C&NW moved to abandon the rail line that had served Hayfield since 1885. Nearly half of Minnesota’s 9,000 miles of track have been abandoned since the 1930s.

When local businessmen protested, the Interstate Commerce Commission said they could keep the trains running by paying the C&NW a $300,000 annual subsidy. They balked at that, too, so the ICC said they could buy the line for $1.8 million.

That also was too much, so 14 companies in Hayfield, Waltham and Sargeant formed the Hayfield Northern Railroad Co. Inc. and sought to buy the line under a Minnesota eminent domain statute.

That marked the start of a long legal battle that resulted in a landmark Supreme Court decision in favor of Hayfield Northern last June, when it overturned a ruling that the ICC has exclusive authority over abandoned track.

The court ruled 9-0 that states may condemn abandoned track to restore service even if the original railroad could make more money by ripping up the track and using it elsewhere. Sixteen other states and the U.S. solicitor general backed the Hayfield Northern.

″Our suit settled a fundamental question of states’ rights,″ said Bill Howard, former president of Power Span and still president, at least on paper, of the Hayfield Northern.

Howard said Power Span put more than $60,000 into the fight. It had the most to gain from renewed rail service since it was more expensive to truck its utility poles to a railhead at Blooming Prairie, 10 miles away.

By the time the case went to the Supreme Court, however, only Power Span, Century Plastics and the Reese Farm Center were still bankrolling the railroad. Becvar said Century Plastics put in at least $20,000. Reese said he contributed more than $25,000.

The only tracks left in Hayfield are a few hundred feet of rusting siding next to Reese’s fertilizer store. He bought the spur shortly before the C&NW ripped out the rest of the track in 1983 after the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued its ruling that was later overturned by the Supreme Court.

Howard said it would cost $1.5 million to replace just the track between Hayfield and the C&NW line at Dodge Center.

″We did beat the system, even if we didn’t win anything by it,″ Howard said. ″The good thing is that we established a principle so that other people won’t have to go through what we did.″

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