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Seattle and the Great Northern Railway

Seattle and the Great Northern Railway

Get a glimpse of the history of the Great Northern Railway, one of the most integral and important rail systems in the Pacific Northwest.

great northern railway


The origins of the Great Northern Railway.

The Great Northern Railway was a privately funded railroad with routes from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Seattle, Washington. It was built by a railroad tycoon named James Jerome Hill, who started it in 1889 from the bankrupt short-line Saint Paul and Pacific Railroad and the Minneapolis and St. Cloud Railway.

The railroad line was a "Class 1 transcontinental railroad," which meant it had a yearly operating income of more than $1 million as of 1911, according to the Interstate Commerce Commission at the time. It covered more than 8,300 miles of railway and was the northernmost major railroad line in the United States, with service reaching into Manitoba and as far south as Oregon and California. Its founder, James Hill, is famous for having built the company without relying on federal land grants, as other railroad companies had done. For his work in building the Great Northern, James Hill gained the nickname "the Empire-Builder."

FUN FACT: The company's logo was a mountain goat, in honor of the goat that one of the company's presidents had used to help deliver newspapers during his youth.

great northern railway

Developing the railway.

The development of what became the Great Northern Railway began when James Hill started working for the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad after the Civil War. It was there that he began innovating by running a company that switched the trains' fuel from wood to coal, increasing their efficiency. In addition, he expanded the enterprise from passenger transportation to the freight business.

He also saw an opportunity to increase the profitability of his business by helping people settle the region around the Red River Valley and using this to further increase his profits when the farmers and other settlers used his trains to bring their goods to the marketplace, a move that would become a part of the Great Northern's overall business model. When he took over the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad and renamed it the St. Paul, Minnesota, and Manitoba Railway Company, he upgraded the line's iron rails with stronger steel rails while physically expanding its service line into the Minneapolis and St. Paul region.

In 1889, he changed the name of his railroad company to the Great Northern Railway.

Below: Great Northern Railway Stirling "Single" 4-2-2 express locomotive.

great northern railway

Source: Wikipedia

Expansion of the Great Northern Railway.

In the late 1880s, James Hill's ambitions led him to consider expanding the Great Northern to the Pacific Ocean, without the help of government aid. His critics felt that this endeavor would end in failure and thus called his strategy "Hill's Folly."

The company enlisted the help of an engineer named John Frank Stevens, who discovered a route through the Rocky Mountains and then another route through the Cascade Mountains in Washington. With his help and ingenuity, the Great Northern Railway's reach extended to Seattle in 1893.

During the company's expansion toward the Pacific Ocean, it adopted a policy of inviting immigrants to ride the Great Northern for reduced fares in exchange for forming settlements along his routes. Experts in agriculture helped show them how to farm the land. This resulted in strong economic development and also even more profits for the Great Northern Railway as the settlers carried their resulting goods around the nation. America suffered an economic depression in 1893 that lasted almost five years, but the company's ability to reduce overhead while improving efficiency enabled the Great Northern to stay in business.

great northern railway


With success comes competition.

The Great Northern faced a number of rivals in its bid for dominance of the northern routes. Arguably its top competitor was the Union Pacific Railroad company. In what was dubbed "Wall Street's Great Railroad War," the Great Northern competed against Union Pacific to acquire the Burlington and Quincy railroad company in Iowa. The Great Northern Railway triumphed when it ultimately acquired Burlington and Quincy in a struggle that caused a stock market crisis in 1901.

In 1904, the company attempted to expand into shipbuilding in order to facilitate trade with Asia. As a part of this project, the company built two ships, named the S.S. Dakota and the S.S. Minnesota. The ships cost more than Hill anticipated, and the S.S. Dakota sank in 1907 near Yokohama, Japan. The S.S. Minnesota became too expensive to operate and was sold in 1917.

The "Inside Gateway" and the railway's expansion to California.

James Hill retired as president of the Great Northern Railway in 1907, and he died in 1916. But the company continued to expand, creating the "Inside Gateway" route to California in 1931, which increased its competitive position against the Southern Pacific Railroad company. The railroad provided a major military supply line for the country during World War II, setting freight traffic records from 1942 to 1944. It continued to expand its railroad freight and passenger traffic until March 2, 1970, when the company finally merged with the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad company, the Northern Pacific Railway, and Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railway to become the Burlington Northern Railroad.

During the railroad company's lifetime, it constructed a number of stations, hotels, and other buildings that have become nationally registered historical landmarks. These include the Belton Chalets hotels in the city of Western Glacier and the Many Glacier Hotel and Granite Park Chalet in Glacier National Park, all of which are in Montana. Two other landmarks, also located in Glacier National Park, include the Two Medicine Store and the Sperry Chalet. In addition, there are a multitude of other famous landmarks that still stand as a monument to the Great Northern's contribution to America's growth, including the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the Cascade Tunnel near Everett, Washington.

For more information about the Great Northern Railway, click the links below: