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Ranier Railroad Bridge

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Ranier Bridge

Photographic postcard of Ranier bridge, ca. 1910.

The Ranier Railroad Bridge (Canadian National River Bridge) was constructed in 1908 by the Canadian Northern Railway and its subsidiary, the Duluth, Rainy Lake and Winnipeg Railway. The single-track lift bridge crosses Rainy River between Ranier, Minnesota, and Fort Frances, Ontario, and is one of the busiest ports of entry for international rail freight in the United States.

The Duluth, Virginia, and Rainy Lake Railway (DV&RL) was chartered in 1901 to haul timber from northwoods forests to the sawmill in Virginia, Minnesota. Four years later, the Canadian Northern Railway (CN) purchased majority ownership in the DV&RL. CN changed the logging railway’s name to Duluth, Rainy Lake, and Winnipeg (DRL&W) and selected the newly platted town of Ranier, Minnesota, for a border crossing over the Rainy River.

Plans called for a bascule, or moveable bridge, that would allow riverboats to pass beneath it. CN contracted with Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge Company of Chicago. To open, the rolling lift span would rock upward and backward rather than rotate or pivot.

The Ranier bridge represents typical railroad architecture of the early twentieth century. The lift section features a Warren truss construction—a series of alternating, equilateral triangles with vertical support beams at the center of each triangle. The triangular framework spreads the weight of a passing train across the bridge deck; vertical beams provide extra support. The stationary section of the bridge spans nine concrete piers.

The first train crossed the bridge on April 28, 1908. For several years, two trains a day crossed over the river, one going north and one south. Shipments included mostly timber bound for the Virginia and Rainy Lake Lumber Company and crops from Western Canada. Steam locomotives crossing the Ranier bridge typically hauled a mix of box cars, log cars, and hoppers, with one passenger car attached. Freight was carried on CN and DRL&W tracks to Virginia. Cars bound for delivery further south were transferred to other northern Minnesota rail lines and carried to Duluth. There, shipments were loaded onto boats or other lines bound for Minneapolis or Chicago.

In 1909, the Minnesota-based line underwent another name change, reflecting its long-range goals, and became the Duluth, Winnipeg, and Pacific Railway (DW&P). It did not connect to Duluth on its own road until 1912.

A twice-daily, dedicated passenger train was introduced in 1913, connecting riders traveling between Duluth and Winnipeg. With multiple railway connections from Chicago’s train hubs, riders could board almost anywhere in the US, travel to Duluth, and board the DW&P. At Winnipeg’s Union Station, they could make a connection to nearly any city in Canada.

As northwoods forests were depleted, logging shipments declined, but grain, potash and pulp wood products increased. Refrigerated cars carried fish from the border lakes to Chicago.

By the 1930s, road improvements and increasingly affordable automobiles caused a decline in passenger ridership. US Highway 53 from Duluth to International Falls, completed in 1935, provided more flexible travel across northern Minnesota than trains offered. In 1956, DW&P averaged just five passengers per trip, and in 1959, the company lost nearly $160,000 on passenger service. The last passenger car crossed the Ranier bridge in the early morning hours of July 1, 1961.

Meanwhile, developments in technology, trade, and transmodal shipping have kept the Ranier Bridge busier than ever. The shortest sea routes to North America from many Asian ports cross the Pacific Ocean to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, where shipping containers are loaded onto Canadian National trains. Loads destined for the United States pass over the Ranier bridge to Duluth for transfer onto Great Lakes ships, trucks, or other rail lines.

In 2019, traffic over the Ranier Bridge has grown to more than twenty trains a day with most pulling between 100 and 200 cars. As one of the busiest freight border crossings in the United States, the town of Ranier comes to a halt multiple times each day while trains roll over the bridge at speeds of less than ten miles per hour. At the US Customs Port of Entry, southbound cars are scanned for explosives, weapons, drugs, and other contraband. Boxcars, hopper cars, and tank cars still travel the line, but every CN train is dominated by flat cars or well cars holding double-stacked shipping containers.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources “Duluth, Winnipeg and Pacific Railway: Delivered with Pride.”

Beager, Lauren. “Klobuchar Pledges to Raise Awareness of Rail Issues.” International Falls Journal, July 7, 2015.

Belz, Adam. “Surge in Rail Traffic Derails Daily Life in Ranier, Minn.” Star Tribune, June 20, 2015.

Boundary Line. “Letter to the Editor.” Bridgeman’s Magazine 8 (1908): 278‒279.

Canadian National Railways Historical Association. “Duluth Winnipeg and Pacific.”

Glischinski, Steve. “CN’s Backdoor Entry to the U.S.: Still Wide Open.” Trains Magazine 56 no.6 (June 1996).

Library and Archives Canada. Orders in Council Canadian Northern Railroad memorandum, June 8, 1907.

Myers, John. “Busiest Border Rail Crossing Rattles Ranier, Minnesota.” Grand Forks Herald, May 10, 2015.

Nute, Grace Lee. Rainy River Country: A Brief History of the Region Bordering Minnesota and Ontario. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1950.

Regehr, T. D. The Canadian Northern Railway: Pioneer Road of the Northern Prairies, 1895‒1918. Toronto: Macmillan Company of Canada, Ltd., 1976.

Rodrigue, Jean-Paul. “Gateways, Corridors and Global Freight Distribution: Transpacific Issues.” February 21, 2007.

Schultz, John A. Jr., and Jeffrey D. Routson. “A Century of Progress with Scherzer Rolling Lift Bascule Bridges, Historical Development of Movable Bridges, Part II.” Sixth Biennial Symposium of Heavy Moveable Structures, October 30‒November 1, 1996.

Severson, Jon A. Delivered with Pride: A Pictorial History of the Duluth Winnipeg & Pacific Railroad. Superior, WI: Savage Press, 2008.

“Train Traffic Increased.” Fort Frances Times, November 7, 2007.

US Government Accountability Office. “U.S. Border Communities: Ongoing DOT Efforts Could Help Address Impacts of International Freight Rail.” January 2018.

US Department of Transportation. Border Crossing/Entry Data chart.

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Canadian Northern 347 train crossing the Ranier Bridge
Canadian Northern 347 train crossing the Ranier Bridge

Turning Point

The Ranier Bridge, linking Ranier, Minnesota, with Fort Frances, Ontario, is completed in April 1908.



On July 20, Wirt H. Cook and William O’Brien charter the Duluth, Virginia & Rainy Lake Railway (DV&RL) to deliver timber to the Virginia and Rainy Lake Company sawmill in Virginia, Minnesota.


In September, DV&RL begins construction of a line that will eventually reach Koochiching, Minnesota (later renamed International Falls).


Canadian Northern Railway purchases a majority share of DV&RL and changes the line’s name to Duluth, Rainy Lake, and Winnipeg (DRL&W).


The DRL&W rail line reaches the town site of Ranier in August, and construction begins on a bridge to cross the Rainy River to Fort Frances, Ontario.


DRL&W begins regular mail service to Ranier on December 10.


The first DRL&W train crosses the new rolling lift bridge between Ranier and Fort Frances on April 29.


DRL&W is incorporated on March 18 as the Duluth, Winnipeg, and Pacific Railway (DW&P) under the ownership of Canadian Northern; plans are announced to build a DW&P line between Duluth and Virginia.


The first train travels over the DW&P line between Duluth and Virginia on December 9, providing service from Duluth over the Ranier bridge and on to Winnipeg.


Canadian Northern, now bankrupt, is placed under the authority of the Canadian Government Railways on September 6, a first step to nationalizing multiple Canadian railroad companies under the name Canadian National Railways.


In July, DW&P announces retirement of all steam locomotives and replacement by diesel-electric engines, which have lower acceleration time and higher fuel efficiency.


Rail service of US Mail ends on May 21 and is transferred to highway delivery.


Passenger service over DW&P line ends on June 30.


Port of Prince Rupert Container Terminal opens in September, serving container shipments from Asia and increasing rail traffic across Canada, over the Ranier bridge to Duluth and Chicago.