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Will Carlton and Thomson merge?

These historical photos show views of Carlton and Thomson in the late 1800s. Photos courtesy of the Carlton County Historical Society1 / 2
These historical photos show views of Carlton and Thomson in the late 1800s. Photos courtesy of the Carlton County Historical Society2 / 2

History is in the news again. Headlines in the Pine Journal over the past few months have announce that citizens of Carlton and Thomson -- across the St. Louis River from each other in Carlton County -- are meeting to discuss the possible merger of the two cities. According to the articles, Carlton proposed the idea several years ago, but due to the floods of 2012, discussion was tabled during the emergency and its aftermath. Then informal merger talks began when the mayors and city council members began meeting twice a month.

Currently, both cities already share water, fire department and ambulance services. Both communities could improve additional services, eliminate duplication of services and reduce expenses if they merged. Last winter Thomson was ready for discussion after suffering years of local government aid cuts on top of losses from last year's flood. Its community is just too small to sustain these losses and continue the cost of upkeep.

Thomson has a population of 152 people and Carlton has 862. A financial consultant reported that both cities have a similar tax base, expenditures and debt. Carlton has 1,452 acres of land and Thomson has 1,427.

People from both cities feel positive about a merger. The mayor of Thomson said, "It's sounding like everyone likes the idea. It's about efficiency." Carlton's city clerk and treasurer, Tracey Hartung, agrees. "This just feels right. It feels like a good transition." When residents of both cities met, they had a positive spirit. A majority were in favor of studying a merger. Planning will begin on how to share resources without losing their respective community's identity.

The idea of merging Carlton and Thomson would have shocked the county more than a hundred years ago when the two communities held a heated rivalry. It all goes back to 1857 when Carlton County was formed and the stage coach stop of Twin Lakes became the County Seat. The Military Road cutting through Carlton County provided the only transportation between the Twin Cities and Lake Superior with Twin Lakes as a major stop.

In 1869 a new transportation link between Duluth and St. Paul was under construction -- the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad. By August of 1870 the crews building west from Duluth met the crews building east from Hinckley near the village of Thomson. This made Thomson the county's most important transportation center as a key railroad junction, gateway and switchyard for Duluth. When the final legislation for organizing Carlton County took place on January 26, 1870, Thompson replaced Twin Lakes as the new County Seat.

Also in 1870, construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad began in Carlton County. The tracks started by joining the newly completed section of the LS & MRR at Komoko, a settlement near present day Carlton. A village grew up at this railroad junction called Northern Pacific Junction (now called Carlton). At first Northern Pacific Junction was nothing more than a collection of tents, but by 1882 it was the center of five railroad lines branching out in all directions like spokes of a wheel. One track went east to Thomson and Duluth; one went southeast to Wrenshall and Superior, one southwest to Barnum, Moose Lake and St. Paul, one west to Brainerd and Moorhead, and one north to Knife Falls, now called Cloquet. Because of this railroad boom, Northern Pacific Junction surpassed Thomson in population and as a railroad center.

With the rapid growth of Northern Pacific Junction a debate developed about changing the County Seat from Thomson to Northern Pacific Junction. In 1886 a vote was taken and Northern Pacific Junction won. However, Northern Pacific Junction didn't have the office space, so meetings were held in Thomson. Another vote took place in 1889, and this time Knife Falls (now Cloquet) entered the competition for County Seat. With the vote now split in three directions, Northern Pacific Junction became the County Seat, while Thomson and Knife Falls were outvoted.

The victorious Northern Pacific Junction ensured its hold on the County Seat by breaking into the County Auditor's office in Thomson and stealing the safe with the county records. The story goes that the safe was so heavy that the Northern Pacific Junction residents had trouble getting it across the wooden bridge over the St. Louis River. Apparently, they unhitched the horses from the wagon and dragged the safe across the bridge with ropes. In 1890, Northern Pacific Junction built a courthouse and changed its name to Carlton.

Now that it is 124 years later, these bitterly fought legal and political battles fade away as colorful tales of the old-timers. Today the old rival communities of Carlton and Thomson are considering merging. The rivalries when the towns were young and growing have long been set aside as today's need for mutual support might ensure their survival. How refreshing that time can change things. Watch the news for the ongoing story and the historical outcome -- will Carlton and Thomson merge?

This column originally appeared in the Senior Reporter and was republished with the editor's permission.