Back to top

Great Northern Railway

Creator: 
  • Cite
  • Share
  • Correct
  • Print
Color image of Great Northern diesel locomotive number 400, 1966. Photograph by Myron T. Gilbertson.

Great Northern diesel locomotive number 400, 1966. Photograph by Myron T. Gilbertson.

The Great Northern Railway was a transcontinental railroad system that extended from St. Paul to Seattle. Among the transcontinental railroads, it was the only one that used no public funding and only a few land grants. As the northernmost of these lines, the railroad spurred immigration and the development of lands along the route, especially in Minnesota.

On September 18, 1889, Minnesota entrepreneur 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 employed the strategy of purchasing bankrupt companies and revitalizing them until they were profitable. He began at the start of his career by purchasing small shipping companies. After acquiring the St. Paul and Pacific, which had gone bankrupt in the Panic of 1873, Hill expanded the line through trackage rights with the Northern Pacific. It was then renamed the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba in May of 1879.

Hill expanded his nascent railroad network while upgrading existing lines. He 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.

The Marias proved to be an easier pass than the one used by the Northern Pacific, as it was the lowest crossing of the Rockies south of Canada. Taking the pass also shortened the overall length of the route. Building continued through Idaho and Washington and reached Seattle in 1893. Unlike other railroads, the Great Northern did not declare bankruptcy. Official completion was at Scenic, Washington, on January 6, 1893.

Along the sparsely populated right of way through Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana, the Great Northern bought land from the federal government. It rarely, however, resorted to land grants, instead selling parcels to newly arrived immigrants—most from Germany and Scandinavia.

The railroad created special “colonist” or “emigrant” cars—passenger cars appointed in Spartan fashion—to inexpensively convey immigrants to their new farmsteads. The railroad advertised Minnesota land, and many immigrants bought plots reclaimed from swamps. The state granted over two million acres of swampland to aid in railroad construction. Some of the larger grants that became part of the Great Northern included lines from St. Paul to Duluth and from St. Cloud to Hinckley.

Hill purchased large portions of real estate in the Minnesota Mesabi Range in 1898. This included mines and railroad lines. The Great Northern controlled many of the shipments of Minnesota ore to the steel mills of the nation. It obtained renown 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 twentieth 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.

  • Cite
  • Share
  • Correct
  • Print
© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Engelhardt, Carroll L. Gateway to the Northern Plains: Railroads and the Birth of Fargo and Moorhead. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

Glischinski, Steve. Minnesota Railroads: A Photographic History, 1940–2012. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Haeg, Larry. Harriman vs. Hill: Wall Street’s Great Railroad War. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Hidy, Ralph W. The Great Northern Railway: A History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Hofsommer, Don L. Minneapolis and the Age of Railways. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Luecke, John. The Great Northern in Minnesota: the Foundations of an Empire. St. Paul: Grenadier Publications, 1997.

Malone, James P. James J. Hill: Empire Builder of the Northwest. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.

Martin, Albro. James J. Hill & The Opening of the Northwest. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1991.

Yenne, Bill. Great Northern Empire Builder. St. Paul: MBI, 2005.

Related Images

Color image of Great Northern diesel locomotive number 400, 1966. Photograph by Myron T. Gilbertson.
Color image of Great Northern diesel locomotive number 400, 1966. Photograph by Myron T. Gilbertson.
Black and white photograph of the Great Northern Railway trestle over Two Medicine in course of construction, ca. 1877.
Black and white photograph of the Great Northern Railway trestle over Two Medicine in course of construction, ca. 1877.
Black and white photopgrah of people loading horse and possessions of homesteaders into Great Northern Railway boxcar, date unknown.
Black and white photopgrah of people loading horse and possessions of homesteaders into Great Northern Railway boxcar, date unknown.
Black and white photograph of a celebration on Sixth Street West in St. Paul on the occasion of the completion of the Great Northern Railway, 1893. Photograph by T. W. Ingersoll.
Black and white photograph of a celebration on Sixth Street West in St. Paul on the occasion of the completion of the Great Northern Railway, 1893. Photograph by T. W. Ingersoll.
Black and white photograph of a Minnesota exhibit of farm product in railway car, Great Northern Railway, Western Governors Special, ca. 1911.
Black and white photograph of a Minnesota exhibit of farm product in railway car, Great Northern Railway, Western Governors Special, ca. 1911.
Black and white aerial view showing Great Northern Railway yards in southeast Minneapolis , ca. 1921. Photograph by Paul W. Hamilton.
Black and white aerial view showing Great Northern Railway yards in southeast Minneapolis , ca. 1921. Photograph by Paul W. Hamilton.
Black and white photograph of a construction crew at work on a bridge along the right of way, 1929. Photograph by Briol Studio.
Black and white photograph of a construction crew at work on a bridge along the right of way, 1929. Photograph by Briol Studio.
Black and white photograph of a Great Northern Railway float, at the St. Paul Winter Carnival, 1942.
Black and white photograph of a Great Northern Railway float, at the St. Paul Winter Carnival, 1942.
Black and white photograph of Great Northern Railway diesel locomotives #2010, 2005, and 2012. Photograph by Charles R. Pearson Photography, ca. 1935–1945.
Black and white photograph of Great Northern Railway diesel locomotives #2010, 2005, and 2012. Photograph by Charles R. Pearson Photography, ca. 1935–1945.
Black and white photograph of the Great Northern streamliner train in Glacier National Park, ca. 1955. Photograph by the Great Northern Railway.
Black and white photograph of the Great Northern streamliner train in Glacier National Park, ca. 1955. Photograph by the Great Northern Railway.
Black and white photograph of the Great Northern Railway’s Winnipeg Limited crossing the Stone Arch Bridge, Minneapolis, ca. 1955.
Black and white photograph of the Great Northern Railway’s Winnipeg Limited crossing the Stone Arch Bridge, Minneapolis, ca. 1955.
Black and white photograph of load capacity figures being stenciled on a Great Northern Railway boxcar, ca. 1957.
Black and white photograph of load capacity figures being stenciled on a Great Northern Railway boxcar, ca. 1957.
Black and white photograph on the interior of hump office at Great Northern Railway’s Gavin Yard in Minot, North Dakota,  ca. 1958. Photograph by Hedrich-Blessing.
Black and white photograph on the interior of hump office at Great Northern Railway’s Gavin Yard in Minot, North Dakota,  ca. 1958. Photograph by Hedrich-Blessing.
Black and white photograph of speaker’s stand and crowd at the 100th anniversary celebration of the Great Northern Railway at St. Paul’s Union Depot, 1962.
Black and white photograph of speaker’s stand and crowd at the 100th anniversary celebration of the Great Northern Railway at St. Paul’s Union Depot, 1962.
Color image of a Great Northern Railway "Snow Train" sign, ca. 1942
Color image of a Great Northern Railway "Snow Train" sign, ca. 1942

Turning Point

In 1904, Hill’s Northern Securities Trust, consisting of the Great Northern and his other railroads, is found by the U.S. Supreme Court to be in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Hill begins to manage the railroads of his empire separately.

Chronology

September 16, 1838

James J. Hill is born in Ontario, Canada.

1873

The Panic of 1873 takes place.

May 1879

The St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway is formed.

1883–1889

Hill builds out his railway network of companies which will become part of the Great Northern. He reinvests profits in maintaining, improving, and expanding existing rail lines and establishes industries along them.

1889

Hill creates the Great Northern on September 18.

February 1, 1890

The Great Northern assumes control of predecessor railroads.

January 6, 1893

The Great Northern is completed successfully as a true transcontinental railroad. By summer, there are scheduled trains from St. Paul to Seattle.

April 14, 1894

The American Railway Union strikes the Great Northern for eighteen days involving labor leader Eugene Debs.

1896

Hill takes control of the rival Northern Pacific.

1898

The Great Northern acquires substantial real estate, mines and railroad lines in the Mesabi Iron Range of northern Minnesota.

1901

The Great Northern purchases the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy. Hill’s lines now form a monopoly. The “Railroad Wars” between James Hilland Edward Harriman culminate in a stock market panic.

1904

Hill’s Northern Securities Trust is found by the U.S. Supreme Court to be in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Hill manages his railroads separately.

1970

The Great Northern merges with the other railroads of Hill’s trust to become the Burlington Northern.

1996

The Burlington Northern merges with the Santa Fe to become the BNSF Railway.