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Great Northern Railway (U.S.)

Great Northern Railway
GN system map, circa 1918; dotted lines represent nearby railroads
GN EMD F7 diesel locomotive
Reporting mark GN
Locale British Columbia
North Dakota
South Dakota
Dates of operation 1857–1970
Successor Burlington Northern Railroad
Track gauge 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Length Script error: No such module "convert".
Headquarters Saint Paul, Minnesota
File:Havre Montana RR Station.jpg
GN's 4-8-4 S-2 "Northern" class locomotive #2584 and nearby sculpture, U.S.–Canada Friendship in Havre, Montana

The Great Northern Railway (reporting mark GN) was an American Class I railroad. Running from Saint Paul, Minnesota, to Seattle, Washington, it was the creation of 19th century railroad tycoon James J. Hill and was developed from the Saint Paul & Pacific Railroad. The Great Northern's (GN) route was the northernmost transcontinental railroad route in the U.S.

The Great Northern was the only privately funded — and successfully built — transcontinental railroad in U.S. history. No federal land grants were used during its construction, unlike all other transcontinental railroads. In 1910 the Great Northern fell victim to the deadliest avalanche in U.S. history at the site of the defunct town of Wellington, Washington.


In 1857 the Minnesota & Pacific Railroad was chartered to build a line from Stillwater, Minnesota, on the St. Croix River east of St. Paul, through St. Paul and St. Cloud to St. Vincent, in the northwest corner of the state. The railroad defaulted after completing a roadbed between St. Paul and St. Cloud, and its charter was taken over by the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad (StP&P), which ran its first train between St. Paul and St. Anthony (now Minneapolis) in 1862. For financial reasons the railroad properties were reorganized as the First Division of the St. Paul & Pacific. Both StP&P companies were soon in receivership, and the Northern Pacific Railway, with which the StP&P was allied, went bankrupt in the Panic of 1873.[1]

In 1878 James J. Hill and an associate, George Stephen, acquired the two St. Paul & Pacific companies and reorganized them as the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway (StPM&M).[2] By 1885 the company had Script error: No such module "convert". of railroad and extended west to Devils Lake, North Dakota. In 1886 Hill organized the Montana Central Railway to build from Great Falls, Montana, through Helena to Butte, and in 1888 the line was opened, creating in conjunction with the StPM&M a railroad from St. Paul to Butte.[3]

In 1881 Hill took over the 1856 charter of the Minneapolis & St. Cloud Railroad. He first used its franchises to build the Eastern Railway of Minnesota from Hinckley, Minnesota to Superior, Wisconsin, and Duluth. Its charter was liberal enough that he chose it as the vehicle for his line to the Pacific. He renamed the railroad the Great Northern Railway (GN); GN then leased the StPM&M and assumed its operation.[4] Hill decided to extend his railroad to Havre, Montana, west to the Pacific, specifically the Puget Sound at Seattle, Washington. He had briefly considered building to Portland, but it was already served by the Oregon-Washington Railroad & Navigation Company and the Northern Pacific Railway (NP).[1]

Hill's surveyors found an easy route through the Rockies over Marias Pass. Later there was considerable advocacy for creating a national park in the Rockies of northern Montana, and GN — in particular, Louis W. Hill, son of James J. and president of GN from 1907 to 1912 and 1914 to 1919 — soon joined the forces during the establishment of Glacier National Park. GN developed the park, and for many years furnished the only transportation to it. The park, in turn, drew passengers to the railroad-owned hotels and provided the railroad with a herald, a Rocky Mountain Goat. GN sold its Glacier Park properties in 1960.[1]

The Cascade Range in the state of Washington was a far more formidable barrier to the GN. The NP had originally detoured to the south, using Oregon-Washington rails along the Columbia River. Hill saw the vast stands of timber in the mountains as a resource, and his engineer, John Stevens, found a pass (it now bears his name) that could afford a route from the interior of Washington to the tidewater of Puget Sound.[5]

The Great Northern was opened through to Seattle in 1893 using a temporary line over Stevens Pass. In 1900 the first Cascade Tunnel, Script error: No such module "convert". long, provided relief from the switchbacks and the 4 percent grades of the temporary line and lowered the summit of the line from 4,068 feet to 3,383 feet. The tunnel was electrified with a 2-wire, 3-phase system in 1909. The electrification was replaced with a more conventional system in 1927 as a prelude to the opening of the Script error: No such module "convert". second Cascade Tunnel in 1929. The new tunnel, the longest in the Western Hemisphere at the time (since surpassed by the Mount Macdonald Tunnel in Canada), lowered the maximum elevation of the line to 2,881 feet and eliminated Script error: No such module "convert". of snowsheds and more than five completed circles of curvature. The tunnel project included other line relocations in the area and the extension of the electrified portion of the line east to Wenatchee and west to Skykomish.[1]

A 1909 ad aimed at settlers from a St. Paul Newspaper

GN promoted settlement along its lines in North Dakota and Montana, especially by German and Scandinavians from Europe. GN purchased its lands from the federal government (it received no land grants) and resold them to farmers individually. It also operated agencies in Germany and Scandinavia that promoted its lands, and brought families over at low cost. The rapidly increasing settlement in North Dakota's Red River Valley along the Minnesota border between 1871 and 1890 was a major example of large-scale "bonanza" farming.[6][7][8] Hill commented that his railway was built "without any government aid, even the right of way, through hundreds of miles of public lands, being paid for in cash".[9] Consequently, it was one of the few transcontinental railroads to avoid receivership following the Panic of 1893.

Before completion of the route from St. Paul, GN had opened a line along the shore of Puget Sound between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia in 1891. In later years Hill pushed a number of lines north across the international boundary into the mining area of southern British Columbia in a running battle with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CP). In 1912 GN traded its line along the Fraser River east of Vancouver to the Canadian Northern Railway (CN) for trackage rights into Winnipeg. GN gradually withdrew from British Columbia after Hill's death. In 1909 the Manitoba Great Northern Railway purchased most of the property of the Midland Railway of Manitoba (lines from the US border to Portage la Prairie and Morden, Manitoba, leaving the midland, which was jointly controlled by GN and NP, with terminal properties in Winnipeg. Manitoba Great Northern disposed of its rail line — later abandoned — in 1927.[1]

In 1907 the GN purchased the properties and assets of the StPM&M and a number of its proprietary companies, such as the Eastern Railway of Minnesota and the Montana Central Railway. In 1928 there was another spate of such activity. The result was that GN was a large railroad with very few subsidiaries, unlike most of its competitors.[1]

Among the major branches and lines added to the system were the Surrey Cutoff between Fargo and Minot, North Dakota, shortening the route between St. Paul and Seattle by approximately Script error: No such module "convert"., opened in 1912; an interurban system, the Spokane, Coeur d'Alene & Palouse, east and south from Spokane, Washington (absorbed by GN in 1943); and an extension of the Oregon Trunk Railway from Bend, Oregon, south to a connection with the Western Pacific Railroad at Bieber, California, completed in 1931.

Later history

GN changed little in the modern era — from the 1920s through the 1960s — apart from the industry-wide migration from steam to diesel. A ventilating system allowed dieselization of the Cascade Tunnel in 1956 and eliminated the electrification. In November 1970 the Cascade Tunnel acquired a rival, the Flathead Tunnel, shorter by only 70 yards, as part of a line relocation necessitated by construction of a dam at Libby, Montana. Most of the construction was done by GN; only the last portion and the actual opening of the tunnel were done by GN's successor, the Burlington Northern Railroad.[1]

On July 1, 1901, GN and NP jointly purchased more than 97 percent of the stock of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad (CB&Q) to ensure a connection between St. Paul and Chicago. GN and NP backed construction of the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway (SP&S), a line to Portland, Oregon, from Spokane; SP&S in turn sponsored the construction of the Oregon Trunk Railway from Wishram, Washington on the Columbia River, south to Bend, Oregon. GN got another route to Portland by acquiring trackage rights on NP from Seattle.[1]

Hill soon acquired control of NP with the intent of merging GN, NP, CB&Q and SP&S into a single railroad. As a start, he formed Northern Securities as a holding company, but the Interstate Commerce Commission quickly ruled against such a merger. In 1927 the Great Northern Pacific Railway was incorporated to merge GN and NP and lease SP&S and CB&Q. The ICC approved the merger upon the condition that GN and NP divest themselves of the CB&Q — a condition the two Northerns were unwilling to meet.[1]

More than four decades passed before the merger went through on March 2, 1970 — with the CB&Q included and indeed half the name of the merged company, the Burlington Northern Railroad (BN).[1] BN operated until 1996, when it merged with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway to form the BNSF Railway.

In popular culture

The Great Northern Railway is considered to have inspired (in broad outline, not in specific details) the Taggart Transcontinental railroad in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.[10]

The railroad is mentioned in the lyrics of the Grateful Dead song Jack Straw: "Great Northern, out of Cheyenne, from sea to shining sea".

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This page is a soft redirect. 17938
Year Traffic
Source: ICC annual reports

Passenger service

File:GN Ry. station, Mpls..jpg
Great Northern Station, Minneapolis, Minnesota, which also served the Northern Pacific Railway. This historic depot was razed in 1978.

GN operated various passenger trains but the Empire Builder was their premier passenger train. It was named in honor of James J. Hill, known as the "Empire Builder." Amtrak's Empire Builder operates over much of the same route formerly covered by GN's train of the same name.

Named trains

  • Alexandrian: St. Paul–Fargo
  • Badger Express: St. Paul-Superior/Duluth (later renamed Badger)
  • Cascadian: Seattle–Spokane (1909 1959)
  • Dakotan: St. Paul-Minot
  • Eastern Express: Seattle-St. Paul (1903–1906) (replaced by Fast Mail in 1906)[11]
  • Empire Builder: Chicago-Seattle/Portland (1929–present)
  • Fast Mail No. 27: St. Paul–Seattle (1906–1910) (renamed The Oregonian in 1910)[11]
  • Glacier Park Limited: St. Paul–Seattle (1915 1929) (replaced by Oriental Limited in 1929)[11]
  • Gopher: St. Paul-Superior/Duluth
  • Great Northern Express: (1909-1918) Kansas City-Seattle[12][13]
  • International: Seattle-Vancouver, B.C.
  • Oregonian : St. Paul–Seattle (1910–1915) (replaced by Glacier Park Limited in 1915)[11]
  • Oriental Limited : Chicago-St. Paul-Seattle (replaced by Western Star in 1951)
  • Puget Sound Express: St. Paul-Seattle (1903–1906) (replaced by Fast Mail in 1906)[11]
  • Red River Limited: Grand Forks-St. Paul (later renamed Red River)
  • Seattle Express[14]
  • Southeast Express: (1909–1918) Seattle-Kansas City[12][15]
  • Western Star : Chicago-St. Paul-Seattle-Portland
  • Winnipeg Limited: St. Paul-Winnipeg

Unnamed trains

See also

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  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Drury, George H. (1994). The Historical Guide to North American Railroads: Histories, Figures, and Features of more than 160 Railroads Abandoned or Merged since 1930. Waukesha, Wisconsin: Kalmbach Publishing. pp. 144–148. ISBN 0-89024-072-8. 
  2. ^ Malone, p. 38-41
  3. ^ Yenne, Bill (2005). Great Northern Empire Builder (Great Trains). MBI Publishing. p. 23. ISBN 978-0760318478. 
  4. ^ Hofsommer, Don L. (1996). "Ore Docks and Trains: The Great Northern Railway and the Mesabi Range". Railroad History (174): 5–25. 
  5. ^ Hidy, Ralph W.; Muriel E. Hidy (1969). "John Frank Stevens, Great Northern Engineer". Minnesota History 8 (41): 345–361. 
  6. ^ Stanley N., Murray (1957). "Railroads and the Agricultural Development of the Red River Valley of the North, 1870-1890". Agricultural History 4 (31): 57–66. 
  7. ^ Hickcox, David H. (1983). "The Impact of the Great Northern Railway on Settlement in Northern Montana, 1880-1920". Railroad History (148): 58–67. 
  8. ^ Zeidel, Robert F. (1993). "Peopling the Empire: The Great Northern Railroad and the Recruitment of Immigrant Settlers to North Dakota". North Dakota History 2 (60): 14–23. 
  9. ^ Albro, Martin (1976). James J. Hill and the Opening of the Northwest. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 411. 
  10. ^ Rand, Ayn; Leonard Peikoff; Peter Schwartz (1989). The voice of reason: essays in objectivist thought. New American Library. p. 92. 
  11. ^ a b c d e "Glacier Park Limited". Ted's Great Northern Homepage. Retrieved 6 March 2012. 
  12. ^ a b "Transcontinental Trains". Ted's Great Northern Homepage. Retrieved 6 March 2012. 
  13. ^ "Great Northern Express". Ted's Great Northern Homepage. Retrieved 6 March 2012. 
  14. ^ NWDA Washington State University: Wellington Disaster
  15. ^ "Three Daily Trains". Great Northern Railway. c. 1912. Retrieved 6 March 2012. 

Further reading

  • Malone, Michael P. James J. Hill: Empire Builder of the Northwest. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.
  • Whitney, F.I. (1894). "Valley, Plain and Peak..Scenes on the line of the Great northern railway". St. Paul, Minnesota: Great Northern Railway Office of the general passenger and ticket agent. 
  • Wood, Charles (1989). Great Northern Railway. Edmonds, Washington: Pacific Fast Mail. ISBN 0-915713-19-5. 
  • Sobel, Robert (1974). "Chapter 4: James J. Hill". The Entrepreneurs: Explorations within the American business tradition. Weybright & Talley. ISBN 0-679-40064-8. 
  • Wilson, Jeff (2000). Great Northern Railway in the Pacific Northwest (Golden Years of Railroading). Waukesha, Wisconsin: Kalmbach Publishing. ISBN 0-89024-420-0. 
  • Hidy, Ralph W.; Muriel E. Hidy; Roy V. Scott; Don L. Hofsommer (2004). The Great Northern Railway: A History. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-4429-2. 
  • Yenne, Bill (2005). Great Northern Empire Builder. St. Paul, Minnesota: MBI. ISBN 0-7603-1847-6. 
  • Sherman, T. Gary (2004). Conquest and Catastrophe: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Great Northern Railway Through Stevens Pass. Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse. ISBN 1-4184-9575-1. 

External links