GREAT NORTHERN RAILROAD DEPOT
A scattering of claim shanties on some high ground just west of a small creek. This is how a visitor to Cokato would have described the young (and yet un-named) settlement in the summer of 1867. Transportation to points near and far was by horse or ox-cart. A trip to Minneapolis could have taken as long as four days. But only two short years later, this assemblage stood on the verge of becoming a thriving village. Why? Because the railroad had come to town.
In the summer of 1868, the First Division of the St. Paul & Pacific Rail-road, which later became Great Northern and eventually Burlington Northern, built a line from Lake Junction (just west of Minneapolis) to Howard Lake. The next year, the line was stretched an additional forty-nine miles from Howard Lake to Willmar. At the fifty mile mark, a station was constructed and a railway official (whose name has never been known) named it "Cokato," after the Dakota word "co-ka-ta."
This first depot was a simple structure built on the north side of the tracks near where Millard Avenue would later cross. J. E. (Ed) Jenks was appointed first station master.
The role railroads played in the development of Cokato is undeniable. Had the railroad followed its original path, near Collinwood Lake, Cokato would have never come into existence. With trains being the only mode of transport in those days, to be passed by was not good news for a settlement.
Typical of any frontier railroad town, Cokato built itself around the tracks and depot. Hotels were never more than a short walk from the station, and the streets all radiated outward from the tracks. Grain elevators sprung up like a line of Easter Island statues along the side tracks. The post office was only a block away to accommodate the man who had to twice daily pull the cart-load of mail from the station to the office.
That original depot, built in 1875, was a simple structure, described by the Cokato Observer as "barn-like." By 1890, the depot had begun to show its age, but despite the clamor by local citizens and officials, no new depot was in sight. Instead, Great Northern officials decided to refurbish it by adding new siding and an interior paint job.
The Cokato Observer noted its objection to this plan, stating "...Jim Hill [Great Northern president James J. Hill] can’t afford to build anything more substantial and our citizens will have to use the...structure for a depot until the next decade." Actually, the depot had to suffice for over two decades. Finally, in July 1912, the railroad agreed to build a new depot in Cokato the following year.
The new depot was to be built according to the template used by Great Northern for all new depots in small communities. This fact was a source of amusement to the editors of the Dassel Anchor, who commented "the dream of a much better structure because they were ‘so nice’ to the railroad company will not be realized by our sister village."
As had been the case with the old station, the new structure was a social focal point for the community. Each weekday, as the time approached for the evening westbound train to arrive—if the schedule held, at exactly 7:22 p.m.—a crowd would gather at the depot.
Anticipation ran high as people waited for relatives to arrive after a long journey, traveling salesmen would come looking for lodging, and young children would watch to see who had been in the "big city" for the day.
As Carlton Lee wrote in his poem, We’ll Meet Again For The Evening Train, "Summer or winter, in sun or rain; My friends and I met the evening train."
Even as cars became the mode of travel, trains still carried thousands of passengers through Cokato. But many saw the future coming, and warned of the day when trains would no longer be the "way to go."
Passenger service came to an end on May 21, 1960, when the Great Northern eastbound No. 10 stopped at the depot at 4:17 a.m. No one got on or off, and the train resumed its journey. The end of an era had arrived, and no one was there to notice, except the station agent..
Freight was still shipped through the depot, but just like with passengers, the amount of freight continued to decrease, and it became too expensive for the railroad to maintain a depot in Cokato—as had happened in so many other small communities.
The Cokato depot officially closed on July 5, 1974, sixty years after it had been built, and 105 years after that rail line was stretched from Howard Lake to Willmar. Waldo Tesch, the last station agent, had the unenviable duty of locking the depot’s doors for the final time.
As the depot sat empty, numerous ideas passed by as to its fate. Finally, Howard Page purchased the depot in 1985 and moved it to Dassel where in now houses the Dassel Depot Railroad Museum.
The trains still run though Cokato both day and night, and the engineers will still wave to children like they did in days past. But no longer do people gather in anticipation at the depot for the arrival of "the evening train."
©Cokato Historical Society, 1998