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Finding Minnesota: Fall Colors On Scenic Railroad

DULUTH, Minn. (WCCO) -- The Department of Natural Resources says conditions are just right for a brilliant fall colors season this year.

Some of the earliest and brightest colors will be along the north shore of Lake Superior. While some people plan a drive or a hike through the north woods, thousands will hop aboard a train.

The North Shore Scenic Railroad has been running sightseeing trips out of Duluth for more than 20 years now.

General manager Ken Buehler said its ticket sales have been increasing over the years as other tourist trains have had to close.

"Every year we lose one or two tourist railroads around the country," he said. "And it's not because they're not popular and it's not because people don't like to go to them. It's because of the insurance or the track maintenance is too expensive, the upkeep is just too much for the cars and so forth."

More than half of the workers on the North Shore line are volunteering their time, including conductor Tom Donahue, 83, a retired teacher.

Most trips don't offer a lot of frills, partly to keep prices down and partly because the ride itself is enough.

"Well, you get to see a different side of the country that you don't get to from a car," said Jocelyn Brown of Bloomington.

It's how Clark Johnson of Virginia, Minn., celebrated his fifth birthday.

"I told him that he could pick anything that he wanted to do," said Clark's mother, Julie, "and he decided that it would be most fun to come ride the train in Duluth."

The train operators are now getting ready for one of their busiest times of the year.

"If you've ever seen Duluth in full bloom in the fall color season, it's absolutely breathtaking," Buehler said.

Many of the trips feature narration over a loud speaker by JoAnne Johnson, 79. She's in her fifteenth year of working on the railroad, and she can rattle off dozens of regional facts without a script.

"79 years old, I should know some of this stuff by now," she said.

She knows that the rails these trains roll on played a key role in developing the region. They helped get lumber from the north woods and iron ore pellets to the steel mills.

They're now giving riders a greater appreciation for where they are.

"The railroads changed everything," Buehler said. "Preserving that history and saying 'here's how we did it' is very, very important because you have to have a sense of place."

The Fall Colors trips start Sept. 20 between Duluth and Two Harbors.

On Sept. 21, they also have a Beer Tasting Train, and in October they'll have a Pumpkin Patch Train.

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