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.

A perfect A-B-B-A set of Electro-Motive's FTs, led by #5404A, power a freight extra near Missoula, Montana during July of 1956.

The 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.

During the very late NP era two SD45s, led by #3628, and a General Electric U-boat lead a long string of boxcars near Elliston, Montana on August 3, 1968.

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.

Leaning into a curve, an A-B-B-A set of covered wagons with F9A #7003D on point roll eastbound through Bradley, Montana on June 25, 1956. The railroad purchased just about every freight cab design Electro-Motive cataloged.

Much like the Burlington would do the NP looked to improve operations and efficiencies 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.

Diesel Locomotive Roster

The American Locomotive Company

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
S442-45 (NP Terminal), 713-7241951-195416
S2107-118, 150-152, 711-7121941-194917
HH-660125-12719403
S113119451
RS1155-15819454
S675019551
RS3850-8631953-195514
RS11900-9171958-196018

Like the Great Northern, NP rostered some very large steam locomotives. Seen here is one of their Class Z-5 2-8-8-4 Yellowstones, #5010, moving through the yard in Livingston, Montana during July of 1938.

The Baldwin Locomotive Works

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
VO-1000108-109, 111-112, 119-124, 153-154, 160-1741941-194527
VO-660128-1301940-19423
DRS-4-4-1500175-17619482
DRS-6-6-150017719481

Electro-Motive Corporation/Electro-Motive Division

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
NW100 (First)19381
SW900100 (Second)19571
NW2101-1061940-19416
SW7107-11419498
SW9115-1181952-19534
SW1200119-1771955-195759
GP9200-3751954-1958176
GP18376-38419609
GP7550-5691950-195320
SD453600-36291966-19682
FTA6000A-6010A, 6000D-6010D1944-194522
FTB6003B-6010B, 6003C-6010C1944-194516
F3A6500A-6506A, 6503C-6506C, 6011A-6017A, 6011D-6017D1947-194825
F3B6500B-6506B, 6500C-6506C, 6011B-6015B, 6011C-6015C194724
F7A6007A-6020A, 6007D-6020D, 6507A-6508A, 6500C-6502C, 6509A-6515A, 6507C-65013C1949-195147
F7B6007B-6020B, 6007C-6020C, 6050, 6510B-6513B, 65501949-195234
FP76600-660119522
F9A6700A-6704A, 6700C-6704C, 7000A-7014A, 7000D-7014D, 7050A1953-195641
F9B6700B-6701B, 7000B-7014B, 7000C-7014C1954-195632

Led by Class Q-4 4-6-2 #2198, an NP Pacific is billowing prodigious amounts of smoke as it rolls through the yard in St. Paul on May 9, 1947.

General Electric

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
44-Tonner98-991943-19462
U25C2500-25291964-196530
U28C2800-2811196612
U33C3300-3309196910

Steam Locomotive Roster

Class Type Wheel Arrangement
A Through A-5sNorthern4-8-4
B Through B-2, C-1 Through C-33American4-4-0
D Through D-9, K, K-1Mogul2-6-0
E Through E-8, P Through P-3, R, S (Various)Ten-Wheeler4-6-0
F Through F-8, Y Through Y-5Consolidation2-8-0
F-2, F-5, G Through G-2Switcher0-8-0
H, H-1, H-3Switcher0-4-0/t
H-2Saddle TankO-4-2T
H-4Saddle TankO-4-4T
H-5Porter2-4-0
I-1, I-2, K-1, K-2, L Through L-10SwitcherO-6-0
MDecapod2-10-0
N, N-1Atlantic4-4-2
Q Through Q-6Pacific4-6-2
TPrairie2-6-2
VShay0-4-4-4-0T
V-2Heisler0-4-4-0T
W Through W-5Mikado2-8-2
XTwelve-Wheeler4-8-0
Z, Z-1Mallet2-6-6-2
Z-2, Z-3, Z-4Chesapeake2-8-8-2
Z-6, Z-7, Z-8Challenger4-6-6-4

Class Q-6 4-6-2 #2260 is seen here with its passenger train at Spokane, Washington on May 2, 1953. The last days of steam on the NP are not far away.

Notable Passenger Trains

Mainstreeter

North Coast Limited

Alaskan: (Twin Cities - Portland)

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



It is a little less than a year away from the Burlington Northern merger as F7A #6511C and a mate sit beside Seattle's King Street Station during August of 1969. Behind the locomotives is Union Station, used by the Union Pacific and later Milwaukee Road, which was literally just directly across the street. For a railfan it was an amazing experience: able to see Milwaukee Road boxcabs and bi-polars bringing the Olympian Hiawatha into town under wires as well as the Empire Builder, North Coast Limited, and many other named trains. Today, King Street remains in use while Union Station also still stands but its staging tracks and platforms have long been replaced by skyscrapers and highrises.

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 20th centuries. 

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