The Great Northern Railway was a transcontinental railroad system that extended from St. Paul to Seattle. On September 18, 1889, James J. Hill created the Great Northern Railway from the bankrupt St. Paul and Pacific, and the Minneapolis and St. Cloud.
On February 1, 1890, the Great Northern assumed control of his other railroad companies, among them the Montana Central Railway and the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba.
Hill built in stages, creating profitable lines first before undertaking further expansion, thus avoiding excessive debt. His companies sold homesteads to immigrants and furnished the trains by which they would reach their new homes. They solicited further immigration by advertising in European newspapers and hiring overseas agents, who sought out immigrants looking for their own farmland.
The railroad reinvested profits into the company to fuel expansion and improve existing infrastructure. Hill brought in industries and strategically placed them along the network. This pattern continued throughout the 1880s as he expanded his empire over Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana. The railroad hauled goods and passengers, encouraged immigration along the route, and helped bring wheat harvests to market at Minneapolis.
The Great Northern was to be a true transcontinental railroad. Beginning in St. Paul and crossing the Mississippi River over the Stone Arch Bridge at Minneapolis, the line extended westward through North Dakota and Montana. The Great Northern built to the north of the Northern Pacific route. It proceeded until the Rocky Mountains, where it used the recently discovered Marias Pass through the continental divide. Official completion was at Scenic, Washington, on January 6, 1893.
The Great Northern was known for its Empire Builder passenger train, which operated service to the west coast by way of Glacier National Park. Despite antitrust proceedings that forced Hill to divest from his other railroad interests, the Great Northern weathered economic downturns and proved to be a profitable railroad for most of the 20th century.
Ironically, the same railroads that Hill was forced to give up merged with the Great Northern in 1970 to form the Burlington Northern. This network merged with another historic railroad, and a considerable portion of the Great Northern now operates as the BNSF Railway. Amtrak continues to offer service on the Empire Builder passenger train.
Adapted from the MNopedia article Great Northern Railway
For further research
- Articles about the Great Northern Railway in Minnesota History Magazine
- Great Northern Railway papers at the Minnesota Historical Society
- Great Northern Railway Historical Society
- BNSF Railway: Recommended Reading
Great Northern Railway in the MNHS Shop
- Great Northern Railway: A History
Dining Car to the Pacific: The “Famously Good” Food of the Northern Pacific Railway