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.

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.  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.

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

The Baldwin Locomotive Works

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
VO-1000108-109, 111-112, 119-124, 153-154, 160-1741941-194527

Electro-Motive Corporation/Electro-Motive Division

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
NW100 (First)19381
SW900100 (Second)19571
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
F9A6700A-6704A, 6700C-6704C, 7000A-7014A, 7000D-7014D, 7050A1953-195641
F9B6700B-6701B, 7000B-7014B, 7000C-7014C1954-195632

General Electric

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity

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
I-1, I-2, K-1, K-2, L Through L-10SwitcherO-6-0
N, N-1Atlantic4-4-2
Q Through Q-6Pacific4-6-2
W Through W-5Mikado2-8-2
Z, Z-1Mallet2-6-6-2
Z-2, Z-3, Z-4Chesapeake2-8-8-2
Z-6, Z-7, Z-8Challenger4-6-6-4

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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