Railroad History
Great Northern Railway

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GN HeraldThe Great Northern Railway
by Jackson Peters

James J. Hill, neither the Great Northern Railway nor its predecessor road, the St. Paul & Pacific (SP&P) can be mentioned without his name being a central part of the conversation. Hill, born September 16, 1838, was a long time St. Paul, Minnesota resident. He was employed by various enterprises in and around St. Paul. By 1866, he began his association with the railroad. His first job was as a station agent for the SP&P. He later started a fuel distributorship with the SP&P as his primary customer.

During these times, the Northern Pacific owned the SP& P. The NP had paid $1.5 million in SP&P bonds and over $500,000 in cash for the capital stock of the First Division. By June 28, 1862, the first revenue train of the newly chartered SP&P whistled its way across the Mississippi Valley. The railroad was extremely successful, but when the financial panic of 1873 hit the entire nation, the Northern Pacific went bankrupt and lost its rights to the SP&P. After the bankruptcy, Hill met with several Minnesota businessmen and formed James J. Hill & Associates. On February 24, 1878, the firm paid $5,540,000 (equivalent to $.25 on the dollar) to the bankruptcy court and purchased the SP&P.

By the end of 1878, the company was in trouble. Concentration on expansion had hampered operations and the red ink flowed heavy. By March of 1879, the company was back in the bankruptcy court and into foreclosure. The undaunted Hill then formed the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba. It bought the rights to the SP&P from the bankruptcy court for $6,780,000 in cash and bonds. By 1888, Hill branched out his St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba by forming the Northern Steamship Company. Then on the occasion of his 51st birthday, September 16, 1889, Hill formed a company that would ultimately build a railroad that would stretch across the Great Plains, over the Rockies, through the Cascades and to the Puget Sound. That company would fly the banner of and henceforth be called the Great Northern Railway.

The one constant amid all of the events and changes of the decade was the westward push of the mainline. Land was available and the farmers who owned it were eager to sell right-of-way to the railroad. Hill took great advantage of this fact. One of his first unprecedented moves was to lease land from these farmers for 999 years. One of the key men in Hill's empire was John F. Stevens. Stevens was given the task of improving the route west. On December 11, 1889, Stevens was following a branch of the Marias River in Montana, when he discovered a route that shortened GN's mainline by over 150 miles and at a grade of only one percent.

In the spring of 1892, Hill met with several key citizens of Spokane, Washington. The issue was whether Hill would run the railroad would through Spokane, or several miles to the North. A future without the railroad meant diminished prosperity, as such the citizens relented and Hill generously accepted their offer of free right-of-way through the city. At this same time, trains started running across Marias Pass and Hill was looking westward to the Puget Sound. The Cascade Mountains posed a significant challenge to that effort. Once again, John Stevens was summoned, this time to conquer the Cascades.

Doing his professional best, Stevens tried to find a direct route over the mountain range, but all efforts failed. He ultimately determined that the best route through the Cascades would include a tunnel. This tunnel would take years to construct, so in the interim, switchbacks were built. Four of the switchbacks were located on the East Side of the mountains and five on the West Side. The switchbacks were used to "lift" the railroad over the mountains and would be kept in service until completion of the first Great Northern Cascade Tunnel in 1900.

Once over the mountains, the GN continued to drive west to meet the lines laid in previous years from Seattle to the east. This happened on January 6, 1893 when the last spike was driven into the line at Scenic, Washington.

Coming Soon, the completion of the Cascade Tunnel, the Wellington Disaster and a mind's eye view of running trains on tough mountain grades in winter.

For more information on the Great Northern:

Lindsay Korst has a very nice Great Northern Railway Page.
His site includes a GN FAQ, and the unofficial web site for the GN Historical Society.
The BNSF Corporate Web Site also has a summary history of the GN. (On the BNSF page, click on About BNSF, then History / Overview).

Or write to the GN Historical Society at: GNHRS, 1781 Griffith, Berkley, MI 48072-1222

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"The Great Northern Railway" essay, Copyright 1998 by Jackson Peters. All rights reserved.  Used here by permission.
All other content, Copyright 1997, 1998 PSMRE. All rights reserved.

The GN herald is based on the RRHerald font, available as shareware from Secret Sidewalk Software.