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The Great Northern Railway

The Great Northern Railway: A History

Ralph W. Hidy
Muriel E. Hidy
Roy V. Scott
Don L. Hofsommer
Copyright Date: 1988
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 376
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  • Book Info
    The Great Northern Railway
    Book Description:

    The Great Northern Railway highlights the changes brought on by economic, political, social, and technological advances, including world wars and tighter government restrictions. Illustrated with more than two hundred maps, period photographs, and drawings, the volume also includes appendixes listing the original track-laying history, track removals, ruling grades on main freight routes, and main line ruling grades from Minneapolis to Seattle.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9643-7
    Subjects: Transportation Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. viii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xi)
    Alfred D. Chandler Jr.
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xii-xii)
    Don L. Hofsommer
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xiv)

    It was a warm summer day when the short train puffed westward out of town. The engine crew waved to happy onlookers, and the melodic report from the locomotive’s whistle bounced its call from bluff to bluff across the valley of the Mississippi. On this first trip for revenue in the state of Minnesota, June 28, 1862, the train was headed by the resplendent locomotiveWilliam Crooks,and was owned by the high-sounding St. Paul & Pacific Railroad Company.

    One hundred years later, on June 28, 1962, the Great Northern Railway Company, ultimate successor to the St. Paul & Pacific,...

  6. List of Abbrevations
    (pp. xv-xv)
  7. PART I 1856 TO 1916

    • 1 The First Ten Miles
      (pp. 2-5)

      Soon after the Minnesota Territory was organized in 1849, local entrepreneurs began to promote varied development projects. Petitions to Congress reflected the need for mail routes, improved river courses and roads, and land grants to encourage railroads to provide simple but essential links between navigable waterways. Several early proposals for rail lines recommended routes from St. Paul—the head of navigation on the Mississippi River—north to Lake Superior, and northwest to the Red River and the “British Possessions.” Others urged a line from the St. Croix River at the Wisconsin border west to the Missouri River as part of...

    • 2 Frustrated by Finance
      (pp. 5-11)

      The St. Paul & Pacific charter gave the company comprehensive construction rights, and in the 1860s amendments expanded its possibilities. To the first authorized routes— the Main Line from Stillwater via the Twin Cities to the present community of Breckenridge, and the Branch Line from St. Anthony to St. Vincent—were added franchises to build from St. Cloud to Lake Superior and from St. Paul south to Winona and the Iowa border. Ironically, however, President Rice actually disposed of some rights, such as the option to build south of St. Paul, which was transferred to railroads that are not a...

    • 3 Growing Pains
      (pp. 11-18)

      Managing Minnesota’s first railroad, isolated for several years without connection to other rail lines, was a trying task. Superintendent Francis R. Delano of the First Division was, he said, “responsible to a greater extent (under our system) than any other general officer for the operation management of the lines of this Company.” In fact, ranking next to the president in running the railroad, Delano had charge of both operations and sales. At first only ten miles were under his control, but he soon faced the challenge of managing a growing plant with scarce resources and scant traffic.¹

      Limited service met...

    • 4 Northern Pacific Interlude
      (pp. 18-24)

      Late in the 1860s, railroad promoters and investors in Minnesota faced a rapidly changing environment. Would local railroads retain their independence or come under control of “outsiders”? Would local companies expand or disappear into the fold of growing giants?¹

      At the same time, Canadians wondered whether a railroad connecting their country’s eastern centers with the Pacific Coast could be built in time to ensure British Columbia’s adherence to the confederation created in 1867. The desirability of such a road was not at issue in Canada, but several difficult questions remained. Should the Canadian government build the line or should it...

    • 5 Legislation and Litigation
      (pp. 25-28)

      People “like to accuse others when a business fails to obtain success,” Johan Carp wryly observed in 1873. Carp, a representative of the Dutch bondholders, commented thus on those involved with the St. Paul & Pacific companies. He referred also to the Panic of 1873, a five-year economic depression that seemed especially vicious in the northern heartland. For the StP&P and the First Division, hard times had begun a year earlier, when they lost credit and had to suspend vital construction. Jay Cooke & Company’s bankruptcy and the Northern Pacific’s financial collapse further complicated matters. And Mother Nature turned nasty...

    • 6 The Associates Gain Control
      (pp. 28-36)

      During the mid-1870s, four experienced businessmen, the “associates,” as they came to call themselves, resolved to acquire the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad companies in order to establish through rail service from St. Paul to Winnipeg. Three of the four — Donald Alexander Smith, Norman Wolfred Kittson, and James Jerome Hill — first spotted the opportunity in 1873 when the Northern Pacific lost control over the StP&P and its First Division. Their resources were more limited than their ambition, however, and to raise funds they turned to a fourth man, George Stephen, Smith’s cousin. Even then, they found much difficulty.¹

      Donald Smith...

    • 7 The Manitoba
      (pp. 36-49)

      When it was organized in 1879, the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway Company faced an uncertain future. For almost a quarter of a century the railroads that were consolidated under its banner had experienced a checkered history, and their properties remained in generally shaky condition. St. Paul newspapers editorialized, however, that with “ownership” management, “a new age of success henceforth dawns on this important sectional and international commercial thoroughfare.” It was far from clear, nevertheless, that purchase of the properties by the associates—George Stephen, Donald Smith, Norman Kittson, and James J. Hill—would prove a sound investment. To...

    • 8 Consolidations and Adjustments
      (pp. 49-54)

      The years 1883 through 1885 encumbered the new St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba with critical issues that could not be ignored. A general slowdown in economic activity turned into a recession; heavy flows of traffic north to Manitoba and the Canadian West dropped off; Canadian Pacific interests came into direct conflict with those of the Manitoba; and the associates’ harmony lessened, though without a total rift. James J. Hill was forced to simultaneously initiate policies that would carry the StPM&M through a recession and find new supporters who could make possible renewed expansion.¹

      By the summer of 1883, friction between...

    • 9 From Butte to Buffalo
      (pp. 54-66)

      As the economy shifted in the mid 1880s from recession to recovery, James J. Hill urged directors of the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba to support a bold expansion plan. The Manitoba, he argued, needed new lines to reduce its dependence on fluctuating wheat shipments from the Red River Valley and to avoid being fenced in by competing railroads’ accelerated construction programs. At the same time, Hill urged organizational improvements in the company.¹

      For the first time since R. B. Angus returned to Montreal four years earlier, Hill had an able policymaking assistant with him in St. Paul—Henry D....

    • 10 Tensions in Finance
      (pp. 66-72)

      The St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba’s rapid expansion in the late 1880s eventually created a crisis in financial management. The officers and directors shared responsibility for raising funds, but the New York experts in money-market intricacies necessarily did the leading. Gradually, tension grew between the ever-optimistic frontier expansionist James J. Hill and the conservative eastern financiers led by John S. Kennedy.¹

      Both operators and financiers were justified by the Manitoba’s early financial record in sustaining a mood favorable to expansion of the system. Operating revenue rose from nearly $2.9 million in fiscal 1880 to more than $9 million three years...

    • 11 On to Puget Sound
      (pp. 72-85)

      In 1889, James J. Hill and his associates determined to extend their railroad to the Pacific Coast, a decision requiring substantial courage to say the very least. Builders of western railroads could no longer expect government aid, and transcontinental roads hardly inspired investors by their performance. Nor was 1889 a particularly encouraging year for the Manitoba Road. Its expansion had been rapid, several new arteries were still in the early stages of developing traffic, and operating revenues were 10 percent less than in the previous season. Nevertheless, Hill had long dreamed of building on to the Pacific and to him...

    • 12 Creating an Empire
      (pp. 85-99)

      With the Pacific Extension completed in 1893, James J. Hill stated that the Great Northern’s construction work was practically at an end, an assessment that proved premature. In the next two decades the GN would grow significantly and Hill’s overall railroad interests would expand dramatically. Reacting in part to challenges by aggressive and powerful competitors and inspired always by a profound desire to protect investments, Hill went on to create a railroad empire of which the GN was just a part.¹

      Hill, preoccupied by the Pacific Extension, postponed but did not diminish his determination to design a more expansive rail...

    • 13 Developing the Northwest
      (pp. 99-107)

      After the Great Northern reached Pacific tidewater in 1893, its great challenge was developing the region through which the new line extended. With only slight exaggeration,Northwest Magazinereported that the new transcontinental ran 1,500 miles through a wild country with only three “important” freight-producing centers—Kalispell, Bonners Ferry, and Spokane. A few branch lines in North Dakota were generating traffic, but the task of attracting settlers to much of that state and to Montana remained; Idaho was lightly populated, and except for the coastal areas, Washington was pretty much an open opportunity. If the GN were to prosper, millions...

    • 14 Men and Mallets
      (pp. 108-120)

      To reach corporate maturity, James J. Hill knew, the Great Northern must properly equip and efficiently manage both the transcontinental line and also the company’s growing system of branches and feeders. At the same time, Hill insisted that the GN guard its frontiers and devote itself to an energetic policy of attracting freight traffic.¹

      Struggling to create an effective, systematic organization, Hill made numerous changes between 1890 and 1916. That quarter century brought great fluidity in managerial personnel. The talented young Henry Minot, in whom Hill had so much faith, died tragically in 1890. Rival carriers enticed away other able...

    • 15 Locals, Limiteds, and Liners
      (pp. 121-130)

      The quarter of a century beginning in 1890 was the golden age of railway passenger operations. Volume of traffic expanded rapidly; equipment was steadily improved; modal competition was slight; and, until late in the public regulation was limited and generally ineffective. During those twenty-five the Great Northern expanded its service, intensified its efforts to attract customers, as shown by the passenger department’s growth. As early as 1906 it had three dozen passenger agents, holding various titles and scattered from London to Los Angeles. In New York City the company's ticket office moved to Broadway: the GN’s reputation risen.¹

      When the...

    • 16 Corporate Structure and Finance
      (pp. 130-136)

      The Great Northern’s success depended on several factors, not the least of them its efficient formulation and administration of financial policies. This relation was not lost on James J. Hill. His devotion to operational efficiency was now a matter of clear and perfect record. Less well known and appreciated were his relentless efforts to increase the entire property's value by effective financial management.¹

      With the corporate organization established under contract of February 1890, Hill and his associates worked on enhancing the Manitoba’s credit and establishing that of the GN with minimal interference from regulatory bodies. Simultaneously, the GN’s 100 percent...

    • 17 “Leading the Band”
      (pp. 136-145)

      At a banquet honoring his seventyfifth birthday in September 1913, James J. Hill commented that to manage effectively “a great big machine” such as the Great Northern required that “somebody must lead the band.” He referred, of course, to his own leadership. “Now, it has not been the easiest thing in the world.” he observed on another occasion, “to play first violin in the Great Northern band.” Indeed, Hill’s role in “leading the band” of GN employees required a most difficult balancing act. On the one hand, he had to contend with constant fluctuations in the business cycle, and on...

  8. PART II 1916 TO 1970
    (pp. 148-148)

    James Jerome Hill had delegated formal titles if not total managerial control to his son Louis W. Hill, but he did not ignore the Great Northern Railway and the many other enterprises and subjects that interested him. He remained outspoken on the need for a continuous capital program for the GN’s main line—such as a much longer Cascade Tunnel—and continued to speak out on topics as diverse as animal husbandry and international affairs. Indeed, Hill grew exceedingly anxious over the ultimate effects World War I would have—a conflict of calculated attrition, he concluded early. Strangely, however, Hill...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 305-317)
  10. APPENDIX A: Original Track-laying Record
    (pp. 318-325)
  11. APPENDIX B: Track Removals
    (pp. 325-327)
  12. APPENDIX C: Great Northern Railway Ruling Grades on Main Freight Routes Northern Pacific Main Line Ruling Grades Minneapolis – Seattle
    (pp. 328-328)
  13. APPENDIX D Great Northern Railway: Ruling Grades on Main Freight Routes Northern Pacific: Main Line Ruling Grades Minneapolis — Seattle
    (pp. 328-328)
  14. Bibliography and Notes on Sources
    (pp. 329-352)
  15. Index
    (pp. 353-360)