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Minnesota Zephyr Dinner Train -- July 3rd, 2004

by Elizabeth Guenzler

What better way to finish a day riding behind a double-headed steam excursion than with a dinner train? The Minnesota Zephyr operated out of Stillwater and served a five-course, white linen dinner on a six-mile route which travelled along the St. Croix River bluffs, then turned westward and followed a stream. Bob and I had bought tickets and were looking forward to our first ride. The weather did not cooperate and the drizzle that we encountered earlier in the day became a downpour which hampered our photography, especially as we were both well-dressed.

We arrived half an hour before the train departed and I was very happy with the motive power - F units on both ends, an F7 of Spokane, Portland and Seattle heritage and a Chicago and North Western F9 on the rear.

The Minnesota Zephyr Dinner Train from a sunny 2002 visit by Chris Guenzler. Since I did not have any photographs of the train itself, consist pictures are by Chris.

The boarding pass for our ride.

Two views of the dinner train at Stillwater, led by former SP&S F7 787.

Former Southern Pacific full dome (ex. AMTK 9373, exx. SP 3600, nee SP 3000).

The Minnesota Zephyr emblem.

The Stillwater station.

Former Chicago and North Western FP9 788.

Views from along the route.

While the scenery was slowly going by, we enjoyed a very nice dinner of salad, soup, beef tenderloin and cheesecake for dessert. Once we reached the end of the line, the friendly conductor invites us and others to go into the cab and blow the horn - a first for me! We then walked through the train but first took a picture of our car, the Grand Dome, a former Southern Pacific three-quarter dome lounge.

The lounge level of the Grand Dome; lighting was not very good.

Lake of the Winds.

Northern Winds.

St. Croix dome club car.

The lounge area under the dome of the St. Croix.

View of the dome level of this car. We returned to Stillwater about 22:30 and bought some souvenirs.


Unfortunately, although a Stillwater tourism icon for more than two decades and carrying more than a million passengers, owner David Paradeau announced that New Year's Eve 2008 would be the final run of the famous Dinner Train before going out of business. He had hoped for it to become a stationary restaurant serving dinner along with the adjacent Stillwater Grill. It was a combination of factors, a desire to retire, as well as a downturn in business and a large loss within the last two years.

Paradeau had hoped to sell the right-of-way to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to be converted to a rail trail that would connect Stillwater to the Gateway State Trail system. Tracks connecting the Zephyr line south to the Union Pacific Railroad through downtown Stillwater were removed in summer 2005 after the City of Stillwater forced abandonment of the tracks. No rail service had been provided on the line since 1995 when the last steam engine visited Stillwater.

On September 10th, 2010, the Minnesota DNR expressed renewed interest in and laid out plans for the Minnesota Zephyr and in February 2012, sale of the right-of-way was finalized for $4.37 million. The sale did not include the dinner train itself or the Zephyr building. Rails and ties were removed to prepare the right-of-way to be made into a walking and biking trail. The entire route has been repaved and was officially opened in June 2015. The right of way is also being considered as a route for a future light rail line into Stillwater.

This had been a fantastic day but I was very disappointed that the Minnesota Zephyr Dinner Train is no more. Of the three dinner trains I had ridden between 2002 and 2004, all of them ceased operations.