In thesummer of1868,the FirstDivisionoftheSt.Paul &PacificRail road, which later became Great Northern and eventually Burlington Northern, built a linefrom LakeJunction (just west of Minneapolis) to Howard Lake. Thenextyear,thelinewasstretchedanadditionalforty-ninemilesfromHowardLaketo Willmar.Atthefiftymilemark,astationwasconstructedanda railway official(whosenamehasneverbeenknown)namedit"Cokato,"aftertheDakotaword"co-ka-ta."
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.
Cokato Depot circa 1920s or 30s.
Typicalofanyfrontierrailroadtown,Cokatobuiltitselfaround thetracks anddepot.Hotelswerenevermorethan ashortwalkfromthestation,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 themanwho had to twice daily pull the cart-load of mail from the station to the office.
Thatoriginal depot, builtin 1875, wasa simplestructure,described by the Cokato Observeras"barn-like." In July 1912, the railroad agreed to build a new depot in Cokato the following year. 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.
"Summer or winter, in sun or rain; My friends and I -met the evening train.”
- Carlton Lee
Poem We'll Meet Again for the Evening Train
Cokato Depot being moved to Dassel. Photograph was courtesy of the Howard Page Railroad Museum.
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 as happened 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 Wilmar. 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 it housed the Dassel Depot Railroad Museum. Now the building holds L. Louise.
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."