The Northern Pacific Railway, Main Street of the Northwest
The Northern Pacific Railway was the first of the three major Northwestern railroads to begin construction.
Unlike many other railroads the NP did not change names
numerous times throughout its existence and would likewise never acquire
numerous other smaller roads to form its system. Perhaps what the
railroad is best remembered for is its Ying Yang herald and its
distinguished flagship passenger train, the North Coast Limited, which used a beautiful two-tone green livery. In 1970 the NP merged with the Burlington, Great Northern, and Spokane Portland & Seattle to form the massive Burlington Northern system. Today, large sections of the original NP system have been sold off or abandoned but others remain in use by successor BNSF Railway.
NP has its roots dating to the summer of 1864 when
President Lincoln signed the railroad’s creation by an Act of Congress
and the Northern Pacific Railroad Company was born. Construction on the new company began seven years later in 1870 and would roughly follow the expedition of Lewis and
Clark who originally chartered the western territory in the early 19th
century. While crews began building from opposite directions at Lake
Superior in the east and Puget Sound in the west it would become some of
the toughest railroad to ever construct.
Not only were crews building through some of the roughest terrain in the country but also a region that was literally still frontier lands (the future states of Montana and Washington, for example, were still territories when the railroad was being built) and settlements were few and far between. Supplies usually had to be shipped in from hundreds of miles away and the weather could often be down right brutal. Through it all, however, crews prevailed and by the early 1880s had made tremendous strides. By the late summer of 1883 the main line from Minnesota to Portland, over 1,800 miles in length, had been completed and a lavish ceremony marked the occasion.
While completed, the line did have future gaps to
close in the way of many tunnels, along with a branch which needed to
extend west from Ellensburg, Washington following as closely as possible
to the Yakima River. The project began on July 1, 1884 with the hardest project
being the completion of the tunnel under Stampede Pass. Until the
tunnel was completed, in its place stood switchbacks to scale mountain
summits with torturous grades of occasionally over 5%! The tunnel
project began in January of 1886 and took over two years to complete,
opening in the late spring of 1888. It took over 300 men to complete
the tunnel whose bore was 9,850 long, 22-feet high, and 16-feet wide.
After the NP had completed its main lines across the northwest it worked
to build numerous branch lines and while overall it remained
essentially a direct route between the Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest
it did stretch out across Minnesota, Washington and other Northwestern
states to some extent. Of course, not surprisingly, the huge costs involved in building
such a massive railroad in extremely rugged topography wore heavily on
the railroad and it would fall into receivership in 1893 reemerging as
the Northern Pacific Railway. It was at this time that the legendary
tycoon James J. Hill purchased a controlling interested in the NP along
with his other line the Great Northern. He would later gain control of
the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy in the early 20th century after
winning a battle for the railroad with Union Pacific.
Much like the Burlington would do the NP looked to improve
operations and efficiency when possible. In the 1920s it began
signaling its entire main line and was one of the first Class
Is to embrace radio technology to improve communications.
Surprisingly, though, the railroad would not fully dieselize its
locomotive fleet until nearly 1960 although like most railroads it began
to make the switch soon after the diesel’s superior performance was
proven. Being that Hill held such an influence over the three
railroads, including the jointly owned Seattle, Portland & Spokane,
the NP likely was destined to be merged with the other two
roads at some point.
The railroads tried for decades to merge but were
blocked numerous times by the ICC, mostly citing monopoly issues as the
reason. It took until 1970 when the ICC finally granted permission to
do so (partly because the Milwaukee Road consented after years of trying
to block the merger) forming the then Burlington Northern.
The BN itself would last only 25 years before merging with the Santa
Fe to become the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (a few years ago
the railroad changed its name to simply the BNSF Railway). Indeed, the Northern Pacific Railway is best remembered for its Ying Yang herald and the North Coast Limited but most importantly it helped to fuel
the growth of the western states it served when few communities were
settled in that region of the country during the late 19th and early
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