Great Northern Railway (U.S.)

Great Northern Railway (U.S.)

Infobox SG rail
railroad_name=Great Northern Railway
logo_filename=Great Northern Herald.pnglogo_size=100

map_caption=Great Northern route map circa 1920. Red lines are GN; dotted lines are other railroads.
locale=St. Paul, Minnesota, to Seattle, Washington
start_year=c. 1890
successor_line=Burlington Northern
hq_city=St. Paul, Minnesota

The Great Northern Railway Reporting mark|GN, running from St. Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, Washington — more than 1,700 miles (2,736 km) — was the creation of the 19th century railroad tycoon James J. Hill and was developed from the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. The Great Northern's route was the northernmost transcontinental railroad route in the United States and was north of the Northern Pacific Railway route. The Great Northern was a privately funded transcontinental railroad, though some of its predecessor roads received land grants. It was one of the few transcontinental railroads to avoid receivership following the Panic of 1893.


The Great Northern was built slowly to create profitable lines before extending the road further into undeveloped territory. Contests were held to promote interest in the railroad. James J. Hill used early promotional incentives like feed and seed donations to farmers getting started along the line. Contests were all-inclusive, from largest farm animals to largest freight carload capacity.

The Great Northern had branches that ran north to the Canadian border in Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana. It also had branches that ran to Superior, Wisconsin and Butte, Montana. The Great Northern eventually grew to a system of over 8,000 track miles.

The mainline crossed the Mississippi River on the Stone Arch Bridge 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 reached Seattle, Washington in 1893.

The Great Northern mainline crossed the continental divide through Marias Pass, the lowest crossing of the Rockies south of the Canadian border. Here, the rails enter Glacier National Park, which the GN promoted heavily as a tourist attraction.

In 1931 the GN also developed the "Inside Gateway," a route to California that rivaled Southern Pacific's route between Oregon and California. The GN route was further east 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.

In 1970 the Great Northern, together with the Northern Pacific, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad and the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway merged to form the Burlington Northern Railroad, today part of the BNSF Railway.

Passenger service

The Great Northern operated various passenger trains but the "Empire Builder" was the GN's premier passenger train. The "Empire Builder" was named in honor of Great Northern's founder James J. Hill, who was known as the "Empire Builder."

Named trains

* "Empire Builder :" Chicago-St. Paul-Seattle-Portland
* "Oriental Limited :" Chicago-St. Paul-Seattle (replaced by "Western Star" in 1951)
* "Western Star :" Chicago-St. Paul-Seattle-Portland
* "Fast Mail:" St. Paul–Seattle
* "Alexandrian:" St. Paul–Fargo - (1931–
* "Dakotan:" St. Paul-Minot
* "Winnipeg Limited:" St. Paul-Winnipeg
* "Red River Limited:" Grand Forks-St. Paul (later renamed "Red River")
* "Gopher:" St. Paul-Superior/Duluth
* "Badger Express:" St. Paul-Superior/Duluth (later renamed "Badger")
* "International:" Seattle-Vancouver, B.C.
* "Cascadian:" Seattle - Spokane

Unnamed trains

* Train Nos. 23-30: St. Cloud–Grand Forks via Barnesville and Crookston local
* Train Nos. 31-32: Sandstone-Willmar via St. Cloud local
* Train Nos. 35-36: Duluth-Grand Forks via Superior and Crookston local
* Train Nos. 43-42: Billings-Sweetgrass via Great Falls and Shelby local
* Train Nos. 43-42: Billings-Great Falls local – using GN's only Budd Rail Diesel Car
* Train Nos. 47-48-49-50: Morris-Browns Valley shuttle
* Train Nos. 53-54: Watertown-Sioux Falls local
* Train Nos. 61-60: Minneapolis-Hutchinson via Wayzata local
* Train Nos. 99-100: Fargo-Minot via Grand Forks local
* Train Nos. 105-106: Sauk Center-Bemidji via Cass Lake local
* Train Nos. 131-132: Crookston-Noyes local
* Train Nos. 135-136: Crookston-Warroad local
* Train Nos. 161-162: Garreston-Sioux City local
* Train Nos. 185-186: Willmar-Huron via Benson local
* Train Nos. 197-198: Breckenridge-Larimore via Vance local
* Train Nos. 201-202: Grand Forks-Larimore local
* Train Nos. 215-215: Neilhart-Great Falls local
* Train Nos. 221-222: Havre-Great Falls local
* Train Nos. 223-224: Williston-Havre local
* Train Nos. 235-236: Havre-Great Falls Western Star connection – later used GN's only Budd Rail Diesel Car
* Train Nos. 237-238: Havre-Great Falls Empire Builder connection
* Train Nos. 243-244-245-246-247-248-249-250: Columbia Falls-Kalispell shuttle
* Train Nos. 253-254: Oroville-Wenatchee local
* Train Nos. 255-256: Nelson, BC-Spokane local
* Train Nos. 285-286: Snowden-Richey via Fairview local
* Train Nos. 287-288: Watford City-Fairview local
* Train Nos. 291-292: Fairview-Sidney local
* Train Nos. 301-302: Fergus Falls-Pelican Rapids local
* Train Nos. 317-318: Sioux Falls-Yankton local
* Train Nos. 359-358: Vancouver, BC-Seattle local
* Train Nos. 365-366: Great Falls-Augusta local
* Train Nos. 367-368: Lewiston-Moccasin local
* Train Nos. 373-374: Great Falls-Pendroy local
* Train Nos. 401-402: Seattle-Portland (4 months per year) – joint Coast Pool train with Northern Pacific Railway and Union Pacific Railroad
* Train Nos. 459-460: Seattle-Portland – joint Coast Pool train with Northern Pacific Railway and Union Pacific Railroad

Amtrak's "Empire Builder"

Today, Amtrak's "Empire Builder" uses the line, running mostly on ex-GN trackage (between the Twin Cities terminal and St. Cloud, Minnesota; Moorhead, Minnesota and Sandpoint, Idaho, and between Spokane, Washington and Seattle).

Further reading

*cite book
last = Wood
first = Charles
authorlink =
coauthors =
year = 1989
title = Great Northern Railway
publisher = Pacific Fast Mail
location = Edmonds, WA
id = ISBN 0-915-71319-5

*cite book
last = Sobel
first = Robert
authorlink =
coauthors =
year = 1974
title = The Entrepreneurs: Explorations within the American business tradition
publisher = Weybright & Talley
chapter = Chapter 4: James J. Hill
location =
id = ISBN 0-679-40064-8

*cite book
last = Wilson
first = Jeff
authorlink =
coauthors =
year = 2000
title = Great Northern Railway in the Pacific Northwest (Golden Years of Railroading)
publisher = Kalmbach Publishing
location = Waukesha, Wisconsin
id = ISBN 0-89024-420-0

*cite book
last = Hidy
first = Ralph W.
authorlink =
coauthors = Muriel E. Hidy, Roy V. Scott, Don L. Hofsommer
year = 2004
title = The Great Northern Railway: A History
publisher = University of Minnesota Press
location =
id = ISBN 0-8166-4429-2

*cite book
last = Yenne
first = Bill
authorlink =
coauthors =
year = 2005
title = Great Northern Empire Builder
publisher = MBI
location = St. Paul, Minnesota
id = ISBN 0-7603-1847-6

ee also

* "Empire Builder"
* Western Fruit Express
* Cascade Tunnel
* Glacier National Park (U.S.)

External links

* [ Great Northern Railway Historical Society]
* [ The Great Northern Empire — Then and Now]
* [ Great Northern Railway Page]
* [ Great Northern Railway Post Office Car No. 42] — photographs and short history of one of six streamlined baggage-mail cars built for the Great Northern by the American Car and Foundry Company in 1950.
* [ Burlington Northern Adventures: Railroading in the Days of the Caboose, written by former brakeman, conductor and trainmaster William J. Brotherton]
* [ Great Northern Railway route map (1920)]
* [ University of Washington Libraries: Digital Collections] :
* [ Lee Pickett Photographs] Over 900 photographs documenting scenes from Snohomish, King and Chelan Counties in Washington state from the early 1900s to the 1940s. Includes images of the Great Northern Railway.
* [ Transportation Photographs] An ongoing digital collection of photographs depicting various modes of transportation in the Pacific Northwest region and Western United States during the first half of the 20th century. Includes images of the Great Northern Railway.

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