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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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
A-1 Through A-11
B-1 Through B-22
C-1 Through C-5 (Various)
D-2, D-4, D-5
E-1 Through E-15s
F-1 Through F-12
G-1 Through G-5
J-1 Through J-2s (Various)
N-1 Through N-3
O-1 Through O-8
A GN 4-8-2 Mountain, #2585, leads its freight train through St. Paul on July 31, 1946.
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.