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Come All Ya Rounders

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

Rails to the North StarRails to the North Star New

If you have been paying attention to our civic fathers lately you would have heard the news that a Nineteenth Century technology is going to lead us into the bright Green future. Sometime before I die, light rail (formerly known as Street Cars or the Trolley) is on track to whisk us to Minnesota Twins games and high speed rail is promising to take us to see the Chicago Cubs. Because of the significant role railroads played in the development and identity of this state and region, a train book must be on our list. The best work, I believe, is…

Prosser, Richard S.  Rails to the North Star. Minneapolis: Dillon Press, 1966.

Prosser’s book is a comprehensive and chronological description of the developments of Minnesota’s transportation landscape. As a reference tool it is indispensable and the maps alone make it worth your shelf space. There are over fifty pages listing railroad companies that built in Minnesota and six pages of companies that incorporated but never built a mile of track.

From Prosser’s last chapter, titled “20/20 Hindsight:”

One hundred years have elapsed since the birth of the original parent of Minnesota railroads, a ten mile stretch of track between St. Paul and St. Anthony over which wheels first turned on June 28, 1862. Growth of Minnesota Population, land cultivation, industry, and trade are all due in some measure to one or another offspring of that pioneer which, whether remembered by the name of William Crooks or St. Paul and Pacific, will be embossed forever in the annals of history. Today, Minnesotans can well be proud of the rails which lead to the North Star, with principal trains second to none – the rails which symbolize wealth and commerce.

The University of Minnesota Press reprinted the book in 2007 with a new forward by noted rail historian, Professor Don Hofsommer, and an uninspired new subtitle, “A Minnesota Railroad Atlas.” Sorry for that little snipe but as long as I am at it, I liked the original cover a lot better than the reprint’s image. Still, kudos to the U of M Press for keeping this available (the colored maps in the book must have given the publisher pause)  because for thirty years I have been wishing people “good luck” in finding and affording the original volume of this much sought after work.

Rails to the North Star maps

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The Biggest Thing in the Collection

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

One of our most frequently asked questions is, What is the biggest thing in the Society’s collection? Objects Curator Matt Anderson provides the answer in this podcast. It certainly stands out – even among the various cars, boats and wagons in the collection.

 
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icon for podpress  Podcast Video [1:20m]: Download
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A book, a bonus, and a good friend

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

History of Wiskonsan, title pageSignature from History of Wiskonsan

Every once in a while the Minnesota Historical Society Library gets in a great book with a little bonus; not only is the text of the book important or interesting but the story of where the book has been is also fascinating. Very few of these back stories get better than the one for a book I picked up at the antiquarian book fair in St. Paul last month.

The book, Donald McLeod’s History of Wiskonsan[sic]: From its First Discovery to the Present Period. Buffalo: 1846, is significant having been published 3 years before Minnesota became a Territory. The volume is quite rare and contains a map that is lacking in many known copies. Its author would later settle in St. Paul, make his living in the book trade, and die here in 1903.

The back story I alluded to is that this particular copy fell into the hands of two miscreants engaged in what would become known as the “Coachman Forgeries.” Eugene “Pinny” Field (son of the respected writer, Eugene Field) and Harry Dayton Sickles attempted, with some success, to increase the value of books they were selling by making them look like they had come from the library of Abraham Lincoln. The scheme was simple enough. In 1931 a story ran in the national news that William P. Brown, Mary Todd Lincoln’s driver during the years after the President’s assassination, was still alive. Field and Sickles got him to autograph period books and maps. Frank Thatcher notarized and attested to the fact that the signature was authentic after which Sickles forged the name of Abraham Lincoln to the items. The resulting book looked as if it had the all important Presidential provenance and the notary’s imprimatur.

Our copy of McLeod has an inscription that reads “This book is from the collection of Abraham Lincoln and was presented to …William P. Brown in 1866 by Mary T. Lincoln.” Like all the “coachman forgeries” it is notarized but in this instance Lincoln’s signature was never forged on the book. It should be stressed that both the seller and the MHS knew the story of these forgeries (documented in the 2001 book Absolutely, Mr. Sickles? Positively, Mr. Field! By William L. Butts) and the price of the book reflected only the interesting story.

The book was purchased with the help of funds given as a memorial to one of the Society’s dearest friends, Floyd Risvold. Floyd was one of the most significant collectors of stamps, manuscripts, books and maps illuminating local and national history. He was a wise friend and mentor to me and his scholarship inspired me. His practicality too; he once told me that if today’s youth collected stamps they would easily be able to pass the state standards for American history. We are the poorer for his passing. As we Irish say, his likes will not be here again.

Patrick Coleman, Acquisitions Librarian

Map from History of Wiskonsan

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An Ounce of Preservation: A Guide to the Care of Papers and Photographs