Mike Gainor

Folks, like a runway train going off the tracks we’ve careened from plausible-but-extraordinarly-unlikely to utterly-bonkers-and-embarassingly-ridiculous regarding Pine City’s legend of the lost train in Devils Lake. 

I want to be clear: I don’t believe it, this tale that has been whispered for decades in Pine City. I am quite certain that there is not a train in Devils Lake, just south of Cross Lake. There’s not a single shred of evidence that a train went off the rails one rainy night in the late 1800s and plummeted into the lake never to be seen again. 

It is fun to think about, though, isn’t it? 

There are references in the newspapers to tracks being washed out in that area, sure, but no news of a catastrophic crash – and that would undoubtedly have been news at the time. I haven’t seen any record of any rumors involving a crash until well into the mid-1900s. 

Seems like an urban legend to me.

Bob and Mary Haedt purchased the old Burlington Northern Depot in Pine City back around 1970. Bob said that he and Mary did extensive research to see if there was any record made by the railroad of a train going in the lake. 

“It was, in fact, a myth,” Bob said.

I am certain Bob is right. But the thing about myths is this: Whether they are true or not, they persist as stories because they are larger than life and a little part of us wants to believe them. Because they are fun to think about.

Every few years someone goes into that lake searching for this mythical train and they find ... nothing. In 2010 there was a major diving expedition. Just four years back, a group from Wisconsin brought out a magnetometer and spent days combing the lake for something that might be a train. They all found zilch. Zip. Nada. 

There are still supporters of the theory, though, and they want to believe. They point out that the lake is very deep and extremely muddy, and that the lack of any evidence to prove its existence does not absolutely prove that a train is, in fact, not there. 

That is correct. However, I also cannot prove that there is not an invisible, intangible unicorn standing on top of your head, and it seems to me both the sunken train and the unicorn have an equal chance of existing in the real world.

I’m going to get to the inciting incident behind all this in a moment, but I need to rant about one more thing first.

I have heard it said that there would not be so much talk about this unfindable underwater train if there were not something to the story. This is, as my grandfather used to say, a load of horsefeathers. All it takes is for one person to say, “Wouldn’t it be terrible if a train fell into Devils Lake?” and for another person to hear only, “A train fell into Devils Lake!” and then repeat that to someone else. We have all seen how rumors can arise from nothing, and then those rumors take on a life of their own and they grow and grow and grow. 

This is, I strongly believe, a kind of plague upon our times. 

And that leads us to the thing, the reason I’m bringing all of this up. It was brought to my attention that an area publication reprinted a portion of the Pine County Wikipedia page that addresses this lost train in Devils Lake story. But that page (and that publication) didn’t stop at the story previously described, the story that has been circulating for decades in Pine City. No, the train in the Wikipedia article is now much more than an ordinary train – it’s a circus train, full of Confederate gold, being smuggled to a zoo in Canada before it derailed into our own Devils Lake. 

“The confusion and din caused by these animals on board the train are considered as contributing factors that may have been involved in the wreck,” the article says.

Um ... what? 

Now, you can always check when a Wikipedia page was edited (and what was added), and I will point out that this section of our Pine County Wikipedia page first appeared on Jan. 26, 2020, and appears to have been written on a mobile device. I think it’s pretty clear that someone was having some fun here, and decided to amp the legend up to a new level of absurdity. 

But where does it end? The way Wikipedia works, anyone can add to or delete from an article. So even if you go to that page and find that section deleted, it will always remain in that page’s history. 

As Kurt Vonnegut used to say, “So it goes.”

I will tell you, I have very mixed feelings about publishing these words in our local newspaper. Because even by refuting this bizarre tale in an opinion piece in the Pioneer, someone somewhere might one day point to this very article as evidence that a circus train full of Confederate gold once went off the rails just south of Pine City and plunged into Devils Lake. 

It’s the kind of quandary that gives editors existential crises. And gray hairs. 

The thing did not happen. It is not true. OK, future train-seekers? Knock it off before someone gets hurt. Call off your submarine expedition to Devils Lake and spend your time and money on something less frivolous, like buying a rescue ranch for all those invisible unicorns. 

Someday truth and common sense might prevail, as they once did, if they ever have. Until then, you’ll likely find me at Three Twenty Brewing muttering about impossible trains and trying to see if I can find one in the bottom of a pint glass.

Mike Gainor is the editor of the Pine City Pioneer. Contact him at editor@pinecitymn.com or 320-322-5241.

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