Northern Pacific Railway

Last updated
Northern Pacific Railway
Northern Pacific Railway Logo, November, 1952.png
Northern Pacific.png
The Northern Pacific Railway system map
Northern Pacific Office Building.jpg
The former Northern Pacific Office Building
in Tacoma, Washington.
Headquarters Saint Paul, Minnesota
Reporting mark NP
Locale Ashland, Wisconsin and
Saint Paul, Minnesota to
Seattle, Washington,
Tacoma, Washington,
and Portland, Oregon
Dates of operation18641970
Successor Burlington Northern
(later BNSF)
Track gauge 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge

The Northern Pacific Railway( reporting mark NP) was a transcontinental railroad that operated across the northern tier of the western United States, from Minnesota to the Pacific Northwest. It was approved by Congress in 1864 and given nearly forty million acres (62,000 sq mi; 160,000 km2) of land grants, which it used to raise money in Europe for construction.


Construction began in 1870 and the main line opened all the way from the Great Lakes to the Pacific when former President Ulysses S. Grant drove in the final "golden spike" in western Montana on September 8, 1883. The railroad had about 6,800 miles (10,900 km) of track and served a large area, including extensive trackage in the states of Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin. In addition, the NP had an international branch to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The main activities were shipping wheat and other farm products, cattle, timber, and minerals; bringing in consumer goods, transporting passengers; and selling land.

The Northern Pacific was headquartered in Minnesota, first in Brainerd, then in Saint Paul. It had a tumultuous financial history; the NP merged with other lines in 1970 to form the Burlington Northern Railroad, which became BNSF Railway in 1996.



Map of NPR Land Grant, c1890 NorthernPacificLandGrant.jpg
Map of NPR Land Grant, c1890

Congress chartered the Northern Pacific Railway Company on July 2, 1864 with the goals of connecting the Great Lakes with Puget Sound on the Pacific, opening vast new lands for farming, ranching, lumbering and mining, and linking Washington and Oregon to the rest of the country. [1]

Congress granted the railroad a potential 60 million acres (243,000 km2) of land in exchange for building rail transportation to an undeveloped territory. Josiah Perham was elected its first president on December 7, 1864. [1] It could not use all the land and in the end took just under 40 million acres. [2]

Jay Cooke takes control

For the next six years, backers of the road struggled to find financing. Though John Gregory Smith succeeded Perham as president on January 5, 1865, groundbreaking did not take place until February 15, 1870, at Carlton, Minnesota, 25 miles (40 km) west of Duluth, Minnesota. The backing and promotions of famed financier Jay Cooke in the summer of 1870 brought the first real momentum to the company.

The Minnetonka. The Minnetonka.jpg
The Minnetonka.

Over the course of 1871, the Northern Pacific pushed westward from Minnesota into present-day North Dakota. Surveyors and construction crews had to maneuver through swamps, bogs, and tamarack forests. The difficult terrain and insufficient funding delayed by six months the construction phase in Minnesota. [3] The NP also began building its line north from Kalama, Washington Territory, on the Columbia River outside of Portland, Oregon, towards Puget Sound. Four small construction engines were purchased, the Minnetonka, Itaska, Ottertail and St. Cloud, the first of which was shipped to Kalama by ship around Cape Horn. In Minnesota, the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad completed construction of its 155-mile (249 km) line stretching from Saint Paul to Lake Superior at Duluth in 1870. It was leased to the Northern Pacific in 1876, and was eventually absorbed by the Northern Pacific. The North Coast Limited was the Northern Pacific's flagship train and the Northern Pacific itself was built along the trail first blazed by Lewis and Clark. [4]

Preferred Shares of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company, issued 28. November 1881 Northern Pacific RR 1881.jpg
Preferred Shares of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company, issued 28. November 1881

The Northern Pacific reached Fargo, Dakota Territory (N.D.), early in June 1872. The following year, in June 1873, the N.P. reached the shores of the Missouri River, at Edwinton (Bismarck) D.T. In the west, the track extended 25 miles (40 km) north from Kalama. Surveys were carried out in North Dakota protected by 600 troops under General Winfield Scott Hancock. Headquarters and shops were established in Brainerd, Minnesota, a town named for the President John Gregory Smith's wife Anna Elizabeth Brainerd. A severe stock market crash and financial collapse after 1873, led by the Credit Mobilier Scandal and the Union Pacific Railroad fraud, stopped further railroad building for twelve years.

In 1886, the company put down 164 miles (264 km) of main line across North Dakota, with an additional 45 miles (72 km) in Washington. On November 1, General George Washington Cass became the third president of the company. Cass had been a vice-president and director of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and would lead the Northern Pacific through some of its most difficult times.

Attacks on survey parties and construction crews by Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Kiowa warriors in North Dakota and Minnesota became so prevalent that the company received protection from units of the U.S. Army. [5]


In 1886 the Northern Pacific also opened colonization offices in Germany and Scandinavia, attracting farmers with cheap package transportation and purchase deals. The success of the NP was based on the abundant crops of wheat and other grains and the attraction to settlers of the Red River Valley along the Minnesota-North Dakota border between 1881 and 1890. [6]

The Northern Pacific reached Dakota Territory at Fargo in 1872, and began its career as one of the central factors in the economic growth of North Dakota. The climate, although very cold, was suitable for wheat, which was in high demand in the cities of the United States and Europe. Most of the settlers were German and Scandinavian immigrants who bought the land cheaply, and raised large families. They shipped huge quantities of wheat to Minneapolis, while buying all sorts of equipment and home supplies to be shipped in by rail. [7]

The NP used its federal land grants as security to borrow money to build its system. [8] The federal government kept every other section of land, and gave it away free to homesteaders. At first the railroad sold much of its holdings at low prices to land speculators in order to realize quick cash profits, and also to eliminate sizable annual tax bills. By 1905 the railroad company's land policies changed, after it was judged a costly mistake to have sold much of the land at wholesale prices. With better railroad service and improved methods of farming the Northern Pacific easily sold what had been heretofore "worthless" land directly to farmers at good prices. By 1910 the railroad's holdings in North Dakota had been greatly reduced. [9] [10]

Panic of 1873 and first bankruptcy

In 1873, Northern Pacific made impressive strides before a terrible stumble. Rails from the east reached the Missouri River on June 4. After several years of study, Tacoma, Washington, was selected as the road's western terminus on July 14, 1873.

For the previous three years the financial house of Jay Cooke and Company had been throwing money into the construction of the Northern Pacific. As with many western transcontinentals, the staggering costs of building a railroad into a vast wilderness had been drastically underestimated. Cooke had little success in marketing the bonds in Europe and overextended his house in meeting overdrafts of the mounting construction costs. Cooke overestimated his managerial skills and failed to appreciate the limits of a banker's ability to be also a promoter, and the danger of freezing his assets in the bonds of the Northern Pacific. [11] Cooke and Company went bankrupt on September 18, 1873. Soon the Panic of 1873 engulfed the United States, beginning an economic depression that ruined or nearly paralyzed newer railroads.

The Northern Pacific survived bankruptcy that year, due to austerity measures put in place by President Cass. In fact, working with last-minute loans from Director John C. Ainsworth of Portland, the Northern Pacific completed the line from Kalama to Tacoma (110 miles (180 km)) before the end of 1873. On December 16, the first steam train arrived in Tacoma. But in 1874 the company was moribund.[ clarification needed ]

Northern Pacific slipped into its first bankruptcy on June 30, 1875. Cass resigned to become receiver of the company, and Charles Barstow Wright became its fourth president. Frederick Billings, namesake of Billings, Montana, formulated a reorganization plan which was put into effect.

Throughout 1874-1876, elements of the 7th Cavalry Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer operating out of Forts Abraham Lincoln and Rice in Dakota Territory conducted expeditions to protect the railroad survey and construction crews in Dakota and Montana Territories.[ citation needed ]

Frederick Billings and first reorganization

In 1877, construction resumed in a small way. Northern Pacific pushed a branch line southeast from Tacoma to Puyallup, Washington and on to the coal fields around Wilkeson, Washington. Much of the coal was destined for export through Tacoma to San Francisco, California, where it would be thrown into the fireboxes of Central Pacific Railroad steam engines.

This small amount of construction was one of the largest projects the company would undertake in the years between 1874 and 1880. That same year the company built a large shop complex at Edison, Washington (now part of south Tacoma). For many years the shops at Brainerd and Edison would carry out heavy repairs and build equipment for the railroad.

On May 24, 1879, Frederick Billings became the president of the company. Billings' tenure would be short but ferocious. Reorganization, bond sales, and improvement in the U.S. economy allowed Northern Pacific to strike out across the Missouri River by letting a contract to build 100 miles (160 km) of railroad west of the river. The railroad's new-found strength, however, would be seen as a threat in certain quarters.

Henry Villard, Gold Creek, Gold Spike

Yellowstone Park Line Brochure 1904 NothernPacificRailway-Yellowstone Brochure 1904.JPG
Yellowstone Park Line Brochure 1904
Oregon and Transcontinental stock owned by Henry Villard. Oregon and Transcontinental stock.JPG
Oregon and Transcontinental stock owned by Henry Villard.

German-born journalist Henry Villard had raised capital for western railroads in Europe in 1871-73. After returning to New York in 1874 he invested on behalf of his clients in railroads in Oregon. Through Villard's work, most of these lines became properties of the European creditors' holding company, the Oregon and Transcontinental Company.

Of the lines held by the Oregon and Transcontinental, the most important was the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company, which ran east from Portland along the left bank of the Columbia River to a connection with the Union Pacific Railroad's Oregon Short Line at the confluence of the Columbia River and the Snake River near Wallula, Washington.

Within a decade of his return, Villard was head of a transportation empire in the Pacific Northwest that had but one real competitor, the Northern Pacific. The Northern Pacific's completion threatened the holdings of Villard in the Northwest, and especially in Portland. Portland would become a second-class city if the Puget Sound ports at Tacoma and Seattle, Washington, were connected to the East by rail.

Villard, who had been building a monopoly of river and rail transportation in Oregon for several years, now launched a daring raid. Using his European connections and a reputation for having "bested" Jay Gould in a battle for control of the Kansas Pacific years before, Villard solicited — and raised — $8,000,000 from his associates. This was his famous "Blind Pool," Villard's associates were not told what the money would be used for. In this case, the funds were used to purchase control of the Northern Pacific.

Despite a tough fight, Billings and his backers were forced to capitulate; he resigned the presidency June 9, 1881. Ashbel H. Barney, former President of Wells Fargo & Company, served briefly as interim caretaker of the railroad from June 19 to September 15, when Villard was elected president by the stockholders. For the next two years, Villard and the Northern Pacific rode the whirlwind.

In 1882, 360 miles (580 km) of main line and 368 miles (592 km) of branch line were completed, bringing totals to 1,347 miles (2,168 km) and 731 miles (1,176 km), respectively. On October 10, 1882, the line from Wadena, Minnesota, to Fergus Falls, Minnesota, opened for service. The Missouri River was bridged with a million-dollar span on October 21, 1883. Until then, crossing of the Missouri had had to be managed with a ferry service for most of the year; in winter, when ice was thick enough, rails were laid across the river itself.

General Herman Haupt, another veteran of the Civil War and the Pennsylvania Railroad, organized the Northern Pacific Beneficial Association in 1881. A forerunner of the modern health maintenance organization, the NPBA ultimately established a series of four hospitals across the system in Saint Paul, Minnesota; Glendive, Montana; Missoula, Montana; and Tacoma, Washington, to care for employees, retirees, and their families.

On January 15, 1883, the first train reached Livingston, Montana, at the eastern foot of Bozeman Pass. Livingston, like Brainerd and South Tacoma before it, would grow to encompass a large backshop handling heavy repairs for the railroad. It would also mark the east-west dividing line on the Northern Pacific system.

Villard pushed hard for the completion of the Northern Pacific in 1883. His crews laid an average of a mile and half (2.4 km) of track each day. In early September, the line neared completion. To celebrate, and to gain national publicity for investment opportunities in his region, Villard chartered four trains to carry guests from the East to Gold Creek in western Montana. No expense was spared and the list of dignitaries included Frederick Billings, Ulysses S. Grant, and Villard's in-laws, the family of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. On September 8, the Gold Spike was driven near Gold Creek. [12]

Direct to Puget Sound

Villard's fall was swifter than his ascendancy. Like Jay Cooke, he was now consumed by the enormous costs of constructing the railroad. Wall Street bears attacked the stock shortly after the Golden Spike, after the realization that the Northern Pacific was a very long road with very little business. Villard himself suffered a nervous breakdown in the days after the driving of the Golden Spike, and he left the presidency of the Northern Pacific in January 1884.

Again, the presidency of the Northern Pacific was handed to a professional railroader, Robert Harris, former head of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad. For the next four years, until the return of the Villard group, Harris worked at improving the property and ending its tangled relationship with the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company.

Throughout the mid-1880s, the Northern Pacific pushed to reach Puget Sound directly, rather than by means of a roundabout route that followed the Columbia River. Surveys of the Cascade Mountains, carried out intermittently since the 1870s, began anew. Virgil Bogue, a veteran civil engineer, was sent to explore the Cascades again. On March 19, 1881, he discovered Stampede Pass. In 1883, John W. Sprague, the head of the new Pacific Division, drove the Golden Spike to mark the beginning of the railroad from what would become Kalama, Washington. He resigned a months later due to impaired health.

In 1884, after the departure of Villard, the Northern Pacific began building toward Stampede Pass from Wallula in the east and the area of Wilkeson in the west. By the end of the year, rails had reached Yakima, Washington in the east. A 77-mile (124 km) gap remained in 1886.

In January of that year, Nelson Bennett was given a contract to construct a 9,850-foot (1.866 mi; 3.00 km) tunnel under Stampede Pass. The contract specified a short amount of time for completion, and a large penalty if the deadline were missed. While crews worked on the tunnel, the railroad built a temporary switchback route across the pass. With numerous timber trestles and grades which approached six percent, the temporary line required two M class 2-10-0s — the two largest locomotives in the world (at that time) — to handle a tiny five-car train. On May 3, 1888, crews holed through the tunnel, and on May 27 the first train passed through directly to Puget Sound.

Villard and the Panic of 1893

Despite this success, the Northern Pacific, like many U.S. roads, was living on borrowed time. From 1887 until 1893, Henry Villard returned to the board of directors. Though offered the presidency, he refused. An associate of Villard dating back to his time on the Kansas Pacific, Thomas Fletcher Oakes, assumed the presidency on September 20, 1888.

In an effort to garner business, Oakes pursued an aggressive policy of branch line expansion. In addition, the Northern Pacific experienced the first competition in the form of James Jerome Hill and his Great Northern Railway. The Great Northern, like the Northern Pacific before it, was pushing west from the Twin Cities towards Puget Sound, and would be completed in 1893.

To combat the Great Northern, in a few instances Villard built branch line mileage simply to occupy a territory, regardless of whether the territory offered the railroad any business. Mismanagement, sparse traffic, and the Panic of 1893 sounded the death knell for the Northern Pacific and Villard's interest in railroading. The company slipped into its second bankruptcy on October 20, 1893. Oakes was named receiver and Brayton Ives, a former chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, became president.

Railroad labor dispute

In 1894, the 10th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army was involved in protecting property of the Northern Pacific Railroad from striking workers. [13]

From Villard to Morganization

For the next three years, the Villard-Oakes interests and the Ives interest feuded for control of the Northern Pacific. Oakes was eventually forced out as receiver, but not before three separate courts were claiming jurisdiction over the Northern Pacific's bankruptcy. Things came to a head in 1896, when first Edward Dean Adams was appointed president, then less than two months later, Edwin Winter.

Ultimately, the task of straightening out the muddle of the Northern Pacific was turned over to J. P. Morgan. Morganization of the Northern Pacific, a process which befell many U.S. roads in the wake of the Panic of 1893, was handed to Morgan lieutenant Charles Henry Coster. The new president, beginning September 1, 1897, was Charles Sanger Mellen. [14]

Though James J. Hill had purchased an interest in the Northern Pacific during the troubled days of 1896, Coster and Mellen would advocate, and follow, a staunchly independent line for the Northern Pacific for the next four years. Only the early death of Coster from overwork, and the promotion of Mellen to head the Morgan-controlled New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad in 1903, would bring the Northern Pacific closer to the orbit of James J. Hill. [15]

Map of Northern Pacific's route circa 1900. Northern Pacific Railroad map circa 1900.jpg
Map of Northern Pacific's route circa 1900.

Hill, Harriman and the Northern Pacific Corner

In the late 1880s, the Villard regime, in another one of its costly missteps, attempted to stretch the Northern Pacific from the Twin Cities to the all-important rail hub of Chicago, Illinois. A costly project was begun in creating a union station and terminal facilities for a Northern Pacific which had yet to arrive.

Rather than build directly down to Chicago, perhaps following the Mississippi River as the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy had done, Villard chose to lease the Wisconsin Central. Some backers of the Wisconsin Central had long associations with Villard, and an expensive lease was worked out between the two companies which was only undone by the Northern Pacific's second bankruptcy.

The ultimate result was that the Northern Pacific was left without a direct connection to Chicago, the primary interchange point for most of the large U.S. railroads. Fortunately, the Northern Pacific was not alone. James J. Hill, controller of the Great Northern Railway, which was completed between the Twin Cities and Puget Sound in 1893, also lacked a direct connection to Chicago. Hill went looking for a road with an existing route between the Twin Cities and Chicago which could be rolled into his holdings and give him a stable path to that important interchange. At the same time, E. H. Harriman, head of the Union Pacific Railroad, was also looking for a road which could connect his company to Chicago.

The road both Harriman and Hill looked at was the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy. To Harriman, the Burlington was a road which paralleled much of his own, and offered tantalizing direct access to Chicago. For Hill as well, there was the possibility of a high-speed link directly with Chicago. Though the Burlington did not parallel the Great Northern or the Northern Pacific, it would give them a powerful railroad in the central West. Harriman was the first to approach the Burlington's aging leader, the irascible Charles Elliott Perkins. The price for control of the Burlington, as set by Perkins, was $200 a share, more than Harriman was willing to pay. Hill met the price, and control of the Burlington was divided equally at about 48.5 percent each between the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific.

Not to be outdone, Harriman now came up with a crafty plan: Buy a controlling interest in the Northern Pacific and use its power on the Burlington to place friendly directors upon its board. On May 3, 1901, Harriman began his stock raid which would become known as the Northern Pacific Corner. By the end of the day he was short just 40,000 shares of common stock. Harriman placed an order to cover this, but was overridden by his broker, Jacob Schiff, of Kuhn, Loeb & Co. Hill, on the other hand, reached the vacationing Morgan in Italy and managed to place an order for 150,000 shares of common stock. Though Harriman might be able to control the preferred stock, Hill knew the company bylaws allowed for the holders of the common stock to vote to retire the preferred.

In three days the Harriman-Hill imbroglio managed to wreak havoc on the stock market. Northern Pacific stock was quoted at $150 a share on May 6, and is reported to have traded as much as $1,000 a share behind the scenes. Harriman and Hill now worked to settle the issue for brokers to avoid panic. Hill, for his part, attempted to avoid future stock raids by placing his holdings in the Northern Securities Company, a move which would be undone by the Supreme Court in 1904 under the auspices of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Harriman was not immune either; he was forced to break up his holdings in the Union Pacific Railroad and the Southern Pacific Railroad a few years later.

From Hill to Howard Elliott

In 1903, Hill finally got his way with the House of Morgan. Howard Elliott, another veteran of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, became president of the Northern Pacific on October 23. Elliott was a relative of the Burlington's crusty chieftain Charles Elliott Perkins, and more distantly the Burlington's great backer, John Murray Forbes. He had spent 20 years in the trenches of Midwest railroading, where rebates, pooling, expansion and rate wars had brought ruinous competition. Having seen the effects of having multiple railroads attempt to serve the same destination, he was very much in tune with James J. Hill's philosophy of "community of interest," a loose affiliation or collusion among roads in an attempt to avoid duplicating routes, rate wars, weak finances and ultimately bankruptcies and reorganizations. Elliott would be left to make peace with the Hill-controlled Great Northern; the Harriman-controlled Union Pacific; and, between 1907 and 1909, the last of the northern transcontinentals, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, more commonly known as the Milwaukee Road.

A Northern Pacific train travels
over Bozeman Pass in June 1939 Northern Pacific train on Bozeman Pass, June 1939.jpg
A Northern Pacific train travels
over Bozeman Pass in June 1939

Into the twentieth century

After the turn of the century the Northern Pacific had a record of steady improvement. Together with the Great Northern, the Northern Pacific also gained control of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, gaining important access to Chicago, the central Middle West and Texas, as well as the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway, an important route through eastern and southern Washington. Its physical plant was upgraded continuously, with double-tracking in key areas, and automatic block signaling along its entire main line. This in turn gave way to centralized traffic control, microwave and radio communications as time progressed.[ citation needed ]

The Northern Pacific maintained and continuously upgraded its equipment and service. The road helped pioneer the 4-8-4 Northern type steam engine and the 2-8-8-4 Yellowstone. It was among the first railroads in the country to adopt diesel power beginning with General Motors’ FTs in 1944.[ citation needed ]

NP depot at Wallace, Idaho, 2007 Northern Pacific Depot in Wallace.jpg
NP depot at Wallace, Idaho, 2007

The Northern Pacific's premier passenger train, the North Coast Limited was among the safest and finest in the nation, suffering only one passenger fatality in nearly seventy years of operation.[ citation needed ]

By 1900, most of the remaining land-grant holdings were located west of Montana, in the "western district." The railroad still hoped to sell this land, both to provide operating funds and to populate the region to provide new markets to sustain the railroad. Nearly all the good farm land had been sold, leaving large tracts of grazing land or timber. The grazing acreage was poor quality, and difficult to sell. However, the timber lands were of high quality; much of these were sold to Frederick Weyerhaeuser. [16]

Unification of the Hill Lines

In later years, Louis W. Menk became president of the Northern Pacific, and then he brought it together with the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, the Great Northern Railway, and the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway on March 2, 1970, to form the Burlington Northern Railroad. The merger was allowed despite a challenge in the Supreme Court, essentially reversing the outcome of the 1904 Northern Securities ruling. A 900 mi (1,400 km) portion of the former Northern Pacific mainline in Montana was spun off and is now operated by Montana Rail Link.


Revenue freight traffic, in millions of net ton-miles (including M&I, G&P)
Source: ICC annual reports

In 1949, the Northern Pacific's headquarters in Saint Paul presided over a system of 6,889 miles (11,087 km), which 2,831 miles (4,556 km) of main line, 4,057 miles (6,529 km) of branch line under seven operating divisions.

Lake Superior

Headquartered in Duluth, Minnesota, the Lake Superior Division's main routes were from Duluth to Ashland, Wisconsin, Duluth to Staples, Minnesota, and Duluth to White Bear Lake, Minnesota. The division encompassed 631 route miles; 356 in main line and 274 in branches.

St. Paul

Headquartered in St. Paul, Minnesota, the St. Paul Division's main routes were from Saint Paul to Staples, Saint Paul to White Bear Lake, and Staples to Dilworth, Minnesota. The division encompassed 909 route miles; 310 in main line and 599 in branches.


Headquartered in Fargo, North Dakota, the Fargo Division's main routes were from Dilworth to Mandan, North Dakota. The division encompassed 1,167 route miles; 216 in main line and 951 in branches.


Headquartered in Glendive, Montana, the Yellowstone Division's main routes were from Mandan, North Dakota, to Billings, Montana, and from Billings to Livingston, Montana. The division encompassed 875 route miles; 546 in main line and 328 in branches.

Rocky Mountain

Headquartered in Missoula, Montana, the Rocky Mountain Division's main routes were from Livingston to Paradise, Montana via Helena, Montana and Mullan Pass, and from Logan, Montana, to Garrison, Montana, via Butte, Montana, and Homestake Pass. The division encompassed 892 route miles; 563 in main line and 330 in branches. It was home to the principal central district repair facility at Livingston, Montana.


Headquartered in Spokane, Washington, the Idaho Division's main routes were from Paradise, Mont., to Yakima, Washington, via Pasco, Washington. The division encompassed 1,123 route miles; 466 in main line and 657 in branches.


Headquartered in Tacoma, Washington, the Tacoma Division's main routes were from Yakima to Stuck Junction, near future Auburn, Washington, Seattle, Washington to Sumas, Washington, on the border with British Columbia, Canada, and from Seattle to Portland, Oregon. The division encompassed 1,034 route miles; 373 in main line and 661 in branches. It was home to the principal west end repair facility at South Tacoma, Washington. [17]

As the railroad expanded, immigrants, families, and single men moved to the Pacific Northwest. Tacoma's population grew rapidly: in 1880 there were 1,098 residents, and in 1889 there were 36,000. [18]

Passenger service

The line encouraged people to make their homes in the Pacific Northwest by having an "immigration agent" and offering special excursion trains for prospective buyers during the winter months. Northern Pacific Railway Homeseekers Excursions circa 1912.JPG
The line encouraged people to make their homes in the Pacific Northwest by having an "immigration agent" and offering special excursion trains for prospective buyers during the winter months.

The North Coast Limited was the premier passenger train operated by the Northern Pacific Railway between Chicago and Seattle via Butte, Montana and Homestake Pass. It commenced service on April 29, 1900, served briefly as a Burlington Northern train after the merger on March 2, 1970, and ceased operation on April 30, 1971, the day before Amtrak began service. The Chicago Union Station to Saint Paul leg of the train's route was operated by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad along its Mississippi River mainline through Wisconsin.

The Northern Pacific's secondary transcontinental passenger train was the Alaskan, until it was replaced by the Mainstreeter on November 16, 1952. [19] [ page needed ] The Mainstreeter, which operated via Helena, Montana and Mullan Pass, continued in service through the Burlington Northern merger until Amtrak Day (May 1, 1971). It had been reduced to a Saint Paul to Seattle train after the last run of the former Burlington Route Black Hawk on April 12–13, 1970.

The Northern Pacific also participated in the Coast Pool Train service between Portland and Seattle with the Great Northern Railway and the Union Pacific Railroad. NP and GN Coast Pool Trains lasted until Amtrak.

There were several other passenger trains which were discontinued before the Burlington Northern merger. These included:

The Route of "the Great Big Baked Potato"

Actress Lillian Russell and other Hollywood stars were hired to promote the railroad's potatoes. Northern Pacific Railway Lillian Russell 1915.JPG
Actress Lillian Russell and other Hollywood stars were hired to promote the railroad's potatoes.
A comic postcard circa 1910 to 1920 promoting "The Great Big Baked Potato". Northern Pacific Big Baked Potato comic postcard.JPG
A comic postcard circa 1910 to 1920 promoting "The Great Big Baked Potato".

Hazen Titus was appointed as the line's dining car superintendent in 1908. He learned that Yakima Valley farmers were unable to sell their potato crops because the potatoes they were growing were simply too large; they fed them to the hogs. Titus learned that a single potato could weigh from two to five pounds, but that smaller potatoes were preferred by the end buyers of the vegetable because many people considered large potatoes inedible due to their thick, rough skin. [20]

Titus and his staff discovered the "inedible" potatoes were delicious after baking in a slow oven. He contracted to purchase as many potatoes as the farmers could produce that were more than two pounds in weight. Soon after the first delivery of "Netted Gem Bakers", they were offered to diners on the North Coast Limited beginning in early 1909. Word of the line's specialty offering traveled quickly, and before long it was using "the Great Big Baked Potato" as a slogan to promote the railroad's passenger service. Hollywood stars were hired to promote it. [21] When an addition was built for the Northern Pacific's Seattle commissary in 1914, a Railway Age reporter wrote, "A large trade mark, in the shape of a baked potato, 40 ft. long and 18 ft. in diameter, surmounts the roof. The potato is electric lighted and its eyes, through the electric mechanism, are made to wink constantly. A cube of butter thrust into its split top glows intermittently." Premiums such as postcards, letter openers, and spoons were also produced to promote "The Route of the Great Big Baked Potato"; the slogan served the Northern Pacific for about 50 years. [20]


Presidents of Northern Pacific Railway were:

Henry Villard, 6th president of Northern Pacific HenryVillard.jpg
Henry Villard, 6th president of Northern Pacific

Chief engineers


Notable and preserved equipment

The Northern Pacific was known for many firsts in locomotive history and was a leader in the development of modern steam locomotives. The NP was one of the first railroads to use Mikado 2-8-2 locomotives in the United States and the first to use the 4-8-4 Northern type.

The NP's desire to burn low grade semi-bituminous coal from company-owned mines at Rosebud, Montana, played a part in the development of the 4-8-4 wheel arrangement for steam locomotives. With a energy content fifty percent lower than anthracite coal, the NP's locomotive design called for a much larger firebox, and thus an additional axle on the trailing truck. This led locomotive designers from the 4-8-2 Mountain to the 4-8-4 Northern, first produced by Alco for the NP in 1926 and designated the Class A by the railway.

The 2-8-8-4 , called the Yellowstone, was first built for the NP by Alco in 1928 and numbered 5000, Class Z-5, with more built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1930. The large locomotives were designed to handle higher tonnage on freight trains while simultaneously eliminating the need to use more 2-8-2 Mikados and crews. They originally served in the western North Dakota/eastern Montana territory.

The Northern Pacific purchased the 4-8-4 Timken 1111, a "Northern" type called the Four Aces, the first locomotive built with roller bearings, in 1933. The Northern Pacific renumbered it 2626 and classified it as the sole member of locomotive Class A-1. It was used in passenger service in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana until 1957 when it was retired from active service and scrapped at South Tacoma, despite attempts to preserve the locomotive. After Timken 1111, the NP bought only roller bearing equipped steam locomotives, with the exception of four 4-6-6-4 Class Z-6 locomotives that were later changed to roller bearings.

A handful of NP steam locomotives were used to pull the farewell to steam excursions for the Railroad, [27] including L-4 class 0-6-0 1070, S-4 class 4-6-0 No. 1372, W-3 class 2-8-2 No. 1776, and A-1 class 4-8-4 No. 2626. Of all the locomotives that pulled the excursions, only No. 1070 is preserved.

Steam locomotives

N.P. locomotive No. 2223 stops in Carrington, N.D., on a frigid day February 1948. This 4-6-2 "Pacific" type was built by Alco in 1910 and scrapped in 1957. Northern Pacific locomotive, Carrington, N.D., 1948.jpg
N.P. locomotive No. 2223 stops in Carrington, N.D., on a frigid day February 1948. This 4-6-2 "Pacific" type was built by Alco in 1910 and scrapped in 1957.

Twenty-one Northern Pacific steam locomotives have been preserved:

SP&S 700 under steam at Portland Union Station in 1991. Spokane Portland and Seattle engine 700 Union Station.jpg
SP&S 700 under steam at Portland Union Station in 1991.

In addition, preserved Spokane, Portland and Seattle 700, a 4-8-4 , was derived from Northern Pacific designs.

Diesel locomotives

Passenger equipment

Northern Pacific 325 at Illinois Railway Museum in 2007 Northern Pacific 325 at the Illinois Railway Museum.jpg
Northern Pacific 325 at Illinois Railway Museum in 2007

Many NP passenger cars remain in private collections.


Numerous NP cabooses remain in private collections.

Maintenance equipment


In search of a trademark, the Northern Pacific considered and rejected many designs. Edwin Harrison McHenry, the Chief Engineer, was struck with a geometric design, a Taijitu in the Korean flag he saw while visiting the Korean exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. The idea came to him that it was just the symbol for the long-sought-for trademark. With a slight modification, and rendered in red and black, the symbol became the railroad's trademark. [28]

In 1876, photographer Frank Jay Haynes began contract work with the railroad for publicity photographs. In 1881 he met Charles Fee and through his 20-year friendship with Fee, Haynes became known as the "Official Photographer of the N.P.R.R". His "Northern Pacific Views" photographically documented over the years, the routes, destinations, infrastructure and equipment of the railroad. [29]

Related Research Articles

Great Northern Railway (U.S.) Defunct American Class I railroad

Not To Be Confused with Great Northern Railway

BNSF Railway Freight railroad network in North America

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway Company is the largest freight railroad network in North America. One of seven North American Class I railroads, BNSF has 41,000 employees, 32,500 miles (52,300 km) of track in 28 states, and more than 8,000 locomotives. It has three transcontinental routes that provide rail connections between the western and eastern United States. BNSF trains traveled over 169 million miles in 2010, more than any other North American railroad.

Burlington Northern Railroad American railroad company

The Burlington Northern Railroad was a United States-based railroad company formed from a merger of four major U.S. railroads. Burlington Northern operated between 1970 and 1996.

Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Class I railroad that operated in the Midwest and Northwest of the United States

The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (CMStP&P), often referred to as the "Milwaukee Road", was a Class I railroad that operated in the Midwest and Northwest of the United States from 1847 until 1986.

Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad

The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad was a railroad that operated in the Midwestern United States. Commonly referred to as the Burlington Route, the Burlington, or as the Q, it operated extensive trackage in the states of Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri,Nebraska, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and also in Texas through subsidiaries Colorado and Southern Railway, Fort Worth and Denver Railway, and Burlington-Rock Island Railroad. Its primary connections included Chicago, Minneapolis–Saint Paul, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Denver. Because of this extensive trackage in the midwest and mountain states, the railroad used the advertising slogans "Everywhere West", "Way of the Zephyrs", and "The Way West".

Minnesota Transportation Museum Transportation museum in Saint Paul, Minnesota

The Minnesota Transportation Museum is a transportation museum in Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States.

Milwaukee Road 261

Milwaukee Road 261 is a class "S3" 4-8-4 "Northern" type steam locomotive built by the American Locomotive Company (ALCO), in Schenectady, New York in July 1944, for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, often referred to as the "Milwaukee Road".

Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway Defunct American Class I railroad (1908–1970)

The Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway (SP&S) was a railroad in the northwest United States. Incorporated in 1905, it was a joint venture by the Great Northern Railway and the Northern Pacific Railway to build a railroad along the north bank of the Columbia River. Remnants of the line are currently operated by BNSF Railway and the Portland and Western Railroad.

<i>North Coast Limited</i>

The North Coast Limited was a named passenger train operated by the Northern Pacific Railway between Chicago and Seattle via Bismarck, North Dakota. It started on April 29, 1900, and continued as a Burlington Northern Railroad train after the merger on March 2, 1970 with Great Northern Railway and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad. The next year, it ceased operations after the trains which left their originating stations on April 30, 1971, the day before Amtrak began service, arrived at their destinations.


The SD45 is a six-axle road switcher diesel-electric locomotive built by General Motors Electro-Motive Division between 1965–1971. It has an EMD 645E3 twenty-cylinder engine generating 3,600 hp (2,680 kW) on the same frame as the EMD SD38, EMD SD39, EMD SD40, and EMD SDP40. As of 2020, most SD45s have been retired, scrapped, or rebuilt to SD40-2 standards.

Lake Superior Railroad Museum Railroad museum in Duluth, Minnesota

The Lake Superior Railroad Museum is a railroad museum in Duluth, Minnesota, United States.

<i>Olympian Hiawatha</i>

The Olympian and its successor the Olympian Hiawatha were passenger trains operated by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. The Olympian operated from 1911 to 1947 and was, along with its running mate the Columbian, the first all-steel train to operate in the Pacific Northwest. The streamlined Olympian Hiawatha operated from 1947 to 1961 and was one of several Milwaukee Road trains to carry the name "Hiawatha." The Olympian Hiawatha was designed by industrial designer Brooks Stevens and included the distinctive glassed-in "Skytop" observation-sleeping cars. It later featured full-length "Super Dome" cars.

St. Croix Valley Railroad

The St. Croix Valley Railroad is a Class III short line railroad that operates over 36 miles of track in eastern Minnesota. The railroad is owned by KBN Incorporated jointly between Independent Locomotive Service of Bethel MN and Midwest Locomotive Services of Atwater MN, with the railroad headquartered in Rush City, Minnesota.

Northern Transcon

The Northern Transcon, a route operated by the BNSF Railway, traverses the most northerly route of any railroad in the western United States. This route was originally part of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, Northern Pacific Railway, Great Northern Railway and Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway systems, merged into the Burlington Northern Railroad system in 1970.

Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Railroad

The Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Railroad (MStP&SSM) was a Class I railroad subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the Midwestern United States. Commonly known since its opening in 1884 as the Soo Line after the phonetic spelling of Sault, it was merged with several other major CP subsidiaries on January 1, 1961 to form the Soo Line Railroad.

Pacific Northwest Corridor Higher-speed rail corridor in the United States

The Pacific Northwest Corridor or the Pacific Northwest Rail Corridor (PNWRC) is one of eleven federally designated higher-speed rail corridors in the United States. The 466-mile (750 km) corridor extends from Eugene, Oregon to Vancouver, British Columbia via Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington in the Pacific Northwest region. It was designated a high-speed rail corridor on October 20, 1992, as the fifth of five corridors called for in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) although it is now called a higher-speed rail since the minimum speed for a high speed rail is designated as 125 miles per hour (201 km/h). The corridor is owned by BNSF Railway in Washington and British Columbia, and by Union Pacific Railroad (UP) in Oregon, and is used by a mix of freight and passenger trains operated by BNSF, UP, and Amtrak. If improvements to the corridor are completed as proposed in Washington State's long range plan, passenger trains operating at a maximum speed of 110 miles per hour (180 km/h) would travel between Portland and Seattle, in 2 hours and 30 minutes, and between Seattle and Vancouver in 2 hours and 37 minutes by 2023.

The Puget Sound Shore Railroad and successor Northern Pacific and Puget Sound Shore Railroad built a branch line of the Northern Pacific Railroad between Puyallup and Seattle, Washington, U.S., and partially constructed a line around the east side of Lake Washington to Woodinville.

Northern Pacific class S-10 Historic type of railroad steam engine

The Northern Pacific class S-10 was a type of steam locomotive in use on American railroads in the early 20th century. The first engines of the type were introduced in 1905, and ten were acquired by the Northern Pacific Railway (NP) in 1907, continuing in service until the 1930s and 1940s. One of the engines has been preserved.

There are 19 business routes of Interstate 94 (I-94) in the United States. These business routes connect the downtown business districts of cities to the freeway along Interstate 94.

Northern Pacific 3617

Northern Pacific 3617 is a restored SD45 diesel locomotive originally owned by the Northern Pacific. It was built in 1967 as a replacement to older locomotives that were "trade-ins" for new units in the 1960s. NP 3617 now is a display piece and is in restoration for operation at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum.


  1. 1 2 Lubetkin, M. John (2006). Jay Cooke's Gamble-The Northern Pacific Railroad, the Sioux and the Panic of 1873. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. pp. 32–33. ISBN   978-0-8061-3740-7.
  2. Carlos A. Schwantes (1996). The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History. U of Nebraska Press. p. 173. ISBN   978-0803292284.
  3. Lubetkin, John M. (2006). "'Twenty-Six Feet and no Bottom': Constructing the Northern Pacific Railroad". Minnesota History. 60 (1): 4–17.
  4. William R. Kuebler, The Vista Dome North Coast Limited: The Story of the Northern Pacific Railway's Famous Domeliner (2004).
  5. Lubetkin, John M. (2006). "'No Fighting is to be Apprehended": Major Eugene Baker, Sitting Bull, and the Northern Pacific Railroad's 1872 Western Yellowstone Surveying Expedition". Montana: The Magazine of Western History. Vol. 56 no. 2. pp. 28–41.
  6. Murray, Stanley N. (Fall 1957). "Railroads and the Agricultural Development of the Red River Valley of the North, 1870-1890". Agricultural History. 31 (4): 57–66. JSTOR   3740486.
  7. Drache, Hiram M. (1967). "The Economic Aspects of the Northern Pacific Railroad in North Dakota". North Dakota History. 34 (4): 320–372.
  8. Hedges, James B. (December 1926). "The Colonization Work of the Northern Pacific Railroad". Mississippi Valley Historical Review. 13 (3): 311–342. doi:10.2307/1893110. JSTOR   1893110.
  9. Controneo, Ross R. (1970). "Northern Pacific Officials and the Disposition of the Railroad's Land Grant in North Dakota after 1888". North Dakota History. 37 (2): 77–103.
  10. Mercer, Lloyd J. (1982). Railroads and Land Grant Policy: A Study in Government Intervention. Beard Books. pp. 198–200. ISBN   9781587981548 via Google Books. for sales statistics
  11. Harnsberger, John L. (1969). "Jay Cooke and the Financing of the Northern Pacific Railroad, 1869-1873". North Dakota Quarterly. 37 (4): 5–13.
  12. Taylor, Jan (2010). "The Northern Pacific Railroad's Last Spike Excursion". Montana: The Magazine of Western History. 60 (4): 16–35.
  13. Schubert, Frank N. (1997). Black Valor: Buffalo Soldiers and the Medal of Honor, 1870-1898. Scholarly Resources Inc. p.  107. ISBN   9780842025867.
  14. Macey, Barry A. (1971). "Charles Sanger Mellen: Architect of Transportation Monopoly". Historical New Hampshire. 26 (4): 2–29.
  15. Cotroneo, Ross R. (1970). "The Northern Pacific: Years of Difficulty". Kansas Quarterly. 2 (3): 69–77.
  16. Cotroneo, Ross R. (1968). "Western Land Marketing by the Northern Pacific Railway". Pacific Historical Review. 37 (3): 299–320. doi:10.2307/3636865. JSTOR   3636865.
  17. "Northern Pacific runs first train from Tacoma to Seattle on June 17, 1884". Archived from the original on June 22, 2016. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  18. Schwantes, Carlos (1989). The Pacific Northwest . Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press. pp.  225–251. ISBN   978-0803292284.
  19. Strauss, John F. Jr. (2001). Northern Pacific Pictorial Volume 5 — Domes, RDCs and Slumbercoaches. La Mirada, California: Four Ways West Publications. ISBN   978-1-885614-45-2.
  20. 1 2 Mckenzie, William A., ed. (2004). Dining Car To The Pacific: The "Famously Good" Food of the Northern Pacific Railway. University of Minnesota Press. p. 176. ISBN   978-0816645626 . Retrieved September 15, 2012 via Google Books.
  21. Hathaway, William (2009). Idaho Falls Post Register. Arcadia Publishing. p. 53. ISBN   9780738559681 via Google Books.
  22. 1 2 The National Cyclopedia of American Biography. New York: James T. White. 1940.
  23. Talbott, E.H.; Hobart, H.R., eds. (1885). The Biographical Directory of the Railway Officials of America for 1885. Chicago: Railway Age.
  24. Busbey, T. Addison, ed. (1901). The Biographical Directory of the Railway Officials of America, 1901 edition. Chicago: Railway Age and Northwestern Railroader.
  25. Busbey, T. Addison, ed. (1906). The Biographical Directory of the Railway Officials of America, 1906 edition. Chicago: Railway Age.
  26. Who's Who in Railroading – United States, Canada, Mexico, Cuba – 1930 Edition. New York: Simmons-Boardman. 1930.
  27. "Northern Pacific Farewell to Steam Preview - YouTube". Retrieved 2021-02-06.
  28. Wheeler, Olin D. (1901). The history of a trade-mark. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Northern Pacific Railway.
  29. Nolan, Edward W. (1983). Northern Pacific views: The railroad photography of F. Jay Haynes, 1876–1905. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society Press. pp. 14–20. ISBN   978-0-917298-11-0.

Further reading

Primary sources and official sources