GN system map, circa 1918; dotted lines represent nearby railroads
|Dates of operation||1857–1970|
|Successor||Burlington Northern Railroad|
|Length||8,368 miles (13,467 kilometres)|
|Headquarters||Saint Paul, Minnesota|
The Great Northern Railway (reporting mark GN) was an American Class I railroad. Running from Saint Paul, Minnesota, to Seattle, Washington, it was the creation of 19th-century railroad entrepreneur James J. Hill and was developed from the Saint Paul & Pacific Railroad. The Great Northern's (GN) route was the northernmost transcontinental railroad route in the U.S.
In 1970 the Great Northern Railway merged with three other railroads to form the Burlington Northern Railroad, which merged in 1996 with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway to form the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway.
The Great Northern was the only privately funded – and successfully built – transcontinental railroad in U.S. history. No federal subsidies were used during its construction, unlike all other transcontinental railroads.
The Great Northern was built in stages, slowly to create profitable lines, before extending the road further into the undeveloped Western territories. In a series of the earliest public relations campaigns, contests were held to promote interest in the railroad and the ranchlands along its route. Fred J. Adams used promotional incentives such as feed and seed donations to farmers getting started along the line. Contests were all-inclusive, from largest farm animals to largest freight carload capacity and were promoted heavily to immigrants and newcomers from the East.
The earliest predecessor railroad to the GN was the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, a bankrupt railroad with a small amount of track in the state of Minnesota. James Jerome Hill convinced John S. Kennedy (a New York banker), Norman Kittson (Hill's friend and a wealthy fur trader), Donald Smith (an executive with Canada's Hudson's Bay Company), George Stephen (Smith's cousin and president of the Bank of Montreal), and others to invest $5.5 million in purchasing the railroad. On March 13, 1878, the road's creditors formally signed an agreement transferring their bonds and control of the railroad to Hill's investment group. On September 18, 1889, Hill changed the name of the Minneapolis and St. Cloud Railway (a railroad which existed primarily on paper, but which held very extensive land grants throughout the Midwest and Pacific Northwest) to the Great Northern Railway. On February 1, 1890, he transferred ownership of the StPM&M, Montana Central Railway, and other rail systems he owned to the Great Northern.
The Great Northern had branches that ran north to the Canada-US border in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana. It also had branches that ran to Superior, Wisconsin, and Butte, Montana, connecting with the iron mining fields of Minnesota and copper mines of Montana. In 1898 Hill purchased control of large parts of the Messabe Range iron mining district in Minnesota, along with its rail lines. The Great Northern began large-scale shipment of ore to the steel mills of the Midwest. At its height, Great Northern operated over 8,000 miles.
The railroad's best known engineer was John Frank Stevens, who served from 1889 to 1903. Stevens was acclaimed for his 1889 exploration of Marias Pass in Montana and determined its practicability for a railroad. Stevens was an efficient administrator with remarkable technical skills and imagination. He discovered Stevens Pass through the Cascade Mountains, set railroad construction standards in the Mesabi Range of northern Minnesota, and supervised construction of the Oregon Trunk Line. He then became the chief engineer of the Panama Canal.
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The mainline began at Saint Paul, Minnesota, heading west and topping the bluffs of the Mississippi River, crossing the river to Minneapolis on a massive multi-piered stone bridge. The Stone Arch Bridge stands 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 headed northwest from the Twin Cities, across North Dakota and eastern Montana. The line then crossed the Rocky Mountains at Marias Pass, and then followed the Flathead River and then Kootenai River to Athol, Idaho, and Spokane, Washington. From here, the mainline crossed the Cascade Mountains through the Cascade Tunnel under Stevens Pass, reaching Seattle, Washington, in 1893, with the driving of the last spike at Scenic, Washington, on January 6, 1893.
The main line west of Marias Pass has been relocated twice. The original route over Haskell Pass, via Kalispell and Marion, Montana was replaced in 1904 by a more circuitous but flatter route via Whitefish and Eureka, joining the Kootenai River at Rexford, Montana. A further reroute was necessitated by the construction of the Libby Dam on the Kootenai River in the late 1960s. The Army Corp of Engineers built a new route through the Salish Mountains, including the 7-mile-long Flathead Tunnel, second-longest in the United States, to relocate the tracks away from the Kootenai River. This route opened in 1970. The surviving portions of the older routes (from Columbia Falls to Kalispell and Stryker to Eureka, are now operated by Watco as the Mission Mountain Railroad.
The Great Northern mainline crossed the continental divide through Marias Pass, the lowest crossing of the Rockies south of the Canada-US border. Here, the mainline forms the southern border of Glacier National Park, which the GN promoted heavily as a tourist attraction. GN constructed stations at East Glacier and West Glacier entries to the park, stone and timber lodges at the entries and other inns and lodges throughout the Park. Many of the structures have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to unique construction, location and the beauty of the surrounding regions.
In 1931 the GN also developed the "Inside Gateway," a route to California that rivaled the Southern Pacific Railroad's route between Oregon and California. The GN route was further inland 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.
The Great Northern energetically promoted settlement along its lines in North Dakota and Montana, especially by Germans and Scandinavians from Europe. The Great Northern bought its lands from the federal government – it received no land grants –  and resold them to farmers one by one. It operated agencies in Germany and Scandinavia that promoted its lands, and brought families over at low cost, building special colonist cars to transport immigrant families. The rapidly increasing settlement in North Dakota's Red River Valley along the Minnesota border between 1871 and 1890 was a major example of large-scale "bonanza" farming.
On March 2nd, 1970 the Great Northern, together with the Northern Pacific Railway, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad and the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway merged to form the Burlington Northern Railroad. The BN operated until 1996, when it merged with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway to form the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway.
The Great Northern Railway is considered to have inspired (in broad outline, not in specific details) the Taggart Transcontinental railroad in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. The railroad is mentioned in the lyrics of the Grateful Dead song Jack Straw: "Great Northern, out of Cheyenne, from sea to shining sea".
In Season One of Hey Arnold, the episode "Haunted Train" depicts the fictitious Engine 25, a 4-8-2 under the GNR mantle wrecked near Arnold's hometown due to a psychotic engineer. Now the ghost of the train apparently picks up unsuspecting passengers and takes them to Hell, driven by the insane engineer.
GN operated various passenger trains but the Empire Builder was their premier passenger train. It was named in honor of James J. Hill, known as the "Empire Builder." Amtrak's Empire Builder operates over much of the same route formerly covered by GN's train of the same name.
In addition to the Stone Arch Bridge, parts of the railway has been turned into pedestrian and bicycle trails. In Minnesota, the Cedar Lake Trail is built in areas that were formerly railroad yards for the Great Northern Railway and the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway. Also in Minnesota, the Dakota Rail Trail is built on 26.5 miles of the railroad right-of-way. Further west, the Iron Goat Trail in Washington follows the late 19th-century route of the Great Northern Railway through the cascades and gets its name from the railway's logo.