Mille Lacs County Historical Society board members Barry Schreiber and Lester Kriesel have found riches in the ground but not of the kind some might think of.
Not gold, not silver and not oil, but just a couple of concrete footings, their tops located about a foot below the ground near Princeton’s former Great Northern train depot. That building is now the Historical Society’s museum and Great Northern rental hall.
The richness of the footings is their historical significance for Princeton, since they were in the ground to support the legs of a water tower that was used to keep the water tanks full on steam-powered trains. This particular train tower in Princeton had 12 footings, according to Schreiber.
Schreiber and Kriesel found the footings one weekend in the latter part of this past October. Kriesel, who has done maintenance work at the Baldwin Township cemetery, used a probe that is used to locate underground cemetery vaults, to find the two water tower footings.
The train depot opened in 1902, symbolic of a great achievement for the city whose businessmen lobbied Great Northern Railroad magnate James J. Hill to run railroad tracks through Princeton. The trains played a great part in the city’s history, hauling many freight car loads of produce from Princeton to market during the early to mid part of the 20th century and also hauling bricks made in rural Princeton. It also carried troops to wars and was a means of transportation for freight and everyday passengers.
Freight trains were the last type of train to use the track through Princeton, and they stopped running in the mid-1980s. It wasn’t long after that the tracks were pulled up.
There was a time early in the 20th century when the railroad tracks were a main railroad line between the Twin Cities and Duluth. That would have been a time when a water tower would have been used in Princeton, Schreiber said.
Schreiber said the water tower was made of rot-resistant redwood and that the beams that were the tower’s legs were 16 inches square and fit onto the footings. The top of the steam train water tank was about 8-9 feet off the ground, so the water tower had to be at least that far off the ground so the water could gravity-feed from the tower into the train’s water tank.
The train engines had a heat source, such as a coal-fired furnace, that would heat the water hot enough to form steam that would then push pistons to move the drive rods to turn the train’s drive wheels.
“We know the approximate location,” Schreiber said of the former water tower. It’s just conjecture as to when it was removed, and many 80-year-olds can’t recall the tower, so perhaps the tower was used in the teens and 1920s, Schreiber said.
Schreiber sounded surprised about how quickly Kriesel was able to find the footings with his probing rod. The probing rod method is “pretty low tech” compared to some modern “echo-locating ground-penetrating radar,” Schreiber said.
As soon as Kriesel thought he had found the first footing, Schreiber dug with a shovel and exposed to light what had sat hidden underground for so many decades. Kriesel and Schreiber located one more of the footings before letting the project rest. Schreiber said there is a “predictive pattern” as to where all the tower legs are located. He noted that there is a blueprint of Great Northern train water towers.
Schreiber also said the Historical Society has a photo of a train water tower with a windmill next to it that would have pumped water into the tower.
The water tower is one of many parts of a project that the Historical Society has been working on for more than a decade to turn the property into a display of train-related items including a caboose, a flatcar and box cars. The caboose has been given an interior face lift and restoration, and the Historical Society plans to rent it out to small groups, perhaps starting as early as next March, Schreiber said. People can contact Schreiber at 763-607-3195 for more information.
The Historical Society has been working for some time to turn an old refrigerated boxcar into a railroad museum.