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  Wednesday January 28th, 2015    

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  (ARCHIVES)Back to Current
Be careful what you wish for (10/18/2006)
By Frances Edstrom

I have long been a proponent of improving our riverfront and the city's connection to the Mississippi River, perhaps our most important natural resource. We should use it for recreation. It should be inviting, a tourist destination, a gathering place. Right now, I have mused, about the only time most Winonans see the river is when they cross the Interstate Bridge, and if they're in a low-slung car, not even then. That's thanks to the safety engineers who prevent us from driving our cars into the Father of Waters by installing ugly concrete barriers.

Pre-dike Winona may have had a better connection to the river, but then the river had a better connection to Winona, too, say all the way up to Fifth Street during a really bad flood. Back when steamboats were the preferred method of transportation here- abouts, for people as well as goods, city fathers commissioned the development of a beautiful park along the Levee, now long gone, destroyed by years of flooding and the installation of the permanent dike.

Surely our Levee can be more attractive than it is now. But it's troubling, the number of people who talk about reclaiming the Levee and removing the railroad tracks along Front Street in the same breath.

The railroad and the river are what drew settlers to Winona in the first place. The city's location enabled it to serve as a conduit for settlers moving into the rich agricultural and timber land to the west. In fact, even into the middle of the last century Winona was referred to as Gate City.

Most of us travel by automobile, and our thinking about railroads has shifted over the years. Because most of us lead rather insular lives, described by our daily routines, we often forget to see how the world fits together. We sit at the railroad tracks in front of closed crossing arms, counting the minutes that we are prevented from getting to our destination, thinking that our forward progress is what matters most in the world. On the few occasions that events are held on the Levee, and we must struggle across the tracks, talk around town turns to tearing out the tracks.

Several years ago, when objection to the expansion of the DM&E rail line through Winona was going strong, someone told me that it would create a "wall of freight cars that would divide Winona." "Well," I said, "would you rather have a wall of semis along I-90?" The fact is, our country is growing (population 300 million!) and a growing population demands more goods. More goods must travel somehow, and until teleportation is perfected, that somehow is trucks, barges and railcars.

In Winona itself, rail is still a popular and relatively cheap way of transporting goods into and out of town. Think of the businesses along the tracks " Bay State Milling and RTP come immediately to mind " that use rail to transport raw materials into their plants and product out. Think of the farm products that are shipped by rail. Then think of the number of people who are employed by firms and farms that use rail transportation who would be out of work should those businesses be forced to move.

It sort of makes waiting for a train to pass or the inconvenience of dragging a stroller across the tracks seem insignificant, doesn't it?

We can greatly improve our waterfront, make it a beautiful and inviting place, and still accommodate the transportation needs of the people and firms that make Winona a good place to make a living. Life will never be without its inconveniences, and in the scheme of things, Winona has fewer inconveniences than most places.

So when you wish that "they" would take out the Front Street tracks, or that "they" should do something about your five-minute wait for a train crossing, be careful what you wish for. If the work of the railroad is not happening in front of you, it is going to happen "somewhere else." And we don't know how that "somewhere else" will ultimately affect us, do we? 


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