Great Northern Railway (U.S.)

This article is about the US railway. For other railways with the same name, see Great Northern Railway.
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 18571970
Successor Burlington Northern Railroad
Track gauge 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Length 8,368 miles (13,467 kilometres)
Headquarters Saint Paul, Minnesota
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 entrepreneur 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.


The Great Northern was built in stages, slowly to create profitable lines, before extending the road further into the undeveloped Western territories. In a series of the earliest public relations campaigns, contests were held to promote interest in the railroad and the ranchlands along its route. Fred J. Adams used promotional incentives such as feed and seed donations to farmers getting started along the line. Contests were all-inclusive, from largest farm animals to largest freight carload capacity and were promoted heavily to immigrants & newcomers from the East.[1]

The earliest predecessor railroad to the GN was the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, a bankrupt railroad with a small amount of track in the state of Minnesota. James Jerome Hill convinced John S. Kennedy (a New York banker), Norman Kittson (Hill's friend and a wealthy fur trader), Donald Smith (an executive with Canada's Hudson's Bay Company), George Stephen (Smith's cousin and president of the Bank of Montreal), and others to invest $5.5 million in purchasing the railroad.[2] On March 13, 1878, the road's creditors formally signed an agreement transferring their bonds and control of the railroad to Hill's investment group.[3] On September 18, 1889, Hill changed the name of the Minneapolis and St. Cloud Railway (a railroad which existed primarily on paper, but which held very extensive land grants throughout the Midwest and Pacific Northwest) to the Great Northern Railway. On February 1, 1890, he transferred ownership of the StPM&M, Montana Central Railway, and other rail systems he owned to the Great Northern.[4]

The Great Northern had branches that ran north to the Canada–US border in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana. It also had branches that ran to Superior, Wisconsin, and Butte, Montana, connecting with the iron mining fields of Minnesota and copper mines of Montana. In 1898 Hill purchased control of large parts of the Messabe Range iron mining district in Minnesota, along with its rail lines. The Great Northern began large-scale shipment of ore to the steel mills of the Midwest.[5] At its height, Great Northern operated over 8,000 miles.

Revenue freight traffic, in millions of net ton-miles (incl FG&S; not incl PC or MA&CR)
Year Traffic
1925 8521
1933 5434
1944 19583
1960 15831
1967 17938
Source: ICC annual reports

The railroad’s best known engineer, 1889 to 1903, was John Frank Stevens. Stevens earned wide acclaim in 1889 when he explored Marias Pass, Montana, and determined its practicability for a railroad. Stevens was an efficient administrator with remarkable technical skills and imagination. He discovered Stevens Pass through the Cascade Mountains, set railroad construction standards in the Mesabi Range of northern Minnesota, and supervised construction of the Oregon Trunk Line. He then became the chief engineer in charge of building the Panama Canal.[6]

The logo of the railroad, a Rocky Mountain goat, was based on a goat William Kenney, one of the railroads presidents, had used to haul newspapers as a boy.[7][8][9]


The mainline began at Saint Paul, Minnesota, heading west and topping the bluffs of the Mississippi River, crossing the river to Minneapolis on a massive multi-piered stone bridge. The Stone Arch Bridge stands in Minneapolis, near the Saint Anthony Falls, the only waterfall on the Mississippi. The bridge ceased to be used as a railroad bridge in 1978 and is now used as a pedestrian river crossing with excellent views of the falls and of the lock system used to grant barges access up the river past the falls. The mainline headed northwest from the Twin Cities, across North Dakota and eastern Montana. The line then crossed the Rocky Mountains at Marias Pass, and then followed the Flathead River and then Kootenai River to Athol, Idaho and Spokane, Washington. From here, the mainline crossed the Cascade Mountains through the Cascade Tunnel under Stevens Pass, reaching Seattle, Washington in 1893, with the driving of the last spike at Scenic, Washington, on January 6, 1893.

The Great Northern mainline crossed the continental divide through Marias Pass, the lowest crossing of the Rockies south of the Canada–US border. Here, the rails enter Glacier National Park, which the GN promoted heavily as a tourist attraction. GN constructed stations at East Glacier and West Glacier entries to the park, stone and timber lodges at the entries and other inns & lodges throughout the Park. Many of the structures have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to unique construction, location and the beauty of the surrounding regions.

In 1931 the GN also developed the "Inside Gateway," a route to California that rivaled the Southern Pacific Railroad's route between Oregon and California. The GN route was further in-land than the SP route and ran south from the Columbia River in Oregon. The GN connected with the Western Pacific at Bieber, California; the Western Pacific connected with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe in Stockton, California, and together the three railroads (GN, WP, and ATSF) competed with Southern Pacific for traffic between California and the Pacific Northwest. With a terminus at Superior, Wisconsin, the Great Northern was able to provide transportation from the Pacific to the Atlantic by taking advantage of the shorter distance to Duluth from the ocean, as compared to Chicago.


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

The Great Northern energetically promoted settlement along its lines in North Dakota and Montana, especially by German and Scandinavians from Europe. The Great Northern bought its lands from the federal government  it received no land grants  and resold them to farmers one by one. It operated agencies in Germany and Scandinavia that promoted its lands, and brought families over at low cost, building special colonist cars to transport immigrant families. 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.[10][11][12]

Later history

In 1970 the Great Northern, together with the Northern Pacific Railway, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad and the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway merged to form the Burlington Northern Railroad. The BN operated until 1996, when it merged with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway to form the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway.

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

Revenue freight traffic, in millions of net ton-miles (incl FG&S; not incl PC or MA&CR)
Year Traffic
1925 8521
1933 5434
1944 19583
1960 15831
1967 17938
Source: ICC annual reports

Passenger service

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

Unnamed trains

  • Nos. 23–30: St. Cloud–Grand Forks
  • Nos. 31–32: Sandstone-Willmar
  • Nos. 35–36: Duluth-Grand Forks
  • Nos. 43–42: Billings-Sweetgrass
  • Nos. 43–42: Billings-Great Falls local (GN's only RDC operation)
  • Nos. 47–48–49–50: Morris-Browns Valley
  • Nos. 53–54: Watertown-Sioux Falls
  • Nos. 61–60: Minneapolis-Hutchinson
  • Nos. 99–100: Fargo-Minot via Grand Forks
  • Nos. 105–106: Sauk Center-Bemidji
  • Nos. 131–132: Crookston-Noyes
  • Nos. 135–136: Crookston-Warroad
  • Nos. 161–162: Garretson-Sioux City
  • Nos. 185–186: Willmar-Huron via Benson
  • Nos. 197–198: Breckenridge-Larimore
  • Nos. 201–202: Grand Forks-Larimore
  • Nos. 215–215: Neilhart-Great Falls
  • Nos. 219–220: Berthold-Crosby
  • Nos. 221–222: Havre-Great Falls

  • Nos. 223–224: Williston-Havre
  • Nos. 235–236: Havre-Great Falls Western Star connection (later used GN's only RDC)
  • Nos. 237–238: Havre-Great Falls Empire Builder connection
  • Nos. 243–244–245–246–247–248–249–250: Columbia Falls-Kalispell
  • Nos. 253–254: Oroville-Wenatchee
  • Nos. 255–256: Nelson, BC-Spokane
  • Nos. 285–286: Snowden-Richey via Fairview
  • Nos. 287–288: Watford City-Fairview
  • Nos. 289-290: Williston, Bainville-Scobey
  • Nos. 291–292: Fairview-Sidney
  • Nos. 301–302: Fergus Falls-Pelican Rapids
  • Nos. 317–318: Sioux Falls-Yankton
  • Nos. 359–358: Vancouver, BC-Seattle
  • Nos. 365–366: Great Falls-Augusta
  • Nos. 367–368: Lewiston-Moccasin
  • Nos. 371-372: Williston, Bainville-Opheim (mixed)
  • Nos. 373–374: Great Falls-Pendroy
  • Nos. 401–402: Seattle-Portland (four months per year) – joint Coast Pool train with NP and Union Pacific Railroad (UP)
  • Nos. 459–460: Seattle-Portland – joint Coast Pool train with NP and UP

See also


  1. Martin (1991), chpt. 12.
  2. Malone (1996), p. 38-41.
  3. Malone (1996), p. 49.
  4. Yenne (2005), p. 23.
  5. Hofsommer (1996).
  6. Hidy & Hidy (1969).
  7. The Great Northern Goat. 10-15. 1939. p. 11.
  8. Downs, Winfield Scott (1940). Encyclopedia of American Biography. American Historical Company.
  9. ""Kenney's Goat" Story Recalled". Spokane Daily Chronicle. November 12, 1931. p. 1.
  10. Murray (1957), p. 57-66.
  11. Hickcox (1983), p. 58-67.
  12. Zeidel (1993), p. 14–23.
  13. Rand, Peikoff & Schwartz (1989), p. 92.
  14. 1 2 3 4 5 "Glacier Park Limited". Ted's Great Northern Homepage. Retrieved 6 March 2012.
  15. 1 2 "Transcontinental Trains". Ted's Great Northern Homepage. Retrieved 6 March 2012.
  16. "Great Northern Express". Ted's Great Northern Homepage. Retrieved 6 March 2012.
  17. NWDA Washington State University: Wellington Disaster
  18. "Three Daily Trains". Great Northern Railway. c. 1912. Retrieved 6 March 2012.


  • Doyle, Ted. "Great Northern Flyer". Teds' Great Northern Homepage. 
  • Hickcox, David H. (1983). "The Impact of the Great Northern Railway on Settlement in Northern Montana, 1880-1920". Railroad History (148): 58–67. 
  • Hidy, Ralph; Hidy, Muriel E. (1969). "John Frank Stevens, Great Northern Engineer" (PDF). Minnesota History. 41 (8): 345–361. 
  • Hidy, Ralph W.; Hidy, Muriel E.; Scott, Roy V.; Hofsummer, Don L. (2004) [1988]. The Great Northern Railway: A History. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press. ISBN 978-0-816-64429-2. OCLC 54885353. 
  • Martin, Albro (1991). James J. Hill & The Opening of the Northwest. Minnesota Historical Society Press. ISBN 978-0873512619. 
  • Hofsommer, Don L. (1996). "Ore Docks and Trains: The Great Northern Railway and the Mesabi Range". Railroad History (174): 5–25. 
  • Malone, James P. (1996). James J. Hill: Empire Builder of the Northwest. Norman, OK, USA: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0806128603. 
  • Rand, Ayn; Peikoff, Leonard; Schwartz, Peter (1989). The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought. New American Library. 
  • 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. 
  • Sobel, Robert (1974). "Chapter 4: James J. Hill". The Entrepreneurs: Explorations within the American business tradition. Weybright & Talley. ISBN 0-679-40064-8. 
  • Murray, Stanley N. (1957). "Railroads and the Agricultural Development of the Red River Valley of the North, 1870-1890". Agricultural History. 31 (4). 
  • 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. 
  • Wilson, Jeff (2000). Great Northern Railway in the Pacific Northwest (Golden Years of Railroading). Waukesha, Wisconsin: Kalmbach Publishing. ISBN 0-89024-420-0. 
  • Wood, Charles (1989). Great Northern Railway. Edmonds, Washington: Pacific Fast Mail. ISBN 0-915713-19-5. 
  • Yenne, Bill (2005). Great Northern Empire Builder. St. Paul, Minnesota: MBI. ISBN 0-7603-1847-6. 
  • Zeidel, Robert F (1993). "Peopling the Empire: The Great Northern Railroad and the Recruitment of Immigrant Settlers to North Dakota". North Dakota History. 60 (2): 14–23. 
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