The Great Northern Railway


Of all the railroads James J. Hill owned or controlled in some way, the Great Northern Railway is by far his greatest masterpiece earning him the legendary nickname of Empire Builder. Under his tenor the railroad would stretch from the Midwest to Pacific Coast and of all the Northwestern roads the GN was by far the strongest and most respected.  The road finally disappeared into the burgeoning Burlington Northern network in 1970 along with the Northern Pacific, Burlington, and Spokane Portland & Seattle.  Today, many former GN lines remain in service under successor BNSF Railway.  Even after more than 40 years of being gone the railroad still holds strong influences and memories from its Empire Builder passenger train and prominent dark green, orange, and yellow livery to its beloved mascot and emblem, Rocky the mountain goat (a common animal to the Rocky Mountains).

The eastbound Empire Builder, train #32, is traveling along the Missouri River near Mid Canon, Montana during June of 1964 led by an A-B-B-A set of Electro-Motive covered wagons (on point is F3A #260-A).

Always the businessman Hill did not initially start out in the rail industry until the latter 19th century when he purchased the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, which connected St. Paul, Minnesota to St. Anthony (Minneapolis). The Great Northern Railway was formed in 1889 when Hill created the company to control or lease a number of other railroads including the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway (successor of the StP&P) and Montana Central Railroad. Now that these railroads were all under one-control Hill quickly set about building to the Pacific Coast and Seattle which was accomplished just four years later in 1893.

Throughout the rest of the early 20th century Hill worked to modernize his main line, especially through the Rockies by eliminating grades and curves. Before his death in 1916 he was able to achieve this with the most famous project along the line being the Cascade Tunnel through Washington’s Cascade Range (a new tunnel was later bored and opened in the 1920s, which is still used today by the BNSF Railway, and is some 8 miles in length!). The western main line through the Cascade Mountain range was also electrified for years (although it proved to be a troublesome and unreliable operation) until better ventilation and improved diesel locomotives allowed for its discontinuance in the late 1950s.

One particular reason why the GN was so successful and respected throughout its life was the excellent presidents who oversaw the railroad. Following Hill’s death Ralph Budd, the renowned leader of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, took the helm and led the railroad through significant growth allowing it to weather the Great Depression relatively well.  It was also during this time, the late 1920s, that the legendary Empire Builder passenger train was inaugurated between Seattle and Chicago via the CB&Q, who also partially owned the train. The train became tremendously successful and the premier way to travel through the Northwest. Because of the train’s success and high respect under GN's tenor, it’s not surprising that it became a part of Amtrak and continues so to this day as the carrier’s best known long distance passenger train.

The Burlington Northern merger has already happened but this view of the westbound Empire Builder at West Glacier, Montana during August of 1970 would have one believe it is still the GN era. The train is clad almost entirely in GN's final livery, Big Sky Blue, led by SDP45 #9856.

After Budd gave up the presidency in 1951 to his son John, the Great Northern Railway continued to prosper and grow as the younger Budd looked to increase efficiencies and add additional customers and traffic where possible.  The railroad, however, was destined to be merged with its allying railroads the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway; Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad; and Northern Pacific Railway, it was simply a matter of time, as many had speculated for years (it was also something Hill had always wished to accomplish but could never accomplish before his death). While trying for years this did not come to fruition until 1970 when the ICC finally granted permission to do so thus forming the then Burlington Northern Railroad.

A classic view of 1960s railroading; an A-B-B-A-A set of GN covered wagons led by F3A #436-D power a freight train under the signal tower at Hinsdale, Illinois along the Burlington's main line on April 28, 1963.

Diesel Locomotive Roster

The American Locomotive Company

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
S11-10195010
RS1182-18519444
RS3197-199, 220-224, 228-2321950-195313
RS2200-2191947-195020
FA-1276A-276B, 310A-310C, 440A-440D, 442A-442D1948-19506
FA-2277A-278A, 277B-278B19504
FB-2278B-279B19502
FB-1310B, 440B-440C, 442B-442C1948-19505
FPA-2277A-277B (Ex-Demonstrators)19502
Boxcab510019261

The Baldwin Locomotive Works

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
S1224-2819535
VO-1000139-144, 5332-5333, 5337-53381941-194410

The GN's odd Class M-1 2-6-8-0 Mallets (as well as the Class M-2) were certainly an interesting design. Seen here is #1984 leading a northbound freight extra near Helena, Montana on May 25, 1945.

The Electro-Motive Corporation/Electro-Motive Division

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
SW711-13, 163-170195011
SW914-231950-195110
SW120029-33, 1001955-19576
SW180-83, 5101-51051939-19509
SW898, 99, 1011951-19533
NW2145-162, 5302-53361939-194953
NW5186-195194610
SW1500200-209196710
FTA252A, 256A-258A, 300A-305A, 300C-305C, 400A-428A (Evens), 400D-428D (Evens), 5600A, 5700A, 5701A, 5900A, 5900B1941-194551
FTB252B-258B, 301B-305B, 400B-428B (Evens), 400C-428C (Evens), 5600B, 5700B, 5701B, 5900C1941-194546
F3A225-231, 259A-267A, 259B, 262B-265B, 275A, 275B-276B, 306A, 306C, 350A-358A, 350C-358C, 375C-376C, 430A-438A (Evens), 430D-438D (Evens)1946-194856
F3B260B-261B, 267B, 306B, 350B-358B, 430B-438B (Evens), 430C-438C (Evens)194823
F7A268A-274A, 271B-275B, 275A-276A, 280A-281A, 307A-317A, 307C-317C, 350A, 360A, 364A-365A, 364C-365C, 444A-456A (Evens), 444D-456D (Evens), 460A-468A (Evens), 460D-468D (Evens)1949-195368
F7B268B-270B, 280B-281B, 307B-309B, 311B-317B, 350B, 364B-365B, 380B-385B, 444B-468B (Evens), 444C-468C (Evens), 500B-504B1949-195345
SDP40320-32519666
SDP45326-33319678
SD45400-4261966-196827
F45427-440196914
F9B470B-474B (Evens), 470C-474C (Evens)19546
E7A500A-504A, 500B-504B, 510-5121945-194713
SD7550-5721952-195323
SD9573-5991954-195827
GP7600-6551950-195356
GP9656-7341954-195979
GP5900-9151958-195916
GP202000-2035196036
GP303000-3016196317
GP353017-30401964-196524
NC510019381
NW1510219381
NW35400-54061939-19427

General Electric

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
U25B2500-25231964-196524
U28B2524-252919666
U33C2530-25441968-196915
44-Tonner5200-520119402

One of the railroad's largest steamers, Class Z-6 4-6-6-4 Challenger #4000 is seen here at Pasco, Washington on April 30, 1945. The GN owned just two of these articulateds, originally built in 1937 by Alco for subsidiary Spokane, Portland & Seattle. In an interesting twist, the GN purchased the units from the SP&S and then opted to sell them back between 1946 and 1950.

Steam Locomotive Roster

Class Type Wheel Arrangement
A-1 Through A-11Switcher0-6-0
B-1 Through B-22American4-4-0
C-1 Through C-5 (Various)Switcher0-8-0
D-2, D-4, D-5Mogul2-6-0
E-1 Through E-15sTen-Wheeler4-6-0
F-1 Through F-12Consolidation2-8-0
G-1 Through G-5Twelve-Wheeler4-8-0
J-1 Through J-2s (Various)Prairie2-6-2
K-1, K-1sAtlantic4-4-2
L-1/s, L-2/sArticulated2-6-6-2
M-1, M-2Articulated2-6-8-0
N-1 Through N-3Articulated2-8-8-0
O-1 Through O-8Mikado2-8-2
P-1, P-2Mountain4-8-2
Q-1, Q-2Santa Fe2-10-2
R-1, R-2Articulated2-8-8-2
S-1, S-2Northern4-8-4
Z-6Challenger4-6-6-4

A GN 4-8-2 Mountain, #2585, leads its freight train through St. Paul on July 31, 1946.

Notable Passenger Trains

Empire Builder

Western Star

Badger: (Twin Cities - Superior/Duluth)

Cascadian: (Seattle - Spokane)

Dakotan: (Twin Cities - Williston, North Dakota)

Gopher: (Twin Cities - Superior/Duluth)

International: (Seattle - Vancouver, B.C.)

Oriental Limited: Served Chicago and Seattle/Portland via allying roads CB&Q and SP&S.

Red River: (Twin Cities - Grand Forks)

Winnipeg Limited: (Twin Cities - Winnipeg)

(A deep thanks to the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University for allowing Ron Nixon's historic collection of the Great Northern to be featured here.)



Five GN Geeps, led by GP20 #2012 running long-hood forward, power a freight train along the Missouri River at Hardy, Montana on June 10, 1964.

Alas, the Burlington Northern itself would last a mere quarter-century before merging with the Santa Fe to become the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, today known as simply the BNSF Railway.   While the GN is no longer around today it certainly continues to live on in many ways aside from being an important Northwestern gateway for successor BNSF Railway (the BNSF also continues to employ a version of the GN’s famous dark green, orange, and yellow paint scheme), a testament to the mark the railroad left on the industry. The GN can still be seen in the Empire Builder operated by Amtrak and its famous Cascade Tunnel in Washington, just to name a few. 

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