Great Northern Railway-Route of the Empire Builder


The Great Northern Railway has a rich history of spectacular engineering from the most prominent railroad pioneers of the 19th century. Shortly after the Minnesota territory was established in 1849, many prominent entrepreneurs began to promote development in the territory, calling for improved infrastructure. To attract the railroads and to provide a connection between busy waterways, land grants were proposed for the building of railroads. Some proposals for rail lines included building a route from St. Paul, continuing to Lake Superior, and continuing Northwest towards the Red River. The railroads that formed as a result of the land grants were the Minneapolis and St. Cloud Railroad Company, and the Minnesota and Pacific Railroad Company.  

The Minnesota and Pacific Railroad was offered land to build a line towards the western boundary of Minnesota via Minneapolis, the route crossing the St. Croix River. Together, David Chauncey Shepard, the railroad’s chief engineer, and Edmund Rice, president of the company, decided to construct the rail line due to the perspective rise of farmland in the region. They saw the rail line as a potential transcontinental carrier, as they looked towards the west.    

To construct the route, Minnesota and Pacific was granted permission to issue $5 million in stock, however, 5 months later, they had only sold $604,000. This was a result of the Panic of 1857, as investors were not profiting in the land used as collateral for railroad bonds. The constitution of Minnesota had made it illegal to charter special land grants for railroads, however, those living in the state wanted the railroad and considered it a necessity. Fortunately for the M&P, experienced leaders were appointed, including the company president, Edmund Rice, who was a seasoned lawyer and an experienced businessman, gaining experience in Michigan before settling in St. Paul. Rice, assisted by the company’s chief engineer, David Chauncey Shepard, enthusiastically reported to Rice that 340 miles of land had been inspected for the railroad, as he described it as a “farmer’s paradise”. Shepard mentioned that the proposed line could connect to the west coast via Canada. 

About a month later, after the issue was debated publicly, the state allowed its credits that were given by Congress to be used for the construction of the railroad. However, the loans that were given were state bonds, and were only granted to the railroad for every ten miles of track that was built. Minnesota, seeking to secure its credit, devised a complex assistance plan for the building of the railroad. For example, the railroad received $10,000 bonds per mile of roadbed and ties, and another $10,000 when the rails were in place and the track was ready for service. 

The building of the Minnesota and Pacific did not come without its challenges. The railroad was accused of not honoring their charter agreements as they were to begin construction at Stillwater, but instead began in St. Paul. They ran into legal issues as well, as they were accused of corruption. To make amends, the railroad promised to have 10 miles of track laid by the 1st of January 1860. Progress was being made, as by that Spring 62 miles of roadbed were laid, and 10 miles of ties were laid. The railroad was still lacking funds, and as a result the shipment of rails was delayed. 

Rice and his railroad faced further challenges, as it mortgaged its own bonds, causing Rice to raise funds, and sell private bonds at a discount. As collateral for these bonds, Rice offered the company’s securities, however this ultimately failed due to little market interest. The railroad began to encounter more issues, as the republican party ended state aid, and the maximum amount of money the railroad would receive from their bonds was $2,275,000. The railroad eventually fell into foreclosure and the assets were sold to the state.  After a year, new members were appointed to the board, including William Crooks, acting as chief engineer. Rice and Crooks, in anticipation of persuading the Pennsylvania Railroad in an attempt to assist in the construction of the M&P. The two men met with J. Edgar Thompson, who informed the men that he was interested in Western railroads, however, would not accept the project due to the threat of civil war. However, in their travels, the men met Valentine Winters , Jonathan Harshman, and Elias Franklin, who were Ohio bankers and agreed to finance ten miles of the railroad, stretching from St. Paul to St. Anthony. The railroad was again progressing as railroad equipment was delivered via a steam ship named “Alhambra”. Delivered was rail, rolling stock, and a locomotive named after William Crooks. 

These encouraging times of expansion soon came to a halt when debate erupted deciding where the track should be laid. Additionally , ships were met with the challenging tides of the Mississippi River, and were unable to transport supplies. Further legal issues hindered the railway and funding was revoked. 

A few months later, the Minnesota and Pacific property was transferred to a new name, the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. The SP&P was granted new dates for the lines to be completed and was not being held accountable for the Minnesota and Pacific’s past agreements. The new organization did not come without criticism, especially in St. Anthony, where officials fiercely fought to have the line relocated, and insisted that the same individuals that were running the SP&P that ran the Minnesota and Pacific. However, the new organization sought assistance from the three Ohio bankers, Winter, Harshman, and Drake. The railroad made an agreement with these men that in return for the completion of the first 10 miles, they will issue a bond worth $120,000. Construction was progressing ahead of schedule, and by June 28, 1862, revenue operations began.

According to “The Great Northern Railway, A History” by Hidy, Scott, and Hofsommer, further obstacles included the crossing of the Mississippi River, which would require a large bridge spanning the width of the waterway. Thus, in 1864, the directors decided to build the branch line traversing alongside the Mississippi River would be built first, as it was believed that they would receive a quicker return on investment. The Branch Line was known as the First Division and was led by prominent lawyer George Loomis Becker, who later served as the rail commissioner of Minnesota. While building the First Division, the Civil War had ended and Congress had voted to increase the value of land for railroads from 6 to 10 sections of depth the grant of alternate sections on either side of the railroad. After many negotiations on capital expenditures and bonds borrowed, work progressed. 

The railroad shifted their focus on the main line westward. The contract with Litchfield included the construction of the main line from St. Anthony to Breckenridge. Many geographical obstacles stood in the way of the plan such as the Mississippi River. To traverse the river, a massive wood trestle was constructed at a cost of $90,000, and was 1,000 ft long. During this time, Litchfield’s brother Darwin had taken over financing the main line due to his brother overextending his assets. Darwin promised that the line be completed to Breckenridge and by January 1, 1871. Work was humming until it stopped due to finances, and the realization of need $1.8 million to complete the project to Breckenridge. Although the line was progressing, it was not engineered adequately. Ballast was thin, rails were thin and brittle, and the grades were not level, however, Becker assured that they were adequate for the Western lines. Throughout this period, the SP&P remained a local operation, but had much potential for growth. 

Being the SP&P was isolated from the rest of the railroad network, it was a trying task to manage. The rail line had low traffic numbers and limited service between St. Paul and St. Anthony three times daily. The line was scarcely used when first implemented, as there were only 67,000 people living around the railroad. However, this did not stop optimistic farmers from settling in the area. Freight carried by rail became diversified, as it hauled any load from military equipment to farmers goods. The railroad was quick and efficient, as many preferred them to water travel. 

By 1865, the growth of traffic had grown to be so substantial, that the railroad needed to expand to accommodate the increased traffic. Delano advised that the work to increase space be done by independent contractors, rather than railroad personnel. One particular contract agreement was between the railroad and a young entrepreneur named James Jerome Hill. This agreement clarified the interchanges between the railroad and the shipping lines, stated that freight marked James J. Hill would be traveling on the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad. Hill invoked many improvements on the rail line, conducting his own transportation agency, decreasing labor costs. Hill was keen on investing in railroads and realized the potential they encompassed, as a result, he and a few other investors would overtake the SP&P, and form the Great Northern.

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The Great Northern is Born

 The Great Northern Railway operated in the northernmost region of the United States from 1857-1970. The railway began as an effort by James Jerome Hill to increase the efficiency and reliability of the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, which was struggling financially. The St. Paul and Pacific Railroad had a few miles of trackage in Minnesota, and had the potential for expansion. Hill was a meticulous manager and studied the St. Paul and Pacific for three years before making the investment. Hill reached out to several wealthy colleagues for financial assistance with the project.  

Map of the Great Northern Railway.
GNR Historical Society

One of these wealthy individuals was John S. Kennedy, who was a banker in New York. Kennedy was the president of the Bank of Manhattan Company from 1883-1884, and was involved in the Central Trust Company acting as a trustee from 1882, until his death in 1909.   

The next individual that Hill called upon to help his cause was Norman Kittson, who made his fortune as a fur trader. He was a native of Minnesota, and operated a steamboat line. Kittson’s investment in the railroad was his last major business venture. 

His next investor was a man named Donald Smith. He became a director in the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway Company, and controlled 20% of the company’s shares. He was involved in the creation of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and drove the final spike in its completion. 

Donald Smith’s cousin, George Stephen, was the final individual he called on for assistance. Stephen was the president of the Bank of Montreal, and was generous with his fortune, as he donated to many different causes and was considered one of the most prominent philanthropists of his time. 

On March 13, 1878, Hill’s investment group assumed control of the railway, and named it the Minneapolis & St. Cloud Railway. 

During this time when railroads were thriving, Hill was concerned that the government would force low tariffs on rail companies in an effort to control the railroad’s profits. Hill, being an astute businessman, transferred many of the railroad’s profits into operating expenses. Because of this, Hill was quickly promoted to president.

White River Productions

The Great Northern Railway operated rail lines in both the United States and Canada. Trackage crossed the border between the two countries in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana. In Minnesota, iron was a popular commodity, the Great Northern saw potential business in this industry, and decided to build a branch that would accommodate this industry. Montana was home to copper mines which were also served by rail.

Expansion West: Puget Sound

John Frank Stevens, an engineer for the Great Northern, was planning an expansion of the railway. Stevens decided that the Marias Pass in Montana was a practical landscape on which to build a railroad. Stevens had extraordinary technical skills and analyzed the potential locations extensively. Stevens was well known for his railway expertise, as he also founded his namesake, the Stevens Pass, which traveled through the Cascade Mountains. Steven’s expertise led him to setting the standard for railway construction while working in the Mesabi Range in Minnesota, which is a large supplier of iron ore.   

The Great Northern stretched from St. Paul, Minnesota and continued westward towards the Mississippi River, crossed into North Dakota and Montana. The railroad then reached Marias Pass which allowed the railroad to surpass the Rocky Mountains. The railroad then continued into Idaho and ran parallel to the Flathead and Kootenai Rivers. The railway passed through Spokane, WA and continued into the Cascade Mountains on the Stevens Pass route, where it traversed through the Cascade Mountains via the Cascade Tunnel. The railroad finally reached Seattle, WA, where the railroad finally completed in 1893. 

The original route through Marias Pass was rerouted numerous times. The route originally planned by Stevens was to traverse the Haskell Pass, however, the mountainous terrain of this route made it difficult for railroad operations. It was replaced with a less direct route, however the new route had a flatter terrain and was more manageable that would take the route though Whitefish and Eureka, and would then run parallel to the Kootenai River at Rexford, Montana. With the construction of the Libby Dam in the 1960s, another reroute was needed for Marias Pass. This resulted in the construction of the Flathead Tunnel, which aimed to reroute the tracks away from the Kootenai River. The Flathead Tunnel was 7 miles long and is considered the longest tunnel in the United States, only surpassed by the Cascade Tunnel, which is 7.80 miles long. This rerouted section began operation in 1970, although the previous route is under the operation of WATCO, and is called the Mission Mountain Railroad. 

The Great Northern passed through many scenic locations along its route. Perhaps one of the most beautiful is Glacier National Park in Montana, located along Marias Pass. The park is located where the railroad crosses the continental divide, which is considered to be the lowest route over the continental divide in the United States. The railroad began to use Glacier National Park as an attraction, especially for their famous “Empire Builder” train. 

The Great Northern, seeing the potential of competing with the Southern Pacific in California, built a rail line called the “Inside Gateway” . This route connected with the Western Pacific, and eventually the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe in Stockton, CA. Together , the three railroads competed fiercely with the Southern Pacific. In addition to their ventures in California, the Great Northern saw the potential of entering the east coast market via railroads in Chicago such as the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central. 

James J. Hill

Hill was successful because he focused not only on markets that were already established, but brought businesses to the railroad. Due to the potential of the railroad, many settlers moved along the rail line, populating North Dakota and Montana. The railroad did not receive any land grants from the government, instead the railroad bought land themselves and sold it to potential settlers. The most popular types of settlers were farmers, who saw the railroad as a way to ship their crops and travel around the country. Many of the settlers were from the Scandinavian countries of Europe and Germany. The railroad set up offices in these countries and offered to move potential setters to the United States in a cost effective manner. The railroad began constructing Colonist cars that were used to transport settlers along the railroad inexpensively. The Red River Valley on the border of Minnesota was one of the more popular locations for settlement. Many “Bonanza Farms” appeared in these settlements. These types of farms were large scale operations that were made possible through the use of modern farm equipment. 

In 1901, Hill, with help of partner, JP Morgan, controlled the Northern Pacific Railroad, after it filed for bankruptcy in the 1890s. Hill then became interested in the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy (CB&Q), to access the railroad hub of Chicago. The main competitor that Hill faced was the Union Pacific, who was backed by Rockefeller and Jacob Schiff. The president of the Union Pacific, Edward H. Harriman, began buying stock in the Northern Pacific unbeknownst to Hill, his focus on purchasing the Chicago Burlington and Quincy. By the time Hill made light of the situation, Harriman already owned 40,000 shares of stock in the Northern Pacific. Hill asked his partners to buy every stock available to thwart Harriman’s efforts. This resulted in Northern Pacific’s stock to skyrocket to $1000 per share. This resulted in a troubling economic situation, and the two organizations realized that they would have to meet each other half way. Hill and Morgan together formed the Northern Securities Company, which aimed to consolidate the pair’s three railroad companies. Unfortunately, President Theodore Roosevelt took office and wanted to deter the trade monopolization. Roosevelt ordered that the company was a monopoly, and ordered it to be dissolved. Hill could not compete with the trade in Asian countries and and the trade between the United States and Japan and China decreased by 40%. Hill moved on to other ventures such as acquiring the Colorado and Southern Railway. He then built the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway to join his two transcontinental lines, the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern. 

The Great Northern tried to merge numerous times, including 1896, 1901, 1927, and 1955. Finally the merger was approved in 1970, and was two of the railroads that formed the Burlington Northern Railroad. 

Great Northern’s Famous Passenger Trains

The Empire Builder

The Great Northern is best known for its passenger train “The Empire Builder”, which was a 2,211 mile trip between Chicago, Illinois and Portland/Seattle, Washington. It was named after the railroads founder, James J. Hill, who was known as the Empire Builder for his encompassing effort to build expand the railroad westward. This honor was given to Hill to recognize the his dedication in funding the railroading without the assistance of the government, making it the only transcontinental railroad that was privately funded. 

The Empire Builder gave riders the opportunity to see the scenic Cascade Mountains and Glacier National Park in Montana. At the end of World War II, the train began to utilize streamlined passenger cars, and eventually was fitted with dome cars, which allowed passengers to get an unobstructed 360 degree view of the scenery. With the addition of the streamlined cars came the introduction of diesel-electric power leading the train. With the addition of these modern technologies, the trip time was cut down from 58.5 hours to just 45 hours.

Badger and Gopher

The Badger and Gopher trains were operated by the Great Northern, and later Burlington Northern, between St. Paul, Minnesota, and the port city of Duluth, Minnesota. The service started operation in 1952, and used modern streamlined train sets. In the morning, the train operated as the Badger and operated as #19 and #20. This was a local service, making all stops, and took 3 hours 58 minutes for the 160 mile trip. The afternoon and evening trains operated as the Gopher, and operated as #23 and #24. This was a limited service and operated as a semi-express. It traversed the same route as the Badger, and took 3 hours 30 minutes to complete. 

The Cascadian

The Cascadian was a service operating between Seattle and Spokane, Washington. This service was quite scenic, as it traversed the Cascade Mountains, all while in the comfort of a modern streamlined coach. The Cascadian was a local train that completed its journey in 9 hours, and traveled a distance of 330 miles. 

Streamliner Memories

The International

The International operated between Seattle, Washington, and Vancouver, Canada. This operation is now run by Amtrak, in partnership with the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) on their Cascades service. 

The Oriental Limited

The Oriental Limited service ran from Chicago, Illinois to Seattle, Washington. Prior to the Empire Builder, this was the premier service on the Great Northern. This train went on a hiatus in 1931, but returned in 1946, and was renamed the Western Star in 1951.

Red River Limited

The Red river Limited was a service between Grand Forks, North Dakota and St. Paul, Minnesota. The service began operations on June 25, 1950, and used streamlined passenger cars built by the American Car and Foundry Company. The trip consisted of a round trip of 324 miles. 

The Western Star

Formerly the Oriental Limited, the Western Star took over operations from the Oriental Limited in 1951, and traveled between Chicago, Illinois and Seattle, Washington. It ceased operations in 1971 at the start of Amtrak operations. 

The Winnipeg Limited

This 457 mile journey between St. Paul and Winnipeg was streamlined over time, and consisted of numerous rolling stock passed down from the Western Star. This service competed with similar offerings operated by the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Railway, otherwise known as Soo Line, and the Northern Pacific. 












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