For more than two decades, the historic Minnesota Zephyr ran as a dinner train offering scenic views of Stillwater along 6.5 miles of railway.
After closing operations in 2006, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources attempted to purchase the property in efforts to transform the rail line into a recreational trail that connected to the Gateway State Trail, but was having trouble securing the funds. Now it hopes to fund the acquisition this summer.
"It's a real great opportunity," said Joel Stedman, central regional manager for the DNR. "It's a rare occurrence to get that many miles of recreational trail from a single owner."
Minnesota Zephyr owner Dave Paradeau is selling the rail line for $4.2 million.
There are currently two bills in the state legislature that would help the DNR obtain the funds, S.F. 1029 and H.F. 400. The bills, if passed, would secure about $3.2 million each year for a two-year period to help pay for the Zephyr Line, as well as other properties the DNR is considering.
The DNR has secured up to $1 million in Washington County Land and Water Legacy funds to go toward the purchase and is seeking additional funds from the state.
Stan Linell, DNR Parks and Trails Division Strategic Manager said the department still needs to secure about $1.3 million to meet their goal.
"It would be a great disappointment if we missed this opportunity," said Gary Kriesel, Washington County board chair. "It would be a tremendous tourist attraction."
Paradeau said the Zephyr rail line is a portion of a road that was constructed in 1870, running from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Stillwater and on to Wisconsin and Chicago.
"It operated for many years, it also operated from Minneapolis-St. Paul into Stillwater from the other direction, from the south to the north and at one time a lot of rail cars sat right behind where my building is, full of coal and it fed the electric plant," Paradeau said.
After leasing the property in 1986, Paradeau purchased it in 1991, running the Minnesota Zephyr as a dinner train until 2006.
"In those 22 years, we entertained more than 1 million people," Paradeau said.
Paradeau said converting the rail line into a recreational trail would offer a wonderful experience for bikers and walkers.
"It will be one of the most spectacular trails in the entire Midwest," he said.