The story

Northern Pacific Railroad

Wending its way through the northcentral region of the United States, the Northern Pacific Rail Road was built to run from Lake Superior (Duluth, Minnesota) to Puget Sound (Seattle, Washington). Pressing through McCall, Idaho, and other places, the railway was completed on 1883, and a 'golden' spike was driven in at Independence Creek, approximately 60 miles west of Helena, Montana. The Northern Pacific Railroad also was in control of two other railroad companies, but the antitrust laws of 1904 forced the company to disband.Many Puget Sound communities boomed on speculation that they would be chosen as the western terminus for the railroad, including Port Townsend, Union, Tacoma, and Anacortes.

*Bond sales were affected by a worldwide depression.

Transportation: The History of Railroads, Vessels and Other Transportation Methods: Trains and Railroad History

Built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1870 as 'Black Diamond' for Black Diamond Coal Company, California, the engine pictured above was shipped to the Bellingham Bay & British Columbia Railroad in 1889.Image from the Galen Biery Papers and Photographs, #2461, Center for Pacific Northwest Studies.

Collections of interest at the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies may include:

The Auburn Yard, a repair and freight transfer facility located in Auburn, Washington, opens on April 10, 1913. Located at the western terminus of the Northern Pacific transcontinental rail line, the Yard fundamentally changes the small village of Auburn from a sleepy agricultural town to a railroading center in the early 1910s. Its construction nearly doubles the adult population of the town over the span of three years and brings in new residents from across the United States and internationally. The Yard would provide repair, refueling, freight managing, and crew support services to Northern Pacific train traffic for 57 years and marked Auburn as a center for railroad culture long after that. The Yard would become the third-busiest Northern Pacific facility in the county, and the steady, union-backed jobs created a skilled workforce that would help make Auburn an industrial center later in the twentieth century.

Northern Pacific Expansion Plans

The Northern Pacific Railway began service in Auburn in 1883, as part of a larger plan to connect Seattle and Tacoma by rail. Auburn was the western anchor end of a rail line that ran all the way from St. Paul, Minnesota, to western Washington Territory. The railway industry in this period was massive, with national railways competing to be the first to gain access to new, lucrative markets, as well as stay at the forefront of new technological developments and efficient business practices. To this end, Northern Pacific engaged itself in a huge and costly upgrade of facilities in Washington State from 1909 to 1916, including the decision to construct a repair shop and yard on its anchor end in Auburn.

Located at the center of the Northern Pacific’s north-south main line between Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland, Auburn in 1910 was little more than a small farming community. The town's population was a mere 957, a figure easily dwarfed by the remote mining town of Black Diamond, population 2,051. Surrounded by some of the richest topsoil in the United States, the local railroads would haul hops, berries, and lettuce from Auburn to all parts of the nation.

Rumors of the Northern Pacific's construction plans began to circulate in 1910, with the May 14 Auburn Argus reporting that the railway was buying up land in town. While the paper asserted that this meant hordes of railway workers would descend upon the town at any moment, it would actually take more than a year before the first engineer would step off a train from St. Paul. In the meantime, unseen agents of the railway busied themselves in acquiring an initial 100 acres for the shop and yards. More than a month later, the home office made its intentions known: Auburn was to be the home of a new yard and serve as the railway's western freight headquarters.

The planned yard on the south side of Auburn would include many facilities for caring for train cars and their cargos, including a freight transfer shed, where freight was loaded or unloaded from train cars and transferred to trucks or wagons classification yards, where train cars were separated from their original trains and reorganized according to their next destinations a twenty-five stall roundhouse, a semi-circular building surrounding a turntable where locomotive engines were stored, repaired, and most important, turned around a machine shop and adjacent RIP (Repair, Inspect, Paint) tracks for repairing freight cars specially-built tanks and sheds for storing sand, oil, water, and ice a massive new 500-ton dock specifically for handling coal and a powerhouse and water works to provide utilities exclusively to the Yard. Thirty miles of tracks would have to be laid to connect all of these facilities and enable the cars to be easily moved between buildings.

The humans who would be working at the Yard also required new facilities: an office for the business and clerical workers storehouse for supplies and tools bunk houses for the yard's section crew to rest in between shifts and a new passenger transfer depot at East Auburn. The yard would be so large, it would require its own fire department and police force.

Some existing railroad buildings in Auburn would be repurposed in the yard. The freight depot located on First Street would become the yard office, and the existing passenger station would be refurbished and pulled just a few blocks south to Main Street. From the small depot at East Auburn to its southern limit, Auburn Yard would stretch three full miles and cost more than $750,000 to construct.

Opinion pieces in local newspapers announced the construction and accompanying rising land prices could make Auburn "another Hyde Park" and that the population could grow to 10,000 within three years. Other articles suggested that the building of a ship canal from Puget Sound to the Auburn Northern Pacific terminal was "not impossible nor improbable." The Railway expected to employ 600 workers in Auburn once the Yard was completed, eclipsing the town's largest employer at the time by a wide margin. But before those future workers could come, the yard needed to be built. George A. Kenrick, the company's project engineer, arrived in Auburn from St. Paul in June 1911. Ahead of him stretched more than two years of construction.

Construction Begins

Clearing and grading began in the late summer of 1911 and by the spring of 1912 the grounds were ready for structures. A 4.9-mile pipeline from Little Soos Creek would bring water to the Yard in April, and the foundations of the roundhouse were completed in the same month. The new construction brought a minor economic boom to Auburn in the form of new real estate sales close to the proposed depots. Stores hiked up the prices of food and dry goods to make money off itinerant workers. Even con artists took advantage of the construction to make money. In one incident, an unnamed criminal represented himself as a Northern Pacific engineer in order to cash false checks, making off with at least $100 in cash.

Like many railway projects, companies and laborers from outside the community were brought in to do the construction work. Auburn was to be no exception. A plumbing company from St. Paul was brought in to install power and water lines. European immigrant laborers were brought in to lay tracks, because they could be paid less than American-born laborers. The yard had 140 Greek and Austrian immigrants doing track work by May the entire Greek force had been laid off and replaced by forty Bulgarians, as the railway continued in its quest for the cheapest labor available. In June, an all-Greek work crew was back, housed in bunk cars and charged with unloading 30,000 tons of coal from Roslyn that had accumulated in the yard.

By the end of September the filling and paving of the roundhouse and shop was completed, the Soos Creek pipeline put in place, wiring for electric lights completed, and a 125-foot brick smokestack for the powerhouse was finished. All this work was not done without a human price, however. Harry Sullivan fell off a handcar and David Jones, a mere 18, had the misfortune of operating a gravel spreader alone. The control lever flew back and struck him in the face, flattening his nose. Many other deaths occurred at the other Northern Pacific facilities in Auburn throughout the construction period, a near-monthly reminder of the inherent dangers of living and working near railroads.

The Yard Opens

In March 1913, the railway announced the yard would finally open on April 10 under the auspices of General Yardmaster Ivar P. Iversen. Iversen arrived from Pasco, Washington, early in April and felt his first job was to try to postpone the opening of the yard, which was still lacking scales and the tracks were not ready. On April 5, he announced that he intended to delay the opening by five days. However, Northern Pacific's Puget Sound Division Superintendent John Joseph McCullough immediately overruled him.

So, sharply at midnight on April 10, 1913, a Wednesday, the unfinished yard opened. Thursday morning the first train arrived, greeted by a skeleton crew of Superintendent McCullough, Division Roadmaster A. F. Olsen, Yardmaster Iversen, and no less than 10 clerks. The RIP tracks and machine shop were still idle, however, as all their equipment had yet to arrive.

By the time of the Auburn Merchant's Protective Association banquet on April 21, railway officials were ready to roundly proclaim their success. In front of 110 people including Auburn-area business owners, agents of other local railroads, the company's own dignitaries, and Auburn Mayor J. B. Waugh, Superintendent McCullough touted the Auburn Yard as Northern Pacific's newest accomplishment.

McCullough shared the railway’s figures for the new facility at the banquet. The yard would handle an expected 44 trains a day classifying 2,150 cars of freight every 24 hours weighing 600 cars a day on two 150-ton scales. To accomplish all this work, a work force of roughly 567 employees was hired with an expected monthly payroll of $75,000. The average take-home pay for a member of this new force was expected to be $100 a month. This new work force at least doubled the actual number of Auburn’s working men and women from 1910.

For all the celebration surrounding its opening, the yard was a bit slow to get working at full capacity. When the first payday rolled around on May 17, Agent John W. McKee's disbursement was $30,000. No small sum to be sure, but not the reported $75,000. Two weeks later, the yard's first death would bring a more significant tragedy. Harry Von Ostrand, 18, a callboy who had just moved to Auburn to work at the new train facilities, fell on May 29 while jumping off the Seattle to Portland Fast Mail.

Despite these setbacks, the yard's work steadily increased. The Northern Pacific's new Bureau of Efficiency announced plans for yet another storehouse and a platform for the storage of scrap. One of the last construction projects was completed in May when the refurbished passenger depot was slid to its new location on Main Street and an 800-foot long hedge of roses planted around the perimeter. That July, Auburn handled 38,982 cars, making it the third busiest point on the railway after Tacoma and Duluth, Minnesota.

The Northern Pacific and its workers had become a vital part of the town's life, economy, and infrastructure. In June 1913, The Terminal Investment Company, a real-estate development corporation formed to take advantage of rising land values close to the new Northern Pacific terminal, donated land and playground equipment to create Terminal Park, Auburn's first public city park.

By November, Auburn Yard had a yard record of servicing 1,483 engines in a month and the time had come for the company's investment in Auburn to truly start paying off. On November 16, 1913 the Northern Pacific 4014 steam locomotive derailed on the Palmer Cutoff east of Wynaco, Washington, after running over a broken rail, falling 300 feet down an embankment and piling twenty-four cars of grain on top of itself. The train crew escaped injury, but three migrant workers hitchhiking on the train were crushed in the ensuing pileup. Following the wreck, the mangled cars were shoved aside, the line reopened, and the 4014 dragged the last few miles into Auburn. The wreck of 4014 allowed Auburn's new work crews to demonstrate their repairing prowess when they returned the engine to service in 24 hours.

A Lasting Impact

By the time the Yard was completed, Auburn's population had more than doubled to 1,928. Within months of the yard's establishment, some of the most prominent figures in town were the railway's agents, yardmasters, and foremen. In a few short years many members of Auburn's PTA, school board, chamber of commerce, city council, and mayors would come from the working ranks of the Northern Pacific Railway.

The Auburn Yard would continue to be a hub of labor and industry in Auburn for the next 57 years. During World War I it was the site of union strikes and women entering the railyard workforce when the United States nationalized the railroad system and looked for new labor pools to compensate for soldiers who were overseas. In 1926, Northern Pacific's Bureau of Efficiency found a way to be more efficient by discontinuing freight transfer services at Auburn and moving 75 positions to Tacoma and Seattle. Despite this, railroad unions would ensure that worker benefits and wages stayed stable in Auburn throughout most of the twentieth century, helping to keep Auburn a solidly independent, middle-class town while other nearby agriculture centers became suburbs and bedroom communities for Seattle and Tacoma.

As railroads transitioned from steam to diesel power in the 1940s and 1950s, many of the Yard's buildings were modified to work with the new technology, but the central roundhouse remained relatively untouched. Northern Pacific would remain the largest employer in Auburn until it lost that crown to Boeing in the 1960s. Industrial manufactures such as Boeing benefited from the skills the railroads had taught Auburn's labor force. The roundhouse was closed in 1982 following the merger of Northern Pacific into Burlington Northern, but the ray-like shadows of the roundhouse foundations can still be seen when driving east on Highway 18 over the Auburn tracks.

Auburn Yard machine shop and oil tank, ca. 1920

Courtesy White River Valley Museum (PO-01697)

Auburn Yard under construction, ca. 1912

Courtesy White River Valley Museum (PO-00060)

Auburn Yard blueprint, ca. 1912

Courtesy White River Valley Museum

Engines parked in roundhouse at Auburn Yard, ca. 1940

Courtesy White River Valley Museum (PO-03378E)

Auburn Yard machine shop, roundhouse, diesel shop, and water tower, 1946

Gold Creek and Pioneer: bypassed landmarks

When I began my fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan in 1984, there was one spot I was particularly eager to visit: Gold Creek and Pioneer on the west side of Powell County. Granville Stuart and Conrad Kohrs both loomed large in the history of Montana they were associated, respectively, with the two mines. Stuart was been among the party who first struck gold there in 1858 Kohrs later owned the Pioneer mines. Plus the two mining areas were counted among the state’s earliest. Then one winter in 1982 traveling along Interstate Highway I-90 I had looked to the west and saw the faded wooden signs marking what they called the first gold strike in Montana–one of 1858 even before the Mullan Road had been blazed through the area. Not far away was

another nondescript sign–this one about the last spike of the Northern Pacific Railroad–it too was visible from the interstate. I had to know more.

Gold Creek store and post office, 1984.

What I found was not much, at least anything much that could become part of public interpretation. The folks at the general store and post office, where exterior signs proudly noted that it began in 1866, told me that the granite marker for the Gold Creek strike was on private property–well maintained but something no one was interested in doing more with. The last spike for the Northern Pacific Railroad was a similar story. Once that spot was all in the national news. Now it was a place on the railroad right-of-way and Burlington Northern wasn’t interested in visitors being on such a heavily traveled section.

The road west of Gold Creek led into the later placer mining of the Pioneer Mining District (established 1866)–with the high mounds of tailings coming from much later efforts to dredge every bit of precious metal from the property.

Ranchers had taken bits of older buildings from Pioneer and incorporated them into later structures between the mining district and Gold Creek. Pioneer as a ghost town barely existed then and little marks its past except for the scars of mining.

Gold Creek has existed since the dawn of Montana Territory but it has rarely caught a break–its monument about mining is landlocked on private property. The interpretive markers about the Northern Pacific’s last spike are on the interstate at the Gold Creek Rest Area. Much of what is there today dates to its last “boom” when the Milwaukee Road built through here c. 1908, but as regular readers of this blog know, the success of the Milwaukee and short lived and by 1980 it was bankrupt. Today little is left except the roadbed, as is the case, almost, in Gold Creek.

I say almost because the Milwaukee Road located one of its electric transmission buildings in the middle of Gold Creek, along the electrified line. Abandoned when I surveyed the town in 1984, the building has been restored and put back into business.

Milwaukee Road Electric Station facing the Northern Pacific line.

Two community institutions still shape Gold Creek. On the “far” end of town is the St. Mary’s Mission Catholic Church, built c. 1910, with its original Gothic design still intact.

But the most important community institution (yes, the Dinner Bell Restaurant out on the interstate exit is important but it is a new business) is the Gold Creek School, a rather remarkable building in that residents took two standard homestead era one-room schools and connected them by way of a low roof “hyphen” between the front doors.

Adaptation and survival–the story of many buildings at Gold Creek and Pioneer. Historical markers are scarce there but the history in the landscape can still be read and explored.

Nightlife, and then some, in Missoula

As we are reminded everyday by the massive historic Labor Temple, just off Higgins Street in the heart of downtown, Missoula was a working town–not just a college town–for most of its existence. Laborers, whether for the railroads, the sawmills, and numerous factories, daily passed through the downtown on the way to work and then to home. And they had their choice of downtown watering holes to grab a drink and a bit of relaxation if they were so inclined.

I understand that it is more than a stereotype to wax eloquent about a western town’s bars, but frankly I cannot help myself. Whenever I came to Missoula while a Montana resident, and when I go there today, my plans center around simple propositions–do I go to the Northern Pacific Railroad passenger station and turn left to stop at the Double Front for a brew and some of the best fried chicken in America (and remember I’m a southerner), or do I stroll down Higgins Street and grab a burger and beer at the Oxford?

It sorta depends on the mood–the Double Front is more of a family place–it even has been gussied up a bit since my time there in the 1980s. The Oxford has a well earned reputation for being a bit rough-edged, but I love it, warts and all.

I have good friends who still wish to argue the virtues of a quick bite at the Missoula Club, a great place just off Higgins Street. In fact, I can say the same for the Stockmans Cafe and Bar, as well as Red’s Place, which has gone the sports bar route.

And when I really want to go old school, I return to the Northern Pacific passenger station, find Railroad Street and then venture in–and I mean venture–the Silver Dollar Bar, one of the city’s first to reopen after the end of Prohibition and still serve customers today.

The Silver Dollar, like the Double Front, were meccas not just for railroad workers but also travelers weary of life on the rails and looking for a bit of liquid refreshment. It remains a drinkers’ bar today.

I realize that Missoula now has a wide range of downtown establishments–even a wine bar for a good measure–and I wish them well. But give me the Ox, the Double Front, or the Club any day, any time.


TEACHERS -- For an excellent LESSON PLAN (suitable for grades 6-12) see "The Transcontinental Railroad" at the PBS website. The lessons in this plan meet the academic standards for social studies and American history education, in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

Special thanks to the following MSUM students, whose research and assistance made this site possible -- Corrine Edgerton, Josh Gates, Seth Goddeyne, Maureen Hukill, Bradley Madsen. Extra special thanks to Korella Selzler, at the MSUM University Archives.

Railroad influence in the Red River Valley began in 1864, when the Northern Pacific Railway (NPR) Company received a charter from the U.S. Congress. The NPR goal was established by a group of northeastern and Chicago investors who aimed to build a line that would link the Great Lakes region to Puget Sound in the American northwest. It took some six years for the investors to raise enough capital to begin real work on the line. During that time, company engineers surveyed sections of Minnesota over which they planned to lay out the route. Significant construction began in early 1870 when the first rails were laid at the village of Thompson Junction, about 20 miles west of Duluth.

A railroad line could only be constructed with ample amounts of three resources:

1. Land over which the line could be built.

2. The physical resources for the rail construction -- wooden ties and steel rails, machinery for leveling the track bed, labor, and so forth.

3. Sufficient money to pay for necessary land, the rails ties, and the labor and equipment to build and run the line.

Railroad construction was expensive, and the technical challenges of building a successful line meant that the construction engineers had to know their business. As one American authority on rail lines put it in 1857, an engineer in charge of a line's construction had to know everything necessary to "grade and lay tracks, correctly proportion bridges of wood, stone and iron, build abutments, piers and retaining walls, and maintain superstructure and locomotives." In short "any description of work occurring on railroads" had to be understood for any hope of success. (Vose).

The costs of building a line were very high and maintenance costs were equally steep -- the same authority warned that a typical railroad had to spend about 40-51 cents of each dollar it made to keep the railroad in proper operation. (Vose). Because of these high operating costs, few early railroads succeeded without some government assistance, usually in the form of government-owned lands granted to the railroad company.

The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 set the pattern for this type of assistance. The act granted substantial public lands to the two railroad companies that were building a line from the Missouri River to the Pacific (which they called the "Pacific railroad" or the "Transcontinental railroad"). Under the provisions of this legislation the railroad companies building the line were given a right of way on the lands along the line and also 10 square miles of land for each mile of line built (excluding this grant when the line went through a community or crossed a river). The legislation further noted that when possible the land given would be in the form of "alternate sections per mile on each side of said railroad." This provision is what gave the maps showing railroad lands the characteristic "checkerboard" pattern (see below).

Map of original Transcontinental railroad line, constructed by the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad. Construction began in 1863 and 1869 (map courtesy of Wikipedia).

The Northern Pacific Line Reaches the Valley
Although chartered by the Federal government in 1864, and receiving a 47 million acre grant of Federal lands similar to that given to the Transcontinental endeavor, the company could not begin construction until difficulties in financing were overcome. Even then, the engineers faced major problems in building a line that could operate in the harsher climate of the northern plains the line would require substantially more snow fences, sheds and locomotive-plows than those used by the railroads further south.

Once financing was finally in place, construction began west of Duluth in February 1870. Soon after, the western branch of the line began to build eastward from the Columbia River and Puget Sound. While rails were being laid steadily, the Northern Pacific had a long way to go before they could create a profitable, running line. As had happened further south, the Northern was out ahead of its potential base of customers: the lands that led across western Minnesota and Dakota Territory were sparsely populated there were as yet few farmers or towns that would pay to use the rails being laid.

Artist's illustration from Harper's Weekly, of track workers laying rails.

There were also significant geographic obstacles to overcome. One of the greatest of these was the Red River Valley, where the land dropped steeply into the basin of long-disappeared glacial Lake Agassiz. Building a line into this basin and across the Red River would require the best efforts of the engineers supervising the construction.

How much power did railroads have over the communities they helped to build?
In early 1871, at an important meeting of the directors of the Northern Pacific railroad, Thomas Hawley Canfield, one of the company’s major developers, predicted “that wherever the N.P. should cross the Red River, there would rise the next great city west of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Canfield knew what he was talking about: railroads were creating new communities across the North American continent and in the early years of these new towns, the railroads generally exercised enormous power over the lives of their inhabitants.

The most striking illustration of that power in the newly established Fargo came in 1872, when the company discovered that, because of a survey error, some Fargo homes were resting on land that was part of Indian Reservation belonging to the Wahpeton-Sisseton Dakotas. It took some quick negotiations, supported by Federal government pressure on the Dakota leaders, to get an agreement that ceded the necessary acreage to the Northern Pacific. The agreement was signed in September1872. The tribes gave their land in exchange for $80,000 in 10 yearly installments of $8,000 each, payable not in cash but in provisions and goods. Congress then ratified the amended agreement on June 22, 1874. Fargo then slowly grew into the largest community in Dakota Territory. [1]

The railroads opened the frontier to Americans and immigrants who wanted to start a new life for themselves and their families. The railroad connected new lands, increased settlement, and gave birth to new industries and businesses which created wealth. At first glance, settlers and railroad agents alike won when railroads opened the way to new lands in the west. But the full benefits to settlers would not be clear for several decades, and as a result those living in the new towns and on the new farms frequently thought of the railroads as little more than greedy corporations that took advantage of their difficulties.

Here grain sacks are being loaded by hand, c. 1880. "This region will compare favorably to other sections of the country in the production of wheat, oats, barley, buckwheat and potatoes," declared a Northern Pacific land brochure. (Photograph courtesy of Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County.)

The railroad company could gain more land from government grants as they built their railway lines, and settlers sometimes charged that the railroad investors obtained the best lands. Railroads also had advantages in what they could charge settlers as customers shipping their crops to market and as consumers paying the railroads to ship their needed purchases from the cities. On the other hand, without the railroads to provide settlers transportation for emigration, for transportation of crops to market, and transportation of equipment and supplies needed to support the farming communities, the new communities could not exist. However much they disagreed, the railroads and settlers mutually needed one another. [2]

In order to sell its lands and gain settlers-customers, the Northern Pacific Railroad needed to promote settlement and did so with the help of James B. Power. As the Federal government’s general land agent, Power distributed brochures and flyers that advertised how the N.P. aided farmers by establishing a large tree nursery, bringing in rye seed for adaptation, and providing reasonable land rates with 7-year credit. Even during the grasshopper plagues in which the farmers lost a majority of their crop and profit, Power extended notes of the settlers and helped to pay some of the taxes. [3]

The agents of the N.P. believed that successful examples of farming in the Red River Valley would help to promote more settlement. Therefore, James Power began to hand pick which land would be given to non-resident bond holders. So those who wanted to farm got the land near the rail line. He then advertised successful commercial farming by focusing on 1,280 acres of land broken on the Cass-Cheney tract. With the aid of Oliver Dalrymple, an experienced wheat farmer, the methods of bonanza farming developed. The success of the Cass-Cheney-Dalrymple farm gave way to a huge migration of people who thought prosperity could be reached by raising one-dollar wheat. [4] Due to the increased settlement, the railroad company was able to build extensions of rail lines which in turn increased their profit. All in all, the settlement and growth of agriculture of the Red River Valley was largely influenced by the hard work of the Northern Pacific land department.

The railroad continued to flex its financial muscle in the Red River Valley with the help of James J. Hill. Owner of the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway Company, Hill hired James B. Power as the land commissioner. During 1879, Power and Hill created a program to drain some of the swampy ground in the Valley. Hill worked with the government and gave $30,000 of his own money so that the program assisted in developing the Valley. The St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba railroad also took action to provide farmers with information to improve their crops -- providing advice and information on such matters as crop rotation, the cost of dairy farming and cattle breeding. It was by these efforts that the number of livestock doubled from 1880-1890. [5]

This impressive economic growth cemented the railroads' premier place in the region with the inhabitants they most needed for support -- the merchants and their representatives in the governments of Fargo and Moorhead. Fargo quickly boomed, its commercial district extending from the Northern Pacific depot at Front Street over to Second Avenue and up Broadway. In that fast-growing section the traveler could find nearly two dozen hotels by 1901. They could transact business at four banks, place ads in three newspapers, eat a meal at any of twelve restaurants, shop at sixteen grocers or make wholesale deals with dozens of hardware, furniture, or dry goods merchants. For a rest they could go to the Opera House for music or a drama, or across the river for a mug of beer. Moorhead grew into a smaller market town, but because Dakota was created as a "dry" territory, Moorhead's merchants could add the benefit of liquor sales to their line of goods. There were so many saloons in Moorhead by the mid-1880s that their owners hired special carriages to carry Fargo dwellers over the Red to enjoy their hospitality.

The merchants were all making good money. The centerpiece of all the business was selling supplies and equipment to the farmers in eastern Dakota territory and western Minnesota.

The Railroads and the People

The Valley's new settlers developed a love-hate relationship with the railroads. For a few years, the primary transportation in the Valley was by flatboats on the Red and its tributary rivers. Small in size and limited in what they could carry (see illustration of an early boat at left), the boats did a trade up the river into Canada with stops at the major river towns. Such river trade declined as the railroads built additional line running north and south. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ceased to dredge the river in the early 20th century, the river trade essentially ended. The railroads held a virtual monopoly on long-distance hauling thereafter.

The railroads had great power, and their directors did not hesitate to use it. Having already taken possession of much of the choicest lands along the Red River, the Northern Pacific used its hauling capacity to charge significant fees for their services. The farmers were wholly dependent on them for shipping in the goods and supplies that the towns and farms required. The merchants often paid the same railroad for every item shipped in from Chicago or St. Paul or anywhere else. The farmers paid the railroad a fee to store their grain in an elevator and, when the fees for storage and shipment exceeded the price of grain, they often sold it at a price that failed to cover their costs. Not surprisingly, many of them came to resent the railroads.

Left item -- Shipping rates of the Northern Pacific Railroad, 1893. Right item -- Land, in acres, held by the Northern Pacific, 1896. (Northern Pacific Railway Pamphlet Collection)

But slowly the land was cleared, crops were planted, towns developed. Several farmers’ organizations sprang up to demand a better deal at the market. Many farmers in Clay County, Minnesota joined the Minnesota Farmers Alliance. Founded in 1890, by early Valley settler Randolph Probstfield among others, the Alliance fought to regulate the prices paid for grain and curb the power of the railroads and urban grain companies. It was strong enough to send Probstfield and other members to the State Legislature, but they lacked the numbers to push through significant legislation to better the lot of most rural folk. Other farmers established cooperative-owned elevators and arranged for their own shipping. In these undertakings they were partly successful. But because no serious attempts were made to attack the problem of overproduction of grain as a result the farmer's situation only slightly improved. Farmers over the whole of the plains tried to increase profits with ever-larger plantings of wheat and oats, but this depleted the soil.

The people called for greater regulation of railroads in a variety of ways. In 1871, after intense lobbying from farmers and the Minnesota Grangers farmers' organization, the state legislature authorized the creation of a Railroad Commission, an innovation that other states quickly copied. Over time, the Minnesota Railroad Commission was given increasing power to inspect railway property for safety, establish reasonable rates for shipping costs, regulate warehouse and grain handling facilities owned by railroads, and prosecute cases against the railways. Progress came only slowly, largely because the Interstate Commerce Commission itself lacked formidable powers until the early 20th century.

By the late 1880s, drought conditions were hurting the farmers. Burdened with debts, many gave up their land. Others struggled on, but resented - and envied - the influence that "corporations" had over their economic futures, blaming the railroads and banks for a seemingly endless series of financial crises. In the words of one historian they believed that “every boom has a bust, every silver lining a cloud.” For three straight presidential elections, they beat the drum for William Jennings Bryan, the Nebraska born champion of the "Populist movement." Bryan won the majority of the votes in rural and small town America, but he could not defeat the Republican candidates put up by city machines and winning the votes of the most urban dwellers.

Lawsuits against railroads also acted as a brake on the powers of the corporation. In 1897, the city of Chicago won a case argued in the U.S. Supreme Court against the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railway (a corporation largely controlled by the Great Northern board of directors). The court ruled in the case that railroads could preempt land for expansion, but only if "adequate compensation were given: a state " legislature may prescribe a form of procedure to be observed in the taking of private property for public use, but it is not due process of law if provision be not made for compensation. . . . land taken for public use without compensation would be a mockery of justice." (Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Co. v. City of Chicago, 166 U.S. 226).

In that same year, Eugene Debs, president of the American Railway (Workers) Union, gave a landmark speech in Fargo where he called for legislation to protect the rights of both railroad laborers and the customers of the railroad corporations. "Workingmen, all men must hew out their own way to emancipation," he noted. "If the workingmen would be free, they themselves must strike the blow, and every man must free himself. You cannot be freed by proxy."

Then after 1910 the Non-partisan League movement swept through North Dakota. Many farmers were readily converted to its tenets. In the pages of the Non-Partisan Leader, the League's newspaper, published in Fargo, readers read that ten businessmen in Chicago "possess a power little short of life and death over the people of the United States." They read ads for books that exposed the railroads, attacked the cities, and proposed redistributions of property. Most important, they found confirmation that they were doing most of the work while getting a raw deal. An article called the League’s leaders men who were “among the real pioneers of the state . . . They are among the class who braved the difficulties of the new country, who tamed its wilderness, who waved the magic wand of toil over its broad prairies and made them fit for habitation." Some of the criticism was fair, some of it exaggerated. Either way, as the farmers extended their political power, and as they gained more allies from the towns' merchants, they began to gain greater influence over the railroads and their policies.

In 1904, in another landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, brought by suit of the U.S. Attorney General, the court ordered the giant Hill-managed Northern Securities Company of railroads to be dissolved as "an illegal combination in restraint of interstate commerce" that "deprived the public of the advantages that flow from free competition." ( Northern Securities Co. v. United States , 193 U.S. 197).

A decade later, the Non-partisan movement sprang up in North Dakota and rapidly spread across the Midwest. Advocating that farmers and workers should recognize that neither the Republican nor the Democratic Party represented their best interests, the League called on voters to select representatives in government who would reject "special interests," and pass legislation for "state control of mills, grain elevators, banks and other farm-related industries in order to reduce the power of corporate political interests." The League would exercise great influence in the politics of both North Dakota and Minnesota (indeed its adherents would give birth to the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota).

Over a span of forty years, the railroads had sparked the settlement of the Valley and helped create the infrastructure of the Valley's economy. They also drew criticism and in so doing influenced the political and social fabric as well. But, whatever their limits and faults, they had made possible the full development of the Valley region.

Left: Cartoon from the Non-Partisan Leader, published in Fargo North Dakota, 1912. Right: Cartoon from Harper's Weekly, 1906.

[1] Roy Johnson, Red River Valley (Moorhead: Red River Valley Historical Society, 1982), 155.

[2] Harold F. Peterson, “Some Colonization Projects of the Northern Pacific Railroad,” Minnesota History Magazine 10 (1929): 127, accessed August 29, 2011,

[3] Stanley N. Murray, “Railroads and the Agricultural Development of the Red River Valley of the North, 1870-1890,” Agricultural History 31, no. 4 (Oct., 1957): 59, accessed August 29, 2011,

" Articles of Incorporation of the Minnesota Grain Growers Alliance," September, 1891, in Randolph Probstfield Papers, Northwest Minnesota Historical Center-Minnesota State University Moorhead.

David Danbom, "North Dakota: the Most Midwestern State," in James H. Madison, ed., Heart Land: Comparative Histories of the Midwestern States, (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1988).

Carroll Engelhardt, Gateway to the Northern Plains: Railroads and the Birth of Fargo and Moorhead (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

J ohn D. Hicks, "The Origin and Early History of the Farmers Alliance in Minnesota," Mississippi Valley Historical Review, vol. 9, (1923), pp. 203-226.

Maureen Hukill, "Eugene V. Debs' Crusade For Labor," (paper delivered at the Northern Great Plains History Conference, Fargo, ND, October, 2012).

Roy Johnson, Red River Valley (Moorhead: Red River Valley Historical Society, 1982).

Northern Pacific Railway Pamphlet Collection, Northwest Minnesota Historical Center-Minnesota State University Moorhead.

"Ten Men Who Dominate the Human Race," and "These are the Men Who Back the Big League," both in Nonpartisan Leader, September 15, 1915.

George L. Vose, Handbook of Railroad Construction for the Use of American Engineers (Boston: Munroe and Co., 1857).

Northern Pacific Railroad

In1853 army teams were sent out to survey routes for a transcontinental railroad along the 32nd, 35th, 38th, 39th, 41st, 42nd, 47th, and 49th parallels. Isaac I. Stevens, Governor of Washington territory, led the party to survey the northern route. Stevens would survey the route from St. Paul. Captain George B. McClellan would lead a unit from Puget Sound to meet Stevens at Colville, Washington territory on the Columbia. With McClellan were Lt. John Mllan and Lt. Rufus Saxton. The Stevens party explored the general route taken by Lewis and Clark in 1804-06. They also explored the Coeur d’Alene and the upper Columbia. McClellan surveyed the area between Seattle and the Columbia, including Snoqualmie Pass. Stevens filed his report in 1855. It stated that it would be practical to bring a railroad through to the Pacific by way of the Valley of the Missouri or the Yellowstone. He recommended bypassing the Bitterroot Range and going further north near Lake Pend d’Orielle and on to Spokane. From there the route could either go across the Cascades to Puget Sound or along the Columbia to Portland, then north to Puget Sound.

His report was ignored at first in favor of the route along the 35th route favored by Secretary of State Jefferson Davis. He used the reasoning that this, and the route along the 38th parallel, would be the only ones free of snow. Also, now that California was a state, it badly wanted a railroad. Secretly, he was from the south and wanted to extend southern influence, i.e., support of slavery, across the southern United States. That effort resulted in Congress granting a charter to the Union and Central Pacific railroads in 1862. Those two railroads, Union being built west, and Central being built east, met at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869.

Stevens had died during the civil war, so the Northern Pacific had lost its champion. Josiah Perham, stepped in. He made friends with Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, the most powerful congressman. He proposed a northern Pacific route from Lake Superior to Puget Sound. This bill was passed by congress and was signed into law by President Lincoln on July 2, 1864. The land grant give the railroad 47,000,000 acres to the railroad. It also canceled any land titles along the route that had been given to the Indians. He was given permission to issue $100,000,000 in stock.

The original charter called for construction to start by July 2, 1866. But not enough money had been raised and Perham was able to get an extension. His debts were paid by a group of eastern investors, who took over the controls of the Northern Pacific. He died in 1868. J. Gregory Smith took over the effort for the investors, but was still unable to get adequate funds. Once again he had to have the construction date postponed to July 4, 1870, with completion time postponed to July 4, 1877. This time, mortgage of the railroad, its telegraph lines, and the land grant were permitted to raise funds. Jay Cooke and Company managed the financial end of the railroad. Cooke sent two survey teams into the field in 1869 to survey the feasibility of the route. W. Wilnor Roberts explored the Puget Sound and Columbia River areas and went east to the Rocky Mountain passes and the Upper Missouri country. Governor Marshall of Minnesota explored the route from Lake Superior west to the Red River of the North and across the Dakota plains to the great bend of the Missouri. It was decided that the main line would follow the Columbia, and the branch line would go through the Cascades. Construction cost was estimated at $85,277,000.

In 1870, Jay Cooke began selling bonds for the railroad. Large advertisements were sold in newspapers around the country and even in Europe. The merits of the Pacific Northwest were praised, namely the forests, mountain valleys, grassy plains, and mild climate, where bumper crops of grain and fruit could be raised. By the end of 1871, $30,000,000 had been raised. Groundbreaking for the railroad took place at Thomsons Junction, west of Duluth on February 15, 1870, but construction began in July. This spot would be where the Northern Pacific would meet the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad. The Minnetonka was built in 1870 for $6,700. It was the railroad’s first locomotive. It was first used in construction work in Minnesota, but later shipped to San Francisco by rail and by steamer to the Columbia River for construction at the west end of the line from Kalama to Tacoma, Washington.

But money ran out right away. Shipping rails around Cape Horn was enormously expensive. And the purchase of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company on the Columbia, Snake, and Willamette Rivers and on Puget Sound also took a big chunk. In 1872, Tacoma was finally chosen as the western terminus. Smith resigned from the board and General George Cass took over as president of the railroad.

In 1873, there was a financial panic and construction halted. The line had only gotten as far as Bismarck, North Dakota, 450 miles from Duluth. The line from Kalama to Tacoma had been finished but was not making any money. It was not connected to Portland by bridge, so passengers or freight had to be ferried across the Columbia. The company was bankrupt and had to be reorganized. In 1876-77, finances improved. In 1879, Frederick Billings took over as president. He urged completion be commenced as soon as possible. They were already past the deadline of July 4, 1879, and he knew Congress could repeal the charter at any time. Attempts had already been made to extend the deadline, but they had been blocked, mostly under the influence of the Union Pacific, which did not want to see its monopoly disappear. New bonds were issued and construction began in Hell Gate Canyon west of the Rockies and in Washington territory between Wallula and the Snake River crossing. First headquarters of the railroad had been at Brainerd, Minnesota, but were moved to St. Paul in 1880.

Things were finally looking up when Henry Villard stepped in. He had been president of the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company, the most successful transportation company in the country. He had a huge fleet of steamboats and connecting portage railroads. They had a main line along the south bank of the Columbia and had planned feeder lines in eastern Washington and Oregon. The area was his and he planned to keep it that way. On October 20, 1880, an agreement was reached whereby the Northern Pacific would use his rails on the south bank until they could build their own line. He wanted to make this arrangement permanent. But he soon realized that complete control of the Northern Pacific would be the only satisfactory arrangement. He and his wealthy friends bought controlling interest in the Northern Pacific.

By 1882 there was still 900 miles of track left to be laid between Glendive, Montana, and Ritzville, Washington. On the western end, thousands of Chinese were bought in as laborers. Mormons from Utah were subcontracted to grade. Veteran Swedes and Irish were hired on the eastern end. Between September 1881 and August 1883, the gangs laid about a mile and a half per day.

Now the construction problems began. It had been relatively flat land up to that point from St. Paul. Now they had to go over the Bridger Mountains of Montana. The grade was steep and eventually a 3,610 foot tunnel had to be drilled at 5,557 feet above sea level. While building the tunnel sticky blue clay kept sliding into the excavation and one landslide filled up a cut that had taken four months to excavate. They had to use hydraulic mining methods to sluice away the clay. Track laying in winter was difficult because they kept getting buried by snow. Bozeman was reached on March 14, 1883 and the first train came in on March 21. In June of 1883 the line reached Helena. Here was another difficult passage as a huge trestle over O’Keefe’s Canyon had to be built. It was 112 feet high and over 1,800 feet along. Another huge trestle was built over Marent’s Gulch at 226 feet high and 860 feet long.

Now a tunnel had to be built through the main divide of the Rockies. Mullan Pass was selected and approved by the Interior Department in May 1883. The tunnel would be 3,850 feet long. They expected to be drilling through hard rock to make the tunnel. But it was not, it was very soft. Almost the entire length had to be shored up with timbers. It even had to be bypassed temporarily.

On August 23, 1883 the east and west crews met at Hell Gate Canyon 55 miles west of Helena. A golden spike ceremony was held on September 8 at Gold Creek, Montana. The last spike was not actually golden, but was the first spike drilled in at Thomsons Junction, Minnesota. It was hammered by Mr. Davis, who had drilled the same spike in Minnesota.

Now it was time to complete the line from Pasco, across the Cascades to Seattle. Work began in 1884. There was no particular problem from Pasco to Thrall, just south of Ellensburg. Then started the hard work as they went up the mountains. Many bridges had to be built. V.G. Bogue, principal engineer, surveyed for the summit tunnel. The place he selected was then known as Garfield Pass, 75 miles east of Tacoma at 2,852 feet. It was renamed Stampede Pass. The tunnel would be 1.8 miles long. In 1886, bids were taken for building the tunnel. Sidney and Nelson Bennett had built the railroad from Pasco to Ellensburg and now wanted the rest of the job. Their low bid of $837,250 got them the job. Most thought they were out of their minds with such a low bid.

They began work on the approaches to the tunnel in February of 1886. Drillers began boring through the rock on the east side with hand drills. Other men diverted a waterfall. Some crews erected barracks, a hospital, supply buildings, and the engineers’ headquarters. Drilling averaged three and a half feet per day. Many men quit at the hard work. After four months the Bennetts bought a complete set of Ingersoll air operated drills in Tacoma. Production doubled right away. Then electric lighting was placed in the tunnel. Finally they were really making progress. They started using a platform car to haul out the blasted rocks. By May of 1887 they were making 14 feet per day. On May 27, the timbering of the tunnel had been completed and the first train rolled through.

Railroad Records Research: Labor History

Minnesota.Department of Labor and Industry. Strike and Labor Problems Files,1907-1924.
Reports, transcripts of hearings and testimony, and correspondence regarding labor problems on the Iron Range and in St. Louis County (1907), a switchmen's strike in Duluth (1909-1910), an action by the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen against the Great Northern Railway (1912), and a fatal accident at the Milford Mine at Crosby (1924).
MNHS Call Number: See the finding aid in the libra ry (Labor and Industry Department).

Minnesota. Department of Labor and Industry. Railroad Correspondence,1909-1922.
Correspondence relating to health and safety inspections of railroad facilities, consisting of inspectors' reports of unsafe facilities and subsequent letters of compliance with department orders to correct the hazards. Also includes correspondence concerning the exploitation of Greek immigrant laborers by railway companies (1909-1910). Correspondents include the department secretary and inspectors, railroad operators and managers, the Railroad and Warehouse Commission, local state employment bureau managers, and Greek immigrant laborers.
MNHS Call Number: See the finding aid in the libra ry (Labor and Industry Department).

Northern Pacific Railroad Depot

The role of the Northern Pacific Railroad in the founding and development of the Bismarck community was significant. The NP Depot remains as a symbol of that importance.

In August, 1898, The St. Paul Globe reported the Northern Pacific Railway&rsquos intention to build a new depot and office building in Bismarck, N.D. The Globe reported that the new building would replace a framed freight depot built in the 1870&rsquos and destroyed by fire in 1898. According to the article, the Bismarck depot, designed by the nationally prominent architectural firm of Charles Reed and Allan Stem of St. Paul, would be &ldquoone of the finest depots and freight offices on the (Northern Pacific&rsquos) system, and one that all the people of that city (Bismarck) can desire from an architectural standpoint.&rdquo

Completed in December, 1901, at a cost of $33,601, the Northern Pacific Depot is notable for its Spanish mission-style architecture, uncommon on the Northern Plains. The new depot was built on a site that had previously been the location of the 1877 Sheridan House, at one time Bismarck&rsquos leading hotel and the largest building erected in Dakota Territory. The Sheridan House, which had served as both a hotel and railway passenger depot, was moved east across Fifth Street, where it was remodeled and reopened as the Northwest Hotel.

The Northern Pacific Depot&rsquos Spanish mission-style architecture featured a center façade flanked by towers 13 feet square, originally domed and crowned by louvered cupolas with bellcast roofs and finials. The superstructures of these towers (domed roofs, cupolas, and corner caps) were removed in 1954 and replaced by simple peaked tile roofs, producing the effect of Tuscan campaniles. The main entrance of the depot is recessed between the towers within a one-story portico featuring six concrete Tuscan columns.

The east and west portions of the Northern Pacific Depot repeated the shaped gable ends of the central block with their longitudinal axes placed at right angles to it. The original roofing of these wings was red Ludowic tiles, which were also replaced during the tower alterations in 1954. These wings originally terminated in 20-foot square shelters or covered platforms with open arches. A large first floor central block contained cherry-trimmed ticket and trainmen&rsquos offices on the south side and men and women&rsquos lounges on the north side. The west wing was completely enclosed in 1930 to create a new express office and the east end was enclosed in 1955.

Originally the Northern Pacific Depot grounds between Fourth and Fifth Streets were enclosed with post and rail fencing. The grounds were planted with grass and trees, and at the southeast corner an enamel and wrought iron sign reading &ldquoBismarck&rdquo was supported by two Tuscan columns.

By 1916, the Northern Pacific Depot was serving 24 passenger trains daily. By 1950, however, Bismarck began to reflect the nationwide decline in railroad traffic. The decline continued throughout the 1970&rsquos as mergers between the Northern Pacific and other railroads eventually created the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe. Ultimately, the Railway Express Agency vacated its quarters in the west end of the Bismarck Depot following a declaration of bankruptcy in 1975. Today the old Northern Pacific Depot is home to the Fiesta Villa Mexican Restaurant.

The railroads in Whatcom County have definitely changed over the years. Instead of the Great Northern, Northern Pacific, and Milwaukee Road, which all or parts were taken over by the Burlington Northern and operated by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. There are two trails that are on former rail beds, the Interurban trail and the Railroad Trail. The interurban Trail is not on the old interurban right-of-way but is on the old Fairhaven southern right-of-way that one from Fairhaven to Sedro Woolley. Railroad Trail starts out on Milwaukee Road branch that was headed towards Bloedel Donovan lumber mill that is now Whatcom Falls Park. In the neighborhood immediately east of I 5 trail switches to the former Northern Pacific which it follows all the way and Whatcom Falls Park. So there are a few places you can still see the old right-of-way and imagine ghost trains going through the night. If you ever get up to Whatcom County stop by the Bellingham Railway Museum and find out more information about our local railroads.

The BP and Phillip 66 refineries are cashing in on the Dakota oil boom. Both refineries are building loop tracks to accommodate oil trains, What does this mean? Well more trains over existing track and the possible expansion and output. .

Watch the video: The Rainier Clubcar on the Northern Pacific North Coast Limited (November 2021).