Railroads were charted in Minnesota as early as 1853, but it was not until 1862 that Minnesota's first railroad began to operate on ten miles of track connecting St. Paul with St. Anthony (now part of Minneapolis). In 1870, the Northern Pacific Railroad began at Carlton, Minnesota and reached Portland, Oregon by 1884. By 1871, railroad lines had reached Minnesota's southern and western borders, and by 1893 the Great Northern Railway extended from St. Paul to Seattle. Over 150 railroad companies received their charters and built rail lines into nearly every part of the state, by World War I consolidating into about a half dozen major railroads. This immense transportation system was made possible by grants of public land to the railroads, estimated in 1873 at over thirteen million acres worth over fifty million dollars.
Railroads were critical to the development of Minnesota; they connected its citizens, agricultural products, natural resources, and manufactured goods with the rest of the country. They promoted towns and cities along their routes, and opened new markets as goods and products were swiftly transported across the country.
The peak year of railroad trackage in Minnesota was 1929 with 9,500 miles. By the mid 1990s there were less than 5,000 miles of track remaining. Passenger service, except for the modest Amtrak effort, was discontinued by the mid 1970s. Decline and further consolidation has been the fate of Minnesota's railroads during the last several decades, and many small towns and rural areas are without rail service of any kind. Numerous miles of right-of-way, once bearing ribbons of steel, now serve recreational uses; many former railroad depots have been adapted for new uses and are tangible reminders of the past.