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Hot Spot - Saunders Junction

[G2:1547 n=1 size=640]An empty taconite train meets coal loads on double track at West Saunders.

Saunders Junction, located south of Superior along Tower Avenue, is the one and only mainline location in the Twin Ports that plays host to all freight railroads serving the area. Strategically located at the crossing of BNSF's mainline into the Twin Ports and CN's Superior Subdivision (former DM&IR Interstate Branch), Saunders is easily the most active railroad junction in the region. Originally this Great Northern location served as the junction with its ore line from Allouez and the line out of Superior. Although an operator's shack remains, today the junction is controlled by BNSF dispatchers in Ft. Worth, Texas.

Saunders took on added importance when the Interstate Transfer Railway (DM&N) constructed a line through the area in 1915. A connecting track was built from this line to the GN mainline to allow for direct interchange. This connecting track would take on greater importance in the early 1980s when C&NW negotiated trackage rights over BN from Minneapolis. C&NW trains then started using the connecting track to reach the Interstate Branch and their Itasca Yard.
[G2:1507 n=1 size=640]A southbound CN manifest rolls under the BNSG as view from the traditional photo location off Highway 35 (Tower Avenue) looking west. Photo by Kevin Madsen.

Another change in routing patterns in the early 1980s increased traffic through Saunders. The Milwaukee Road and Grand Trunk Corporation (CN) signed a cooperative agreement whereas joint run-through trains would operate from Winnipeg to Chicago. To accommodate these trains, a new connecting track (Milwaukee Connection) was built at Saunders to allow trains to roll off the Missabe's Interstate Branch and onto the BN mainline (on which Milwaukee had trackage rights) to continue their trip to St. Paul and eventually Chicago. In addition, a new connection was built at Nopeming Junction to allow CN-Milwaukee trains access to the Interstate Branch from DW&P's mainline. More recently BNSF ore trains interchanged with CN (DM&IR) at Steelton have used the Milwaukee Connection to gain access to their home rails. CN will also use the M&J and Milwaukee connections to wye engines if necessary. Interestingly, the Milwaukee Connection was the only piece of track the Milwaukee Road actually owned in the Twin Ports (it is still maintained to this day by Canadian Pacific).

The final major impact to Saunders traffic base occurred in 1984 when DW&P's Pokegama yard was built on Missabe's Interstate Branch just west of the junction. This yard allowed DW&P to abandon its West Duluth facilities and hill line in favor of trackage rights over DM&IR from Nopeming Junction to Pokegama and South Itasca. With this major shift in traffic, Saunders started seeing DW&P transfers as well as unit potash and sulfur trains. In 1987 Wisconsin Central trains started using DW&P's Pokegama yard and the connection at Soo Saunders to interchange with BN, bringing yet more color to the junction.

Today, BNSF is still a primary player at Saunders in terms of train movements, considering that every train they operate in and out of the Twin Ports must roll past this location. Coal, taconite, grain, and general freight trains provide a good sampling of BNSF operations. The "Allouez Switch" job and an occasional hostler move of light engines from Superior to Allouez also run through Saunders. For CN there are numerous mainline moves between Chicago and Canada plus transfer runs to CP, BNSF, and UP. CN also sends all-rail ore trains through this area en route to Chicago or Escanaba, Michigan (some ore moves are seasonal). If CN is congested north of Duluth on their former DW&P line it is common for them to run a handful of trains over the BNSF from Superior to Noyes in far northwestern Minensota. These trains use BNSF crews and the BN Saunders Connection. UP and CP each send general freights through the junction plus the twice-weekly CP Bemidji local and extra grain, potash, coal, and sulfur trains. Total frequency at this junction can be over 50 moves in any given 24 hour period.