Little Lanesboro is one of Minnesota’s loveliest towns. The entire downtown business district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the plumb limestone bluff rising 320 feet behind it couldn’t be any more perfect a backdrop.
The Southeastern Minnesota Railroad reached the valley in 1868, and Lanesboro was founded as a summer resort by and for East Coast bigwigs that year.
The financiers dammed the Root River to create a lake for sailing and summer homes and built the three-story Phoenix Hotel, a luxurious dwelling filled with hand-carved oak woodwork, imported crystal chandeliers, and marble-topped dressers. The Phoenix did decent business until it burned down in 1885. (Despite the name, it was not rebuilt.)
Though Lanesboro never became the great resort area its promoters had hoped, it turns out they were just ahead of their time. The city did thrive during the 19th century and well into the 20th, though it was milling, not tourism, that created the initial boom.
Lanesboro hit the skids in the 1960s and, during two decades of decline, saw most businesses go belly up, leaving a downtown filled with vacant storefronts.
The rail line that created the town almost single-handedly re-created it in 1985 when the first five miles were converted into the Root River State Trail. Lanesboro is now one of the most popular travel destinations in the state, and, though fewer than 800 people reside here, many times that number pass through the city every weekend during the summer and fall—you’ll probably tour half the town while searching out a parking space.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition