Railroad History
Northern Pacific Railway

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The Northern Pacific Railway
by Jackson Peters

The Northern Pacific Railway has a very rich historical beginning. Josiah Perham, along with Asa Whitney, Isaac Stevens and Edward Johnson were the first to put in motion a railroad across the route that was traversed by Lewis & Clark on their expedition to the northwest, spanning May 1804 to September 1806. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Federal Charter for Perham's railroad in December of 1864.

Perham's efforts lasted almost two years. Then on July 2, 1866, with a construction deadline looming, heavily in debt and his health failing, another organization stepped in, paid Perham's debts of $102,000. This group did not meet with any better success. Headed by J. Gregory Smith, their initial fundraising efforts were thwarted. But Smith and his group did manage to get the construction deadline (for starting operation) extended to July 4, 1870, with final completion by July 4, 1877.

Enter the infamous firm of Jay Cooke & Company in 1869. He is credited with being very influential in getting the finances flowing. The summer of 1869 saw two survey parties in the field. With the necessary money and land grants, it appeared the railroad was beginning to move. On February 15, 1870, near Duluth, Minnesota, ground breaking ceremonies for the Northern Pacific Railway took place. Construction began July 1870. The Western Terminus had yet to be chosen, but 25 miles of track had been laid in the Cowlitz Valley between Kalama and Puget Sound. All of which was required under the initial Charter.

Tacoma was chosen as the Western Terminus in the Fall of 1872. Storm clouds, however, were building on the horizon. On September 18, 1873, the Northern Pacific and Jay Cooke were felled by the Financial Panic of 1873. Things did not improve in 1874, with no credit available and no cash to continue construction. The Railroad was reorganized by Fredrick Billings in 1876 and by early 1877 it began to slowly move forward. By the end of 1878, the only construction being performed was inconsequential preparation work for the years ahead.

One of the most noted occurrences in the history of the Northern Pacific came in 1879. This was the construction of the temporary bridge across the Missouri River. The river was frozen over with ice. Crews built the bridge across the River by laying 3 inch thick by 12 foot long ties, directly onto the frozen surface. This practice continued until 1882.

The Railroad continued to move westward during 1879. Then in October of 1880, one Henry Villard appeared on the scene. Villard and the NP reached an accord on October 20, 1879. This agreement gave the Northern Pacific use of the rail owned and built by the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company. This usage agreement gave trackage rights to the NP until its own line could be completed to Tacoma.

In February of 1881, Villard formed the now famous Blind Pool. The Blind Pool was a committee of prominent financiers of the time. The Blind Pool contributed $8.5 million to the Railroad's fundraising efforts. Throughout 1881 and well into 1882, the NP experienced a litany of legal challenges. Most of this legal action was derived from a power struggle between Villard and Fredrick Billings. The Board of Directors ultimately elected Villard as President of the Northern Pacific. Under his leadership, he raised $60,000,000 and then boldly predicted that the railroad would be completed in two years.

With money, men and material, he was able to complete that prediction. On September 8, 1883, with bands playing and the final 1000 feet of track laid, the two lines were connected. The final spike, with each sound being relayed by telegraph, was driven into the line. Not made of gold as one might think. Instead, the spike used was the very first spike driven into Northern Pacific track some 14 years earlier at Thompson Jet, Minnesota.

This concludes the first installment of the Northern Pacific history page. The next segment will take us to the turn of the century and will include information on the Cascade Switchbacks, the Stampede Tunnel, the effect of lumber, freight and coal on the railroad. There will be much, much more. This page is under construction and will continue to evolve well into the future.

For more information on the Northern Pacific:

The BNSF Corporate Web Site also has a summary history of the NP. (On the BNSF page, click on About BNSF, then History / Overview).

Or write to the NP Historical Society at: Norm Snow, 13044 87th Place, Kirkland, WA 98034

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