Navigation Menu+

Big Tracy Cut

Described as the railroad cut which filled with snow and ice, causing the blockade between Tracy, Minnesota, and De Smet, Dakota Territory, during the Hard Winter.

…Another blizzard was raging and the Superintendent ordered all work on the track stopped with the snow one hundred feet deep on the track at the Tracy cut and Twenty-five feet deep on the track in the cut just west of De Smet. – handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript

If you take Laura Ingalls Wilder’s word for it, snow filling a big railroad cut west of Tracy was the reason trains couldn’t get through to De Smet from the east during the Hard Winter. Although snow plows and shovel crews worked hard to clear all the Winona and St. Peter / Dakota Central tracks of snow and ice after each storm or blizzard, snow that was cleared from the tracks and tossed aside naturally created tall snowbanks on either side of the track, creating an even deeper cut. The next blizzard packed these higher banks full of earth and snow and it would again freeze solid. Snow fences only exacerbated the problem, as they stopped drifting snow and created a wider cut to be filled. Before the winter was over, the deep Tracy cut had mountainous snow walls that tapered off for a quarter of a mile across the prairie. (See The Long Winter, Chapter 21, “The Hard Winter”)

Laura was correct about the severity of problems created by snow cleared from any cut. For example, from the Lamberton Commercial, January 27, 1881: “The cuts are now drifted so full that the enormous snow plow is nearly useless. In places between here and Springfield where the snow has repeatedly drifted and been thrown out, the drifts are above the telegraph poles. Stilts have been nailed to the poles, in order to lift the [telegraph] wires out of the snow.” Newspaper accounts and histories of Lyon County don’t mention a specific cut west of Tracy; click HERE to read about the winter of 1880-1881 month-by-month in Arthur P. Rose’s An Illustrated History of Lyon County Minnesota (1912). To read some newspaper reports published during the Hard Winter (mostly specific to the railroad line from Winona, Minnesota, to De Smet, Dakota Territory), click HERE.

While every cut could potentially fill with snow by its very nature of having “sides,” there were a number of identified problematic railroad cuts between De Smet and Mankato, Minnesota — from the marshy slough east of De Smet, to Volga, Lake Benton, Lamberton, Springfield, and Sleepy Eye. It wasn’t one cut that needed clearing during the Hard Winter; it was multiple cuts every time. While settlers would know the origin of a train, they were probably most invested in keeping the cuts near their own town free of snow. For example, Pa goes no farther than Volga to help clear the tracks, not to Tracy. If no trains were getting past the big cut just west of Sleepy Eye, then no trains from the east were getting to De Smet, period. The photo here is of that problematic cut: Kelly’s cut, just west of Sleepy Eye, taken in March 1881.

In February 1881, 300-400 shovelers worked between blizzards at miles-long cuts with walls thirty feet high, according to the Winona Daily Republican. In both early and late March, they were still repeatedly digging out between Winona and St. Peter, with snow plows bucking the drifts towards Sleepy Eye to their west. By the third week in April, crews resorted to cutting blocks of ice the size of a boxcar and hauling them clear of the tracks. On April 21, the Tracy Republican finally reported that the blockade east of Tracy was raised, and both freight and passenger trains came in, “three months to a day” since the last regular rail service. It wasn’t until May 6th that a train reached Volga, continuing on to De Smet.

While Laura Ingalls Wilder never mentions Sleepy Eye – or even Walnut Grove – by name in the Little House books, Tracy is mentioned many times. In By the Shores of Silver Lake (see Chapter 3, “Riding in the Cars”), Laura describes the September railroad journey from Plum Creek to Tracy as taking all morning, with the train traveling faster than a horse could run, yet the actual distance is not quite 8 miles. Even late in life, Laura seems to have been unclear about the locations of Tracy and Walnut Grove on the map. She wrote to Clara Weber in 1950 that although the towns weren’t identified on her map, but she knew they were east of New Ulm (they were actually west).

Prior to the Hard Winter, Laura’s only trip west of Tracy was made by wagon in September 1879. Charles Ingalls had last been in Walnut Grove in late July (newspaper accounts suggest that during that same visit, Ma and Pa took Mary to St. Paul to see a doctor about her failed eyesight). Pa had been working at Lake Benton camp, thirty-five miles from Tracy. By the time Ma and the girls traveled west, Pa was working at the Big Sioux River camp in Dakota Territory. The railroad had been surveyed west of Tracy to near Volga between March 17 and April 20, 1879, with the first train reaching Brookings on October 18, a month after the Ingallses had settled at Silver Lake. Neither Laura nor Pa would have seen any cut near Tracy after the tracks were laid and the grading finished. There was no telegraph in De Smet that first winter at Silver Lake to report on railroad conditions in the east, so any knowledge of the Tracy cut would have come in later years. Most likely, Laura’s mention of the Big Tracy Cut in The Long Winter is simply because the name would be familiar to her readers.



The blockade at Sleepy Eye was often mentioned in newspaper accounts during the Hard Winter. Here’s a sampling:

October 18, 1880. Winona Daily Republican, just after the October blizzard. “Cuts west of Sleepy Eye, fifteen feet deep, are filled with snow, telegraph lines are laid to the ground, the wires and poles having been, in many instances, blown across the track, and the wires cut by advancing trains.”

October 20, 1880. Winona Daily Republican. “The worst snow-drifts are between Sleepy Eye and Tracy, but Superintendent Sanborn hopes to have the track clear by Thursday night. — The crew engaged in opening up the railroad west of Sleepy Eye only progressed eight miles on Tuesday. The snow is extremely hard, the drifts varying from ten to fifteen feet, making the snow plows useless in such an encounter. To-day Burns, a station eleven miles west of Sleepy Eye, it was expected would be reached. No telegraphic communication as yet can be had beyond Sleepy Eye.”

December 6, 1880. Winona Daily Republican, following another blizzard. “The Winona and St. Peter railroad is blockaded from Sleepy Eye to Tracy, and was blockaded from Sleepy Eye to Kasota, but the snow plow was working this way from Sleepy Eye this morning…”

December 9, 1880. Winona Daily Republican. “As already stated the Saturday night’s blizzard effectually blockaded the trade of the western end of the Winona and St. Peter railroad, the track being blocked from Sleepy Eye to Lamberton, a distance of thirty miles. The section blockaded is very hilly and full of deep cuts.”

December 16, 1880. The Redwood Gazette, Redwood Falls. “The greatest trouble has been between Tracy and Sleepy Eye, chiefly at Burns, where the deepest and longest cuts are located.”

December 28, 1880. Winona Daily Republican. “The train which went west from Winona on Monday morning ran as far as St. Peter and turned back from that place, reaching Winona at 6 o’clock this morning. The train due from the West on Monday afternoon was snow-bound between Sleepy Eye and New Ulm. The blockade is likely to continue troublesome until the blizzard abates.”

December 29, 1880. New Ulm Weekly Review. “The snow storm of last Sunday was a bad one for the railroads. It took three engines and a force of men all day Monday to clear the track between Sleepy Eye and New Ulm, and at the time of going to press they are still bucking snow between this city and Nicollet Station.”

January 14, 1881. Winona Daily Republican. “Trains on the Winona and St. Peter road are running as far West as Sleepy Eye, but the blockade prevails beyond that station.”

January 22, 1881. Winona Daily Republican. One of the worst blizzards of the season was raging at Sleepy Eye this morning. The road had barely been opened on Wednesday or Thursday before it was again closed.

January 26, 1881. New Ulm Weekly Review. “. The road from St. Peter west became again blockaded last Thursday and trains were entirely suspended until Sunday, when a snow plow and a passenger train went through to Sleepy Eye. Trains at this writing are again running on regular schedule time from Sleepy Eye east, but the largest portion of the western division is still blockaded and it will be several days yet before trains will reach the terminus.”

February 11, 1881. Duluth Tribune. “It is stated that no trains carrying fuel have passed Sleepy Eye since December 21.”

February 12, 1881. Winona Daily Republican. “Very good progress was being made toward opening the road to Sleepy Eye when a fresh storm arose on Thursday and again filled the cuts.”

February 15, 1881. Winona Daily Republican. “The track was opened to Sleepy Eye this morning.” [Note: Wilder doesn’t mention that once it becomes clear that the railroad will be almost impossible to keep running, workers begin to clear paths for travel by sleigh, so that fuel and food can be delivered between Sleepy Eye and Tracy in this way. Similarly, paths were cleared between towns west of Tracy.]

February 16, 1881. Winona Daily Republican. “The St. Peter Tribune is authority for the statement that 75 tons of mail are now at Sleepy Eye, awaiting the raising of the snow blockade. Also, that 800 loaded freight cars are side tracked between Winona and Sleepy Eye for the same locality.”

February 24, 1881. Redwood Gazette. “There are men of good judgment and experience in railroad work who believe that it will be impossible to open the road west of Sleepy Eye inside of thirty days, with a force of at least three hundred men. It is very likely then that the blockade at the western towns will not be opened until spring. It is impossible, without seeing, to conceive the condition of the track. Snow is filled in over bridges fifteen to twenty feet high. The snow in some cuts will average twenty feet in depth and some of those cuts are a mile long.”

March 7, 1881. Winona Daily Republican. Trains are running on schedule time between Winona and St. Peter, and the shovel brigade and snow plows are bucking the drifts toward Sleepy Eye.

March 11, 1881. Winona Daily Republican. “But yesterday Sleepy Eye was rejoicing in restored railroad communication with the outside world. Today another hard storm is reported as raging there and the railroad is again blockaded.” – “A note from Mr. Charles Ely at De Smet reports that the snow in that section is from sixteen to eighteen inches deep, and it is piled up among the houses from sixteen to eighteen feet in depth. Hay is freely burned, and he says it is better than green pine.” Ely was from Winona.

March 24, 1881. Brookings County Press. “The R.R. company are reported to be at work with a large force between Sleepy Eye and Tracy. A general movement all along the line is expected soon… Owing to the Minnesota snow banks it has for the past twelve weeks been impossible to get any freight west of Sleepy Eye.”

April 4, 1881. Brookings County Press. “To-day a force of 800 men are employed west of Sleepy Eye, with snowplows to be used where possible. Some drifts are masses of solid ice; others the plow can be used to advantage in. All along the line volunteer forces are helping the work along, and Mr. Sanborn hopes to get the road open to Tracy this week.”

April 27, 1881. Winona Daily Republican. [Once the snow subsided, there was a new problem: water!] “There is no railroad communication west of Sleepy Eye, and considerable of the track is washed away.”

Another view of Kelly’s cut is shown above, looking east with Sleepy Eye in the distance. Following the Hard Winter, the slope of many problematic cuts was reworked. From the August 4, 1881, Brookings County Press: “To avoid the drifts experienced last winter, the company have already sloped several cuts west of Sleepy Eye, but the wet weather has prevented a very general prosecution of the work. It will be done, however, before the winter sets in.” Kelly’s cut is located a half-mile west of Sleepy Eye, running east-west across the north side of the golf course. The former Sleepy-Eye / Redwood Falls branch line heading northwest was abandoned in 1977. Going east towards Sleepy Eye on Highway 14, turn north on
Township Road 318 past the golf course entrance; the tracks will be visible to the north, with the cut to the west as you cross them.



The following is from my old blog in August 2012, posted following a trip to Iowa City to study the Charles Irish papers and railroad survey maps at the University of Iowa. Irish was the head railroad surveyor of the Winona and St. Peter / Dakota Central line from Tracy to Pierre. His diary is indispensable in creating a timeline of the railroad’s work in 1879 and 1880 during the time Charles Ingalls worked for Daniel Wells & Company of Milwaukee, and after the Ingalls family moved west to the Silver Lake railroad camp in September 1879. Correspondence in the 1990s with Joe Pierson at the C&NW RR Archives pinpointed the location of the cut west of Tracy.

The Railroad Boys. The railroad forces which have been, during this long and severe winter, conducting a gigantic war against old Boreas and his mighty army of storms and snow, deserve more than the passing mention and the growls of an impatient public which have so far been their reward. Day and night they have fought throughout the winter, catching a little sleep on the fly, gulping down a meal now and then when they could reach a town, knowing neither Sunday nor night rest, bucking into snow banks at the rate of 40 miles an hour and burying their engines and themselves in snow. They have been supported by an heroic army of sappers and miners, volunteers from the surrounding country, who have shoveled day and night to keep the road open. They have all endured hardships surpassing those endured by the soldiers in the late war, but they get no honor and must be content with their wages and the growls of the public. – Worthington Advance, February 24, 1881.

The Big Cut West of Tracy. Although the “deep cut west of Tracy” was omitted from the shorter revised version of Pioneer Girl, its description as the cut responsible for blocking rail access to De Smet because it was filled with snow and ice is consistent in the handwritten, Bye, and Brandt copies. From George Bye version: “The Tracy cut was so deep that it took three men to get one shovelful of snow out, one man at the bottom throwing the snow as high as he could, another above him throwing it as high as he could, and the third man being able to throw it to the top of the bank. These banks on each side of the cut were as high as the snow-fences, which had been put up to keep the snow out of the cut, but instead merely held the drifts and so made the cut that much deeper.”

In each image below, the big cut west of Tracy has been circled.

Portion of original survey filed in 1867, available to the surveyors at the time of the railroad survey a decade later.

Image pieced from photographs of the 1879 railroad survey in the Charles Irish collection, University of Iowa. Triangulation lines are included, from which track curvature was calculated. Depot towns were located where there would be a steady supply of water for the engines, but this was a problem in the Tracy vicinity. It was hoped that Lake Sigel (now dry) or the twin lakes would provide enough water, which was a consideration in routing the road to the south.

In this 1902 plat map, the widened railroad rights-of-way are clearly marked. Although the twin lakes were “dry” in 1902, as prairie pot-hole lakes, they do periodically hold water.

Widened (graded) cuts can clearly be seen on this 1953 USGS aerial photo. The insert is from a 2010 aerial.

Going west from Tracy on Highway 14, go about four miles past Wheels Across the Prairie Museum, turning south on 290th Avenue. You will cross the railroad tracks just over a mile and a half south. Rows of shelter belt trees planted parallel to the tracks on both sides are visible to your east from the road. In the 1967 topographic map below, note the benchmark (BM 1487) at track level as the track crosses the slough sough of South Twin Lake. Benchmarks between Tracy and Garvin (BM 1534) show a 3% grade going west (the train was always going uphill when travelling west), which is also consistent between Walnut Grove and Tracy. This meant that the engine was always working harder going west. Pa explains this to Laura in By the Shores of Silver Lake (see Chapter 10, “The Wonderful Afternoon”). Elevations for straight sections parallel to the tracks that were cut into higher ground have been highlighted by red lines. Note that the surrounding terrain is largely a minimum of 13 feet higher in elevation than the tracks. In order to allow snow to blow across the land more easily and not be trapped by the cuts, the sloped ground on either side of problematic cuts was often widened. As early as 1883, there were plans to create a rail route that would bypass the big cuts between Tracy and Lake Benton – by creating a Sleepy Eye / Redwood Falls / Marshall / Lake Benton line that would go north and around the problematic cuts along the more direct line that stayed closer to today’s Highway 14 (read the history of these lines HERE) – the Tracy cut was also widened so that its slope was “gentled” over about twice the distance of the original cut.

1967 topo, 100 years after the area was first surveyed.


Tracy cut / big Tracy cut (TLW 14-16, 18-19, 21; PG), see also Tracy, Minnesota; railroad cut / fill