The Great Northern Railway originally did not travel through Princeton. Instead, it ran from Minneapolis, Minnesota through Elk River and to St. Cloud. Another line ran from St. Cloud through Milaca to Duluth.
In January 1886, Residents of Princeton and Zimmerman, Minnesota, were filled with hopelessness fearing they would never enjoy the luxury of railroad service. Although pioneer inhabitants of these communities frequently besought the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba's (St P M & M) management to provide railway service, the town folks were rebuffed repeatedly. however, during the depths of their despair, one Major A.M. Fridley of Anoka, Minnesota stopped in Princeton. One night during his stay at the old North Star Hotel, he suggested to a group of friends that it might be beneficial to call on Mr. J.J. Hill personally. Consequently, a self-constituted committee consisting of Messrs. C.H. Rines, T.H. Caley, J.T.D. Sadley, the editor of the Princeton Union, and Senator Houlton of Elk River, was accorded an audience with Mr. Hill. The committee appraised Mr. Hill of what they thought residents of Mille Lacs county would do to get a rail line constructed through their communities.
James J. Hill challenged local business owners to raise $50,000 to route the line through Princeton. The money was raised, and a line was built through Princeton. Surveying for the route began in late March 1886, and the track-laying crew started building the new line from Elk River on October 24, 1886. With few obstacles to construction, the line was finished quickly, and rail service began on November 29, 1886. The Princeton route actually shortened the distance between Minneapolis and Duluth. Initially, service was frequent, but in November 1899, the route to Duluth was relocated to a line passing further east, connecting through Coon Rapids, Cambridge and Brook Park. Service on the line declined as a result, with luxury passenger cars being replaced with ordinary coaches in 1908, the U.S. Mail route being lost in 1930, and passenger service terminated altogether in 1952. Freight service was discontinued between Princeton and Milaca between 1972 and 1973 and between Elk River and Princeton in 1976. The Elk River-Milaca line, the one-time short cut to Duluth.
Towns along former line:
- Elk River
- Long Siding
Most of the rail embankment is still visible when encountered and is easily discernible in satellite imagery. Some embankment has been destroyed from development, especially at Oak Knoll Park in Elk River where the line junction with the mainline to St. Cloud.
Thanks to Adam Jelinski for contributing information about this route.