The History of the William Crooks
The William Crooks was the very first steam locomotive to operate in Minnesota back on June 28, 1862 when it hauled passengers a distance of 10 miles from St. Paul to St. Anthony (now Minneapolis). It was named for the Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Minnesota & Pacific Railroad, and Colonel of the Sixth Regiment, Minnesota Volunteers, in the Civil War. It provided passenger service around Minnesota until September of 1897 when it was rescued from demolition by Minnesota railroad tycoon, James J. Hill, who had the engine restored and made it his personal train for his travels. Today the engine is on display at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth, MN.
The William Crooks’ existence was made possible by the Federal Land Grand Act of February 9, 1857 and the incorporation of the Minnesota & Pacific Railroad (along with three other railroads) by the Minnesota Territorial Legislature on May 22, 1857. The company’s initial stock value was set at $5,000,000, but that was not enough for it to complete its chartered route from Stillwater to St. Anthony by way of St. Paul. Like most railroads of its day, it needed to seek capital from outside investors. In May of 1861, William Crooks and Edmund Rice, both executives of the Minnesota & Pacific Railroad, traveled by steamboat to Philadelphia and then onto New York. In New York, they accidently made the acquaintance of several bankers from Ohio. After negotiation and a Minnesota visit by the bankers, they agree to provide $12,000 per mile to complete the 10 mile distance from St. Paul to St. Anthony in exchange for 8% interest bearing bonds and 76,800 acres of Minnesota land. This 10 mile section of track was completed in June of 1862 and, as per the contract, two locomotives and several passenger cars had been delivered to St. Paul by steamboat on September 9, 1861. The two locomotives were named the William Crooks (engine #1) and the Edmund Rice (engine #2) and it was on that June 28th day in 1862 that the William Crooks made history by being the first locomotive to operate in Minnesota. However, with the financial difficulties and the need for outside financing, the Minnesota & Pacific Railroad was reorganized into the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad later in 1862.
The William Crooks operated in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area for many of years, but it would not have survived to today had it not been for a recent Canadian immigrant. James Hill (he would later add the middle name of Jerome, thus James J. Hill) was born on September 16, 1838 on a wooded farm near Rockwood, Ontario, Canada. A childhood accident with a bow and arrow left him bind in his right eye. He had nine years of formal education where he became adept in English and Mathematics. He was forced to leave school at the age of 14 (1852) because of the death of his father. At the age of 18, he left home in hopes of becoming a sea captain in the Orient, but first he wanted to visit a fur trapping friend at Fort Garry, Canada (Winnipeg, Manitoba). He traveled to St. Paul by steamboat, but missed the last ox-cart caravan to Fort Garry when he arrived in July of 1856. Having to find a job for the winter, he worked as a shipping clerk for a Mississippi River steamboat company. He worked with many wholesale grocers handling their freight with steamboats and railroads. During the winters when the river was frozen and there was no steamboat traffic, Hill would sell firewood and coal. Trains burned wood in those days, but Hill realized that coal provided more heat, so he convinced the railroads, including the First Division of the St. Paul & Pacific for which he was an agent, to start burning coal. This job eventually allowed him to have a monopoly on the anthracite coal sales to regional railroads and business, and to build the financial resources to eventually buy a railroad. His motto for success was “Work, hard work, intelligent work, and then more work!”
In his early years in St. Paul, Hill would buy failing businesses, build them up and then sell them for a profit. He also became a board member of several major local banks. So when the Panic of 1873 happened (we call them depressions today), Hill was positioned to buy some failing businesses. The St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, along with a number of other railroads, had gone bankrupt. After researching the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad for 3 years and knowing that there was a lot of business to be gained with the Hudson Bay Company at Fort Garry, he bought it for $280,000 and then formed an alliance with the Canadian Pacific Railroad to extend the St. Paul & Pacific’s reach from St. Vincent, Minnesota to Fort Garry, Manitoba, Canada. In 1879 he reorganized the railroad into the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railroad. Then in 1881, Hill purchased the charter of the Minneapolis & St. Cloud Railroad and again reorganized his operation into the Great Northern Railway Company. Thus, the Great Northern Railroad was born! He had taken the Minnesota & Pacific, the St. Paul & Pacific, the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba, and the Minneapolis & St. Cloud railroads and was starting to build one of the nation’s largest and most successful railroads, making Hill the “Empire Builder”. He built railroad lines through rural Minnesota, the Dakotas and Montana, brought in immigrants from Norway and Sweden, transported them along his rail lines, created towns, supplied farmers with pure bred cattle, tools, seed and flour, and then transported their grain to Minneapolis for milling. In two years, he settled 6,000,000 acres in Montana alone. He managed the whole cycle of building rural areas along his vast rail empire. In 1893, Hill completed the expansion of the Great Northern Railway to Puget Sound (14 years after the Transcontinental Railroad was completed) totally without the help government lands or loans, unlike any other railroad of that time. Additionally, he was a major stock holder in the Northern Pacific Railroad (also headquartered in St. Paul), the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, and the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railroad – all of which merge on March 2, 1970 to become Burlington Northern Railroad. Hill had merged them all before in 1901, but antitrust laws forced him to break them back into their individual entities in 1904.
Back to the William Crooks. Since James J. Hill owned the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, he also owned the William Crooks. He learned that it had reached the end of its useful life in late 1897and it was going to be scrapped. Realizing the significance of the engine, he had it restored to its original condition and christened it his personal engine. When Hill traveled, the train was pulled by the William Crooks. After Hill’s dead on May 29, 1916 from an infection, Great Northern continued to operate the William Crooks. It traveled to New York in 1939 for the New York World’s Fair and then to the Chicago Railroad Fair in 1948. It was last rebuilt in the 1947-1948 timeframe at the Great Northern Dale Street Shops by machinist George A. Halvorsen as his last job before retirement. In 1954, it was put on display at the St. Paul Union Depot before being donated to the Minnesota Historical Society in June of 1962. Since 1975 it has resided at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth, Minnesota. It is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the only locomotives from the age of the Civil War to survive to the present day.
William Crooks Statistics