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Great Northern Railway
System map
Great Northern route map circa 1920. Red lines are GN; dotted lines are other railroads.
Reporting mark GN
Locale Saint Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, Washington
Dates of operation c. 1890–1970
Successor Burlington Northern
Track gauge 4 ft 8+12 in (1,435 mm) (standard gauge)
Headquarters Saint Paul, Minnesota
A Great Northern EMD F7 Locomotive.

The Great Northern Railway (reporting mark GN), running from Saint Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, Washington—more than 1,700 miles (2,736 km)—was the creation of the 19th century railroad tycoon James J. Hill and was developed from the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. The Great Northern's route was the northernmost transcontinental railroad route in the United States and was north of the Northern Pacific Railway route. The Great Northern Railway was also the train line with the deadliest avalanche in Washington history, at the site of the now non-existent town of Wellington (later renamed Tye). The Great Northern was a privately funded transcontinental railroad, though some of its predecessor roads received land grants. It was one of the few transcontinental railroads to avoid receivership following the Panic of 1893.



The Great Northern was built slowly to create profitable lines before extending the road further into undeveloped territory. Contests were held to promote interest in the railroad. James J. Hill used early promotional incentives like feed and seed donations to farmers getting started along the line. Contests were all-inclusive, from largest farm animals to largest freight carload capacity.

The earliest predecessor railroad to the GN was the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, which Hill purchased in the late 19th century. He formed the Great Northern Railway in 1889 merging the StP&P with the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway and Montana Central Railroad.

The Great Northern had branches that ran north to the Canadian border in Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana. It also had branches that ran to Superior, Wisconsin and Butte, Montana. The Great Northern eventually grew to a system of over 8,000 track miles.

The mainline crossed the Mississippi River on the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis, near the Saint Anthony Falls, the only waterfall on the Mississippi. The bridge ceased to be used as a railroad bridge in 1978 and is now used as a pedestrian river crossing with excellent views of the falls and of the lock system used to grant barges access up the river past the falls. The mainline reached Seattle, Washington in 1893.

The Great Northern mainline crossed the continental divide through Marias Pass, the lowest crossing of the Rockies south of the Canadian border. Here, the rails enter Glacier National Park, which the GN promoted heavily as a tourist attraction.

In 1931 the GN also developed the "Inside Gateway," a route to California that rivaled Southern Pacific's route between Oregon and California. The GN route was further east than the SP route and ran south from the Columbia River in Oregon. The GN connected with the Western Pacific at Bieber, California; the Western Pacific connected with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe in Stockton, California and together the three railroads (GN, WP, and ATSF) competed with Southern Pacific for traffic between California and the Pacific Northwest. With a terminus at Superior, Wisconsin, the Great Northern was able to provide transportation from the Pacific to the Atlantic by taking advantage of the shorter distance to Duluth from the ocean, as compared to Chicago.

In 1970 the Great Northern, together with the Northern Pacific, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad and the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway merged to form the Burlington Northern Railroad, today part of the BNSF Railway.

The Great Northern Railway is considered to have inspired (in broad outline, not in specific details) the Taggart Transcontinental railroad in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.[1]

Passenger service

The Great Northern operated various passenger trains but the Empire Builder was the GN's premier passenger train. The Empire Builder was named in honor of Great Northern's founder James J. Hill, who was known as the "Empire Builder."


Named trains

  • Empire Builder : Chicago-St. Paul-Seattle-Portland
  • Oriental Limited : Chicago-St. Paul-Seattle (replaced by Western Star in 1951)
  • Western Star : Chicago-St. Paul-Seattle-Portland
  • Fast Mail No.27: St. Paul–Seattle
  • Alexandrian: St. Paul–Fargo - (1931–
  • Dakotan: St. Paul-Minot
  • Winnipeg Limited: St. Paul-Winnipeg
  • Red River Limited: Grand Forks-St. Paul (later renamed Red River)
  • Gopher: St. Paul-Superior/Duluth
  • Badger Express: St. Paul-Superior/Duluth (later renamed Badger)
  • International: Seattle-Vancouver, B.C.
  • Cascadian: Seattle - Spokane
  • Seattle Express, No. 25[2]

Unnamed trains

  • Train Nos. 23-30: St. Cloud–Grand Forks via Barnesville and Crookston local
  • Train Nos. 31-32: Sandstone-Willmar via St. Cloud local
  • Train Nos. 35-36: Duluth-Grand Forks via Superior and Crookston local
  • Train Nos. 43-42: Billings-Sweetgrass via Great Falls and Shelby local
  • Train Nos. 43-42: Billings-Great Falls local – using GN's only Budd Rail Diesel Car
  • Train Nos. 47-48-49-50: Morris-Browns Valley shuttle
  • Train Nos. 53-54: Watertown-Sioux Falls local
The Great Northern's 4-8-4 S-2 "Northern" class locomotive #2584 and nearby sculpture, "U.S.—Canada Friendship" at Havre, Montana
  • Train Nos. 61-60: Minneapolis-Hutchinson via Wayzata local
  • Train Nos. 99-100: Fargo-Minot via Grand Forks local
  • Train Nos. 105-106: Sauk Center-Bemidji via Cass Lake local
  • Train Nos. 131-132: Crookston-Noyes local
  • Train Nos. 135-136: Crookston-Warroad local
  • Train Nos. 161-162: Garretson-Sioux City local
  • Train Nos. 185-186: Willmar-Huron via Benson local
  • Train Nos. 197-198: Breckenridge-Larimore via Vance local
  • Train Nos. 201-202: Grand Forks-Larimore local
  • Train Nos. 215-215: Neilhart-Great Falls local
  • Train Nos. 221-222: Havre-Great Falls local
  • Train Nos. 223-224: Williston-Havre local
  • Train Nos. 235-236: Havre-Great Falls Western Star connection – later used GN's only Budd Rail Diesel Car
  • Train Nos. 237-238: Havre-Great Falls Empire Builder connection
  • Train Nos. 243-244-245-246-247-248-249-250: Columbia Falls-Kalispell shuttle
  • Train Nos. 253-254: Oroville-Wenatchee local
  • Train Nos. 255-256: Nelson, BC-Spokane local
  • Train Nos. 285-286: Snowden-Richey via Fairview local
  • Train Nos. 287-288: Watford City-Fairview local
  • Train Nos. 291-292: Fairview-Sidney local
  • Train Nos. 301-302: Fergus Falls-Pelican Rapids local
  • Train Nos. 317-318: Sioux Falls-Yankton local
  • Train Nos. 359-358: Vancouver, BC-Seattle local
  • Train Nos. 365-366: Great Falls-Augusta local
  • Train Nos. 367-368: Lewiston-Moccasin local
  • Train Nos. 373-374: Great Falls-Pendroy local
  • Train Nos. 401-402: Seattle-Portland (4 months per year) – joint Coast Pool train with Northern Pacific Railway and Union Pacific Railroad
  • Train Nos. 459-460: Seattle-Portland – joint Coast Pool train with Northern Pacific Railway and Union Pacific Railroad

Amtrak's Empire Builder

Today, Amtrak's Empire Builder uses the line, running mostly on ex-GN trackage (between the Twin Cities terminal and St. Cloud, Minnesota; Moorhead, Minnesota and Sandpoint, Idaho, and between Spokane, Washington and Seattle).

See also


  1. ^ Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff, Peter Schwartz, The voice of reason: essays in objectivist thought (New American Library, 1989), pg. 92 [1]
  2. ^ NWDA Washington State University: Wellington Disaster

Further reading

  • Wood, Charles (1989). Great Northern Railway. Edmonds, WA: Pacific Fast Mail. ISBN 0-915-71319-5. 
  • Sobel, Robert (1974). "Chapter 4: James J. Hill". The Entrepreneurs: Explorations within the American business tradition. Weybright & Talley. ISBN 0-679-40064-8. 
  • Wilson, Jeff (2000). Great Northern Railway in the Pacific Northwest (Golden Years of Railroading). Waukesha, Wisconsin: Kalmbach Publishing. ISBN 0-89024-420-0. 
  • Hidy, Ralph W.; Muriel E. Hidy, Roy V. Scott, Don L. Hofsommer (2004). The Great Northern Railway: A History. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-4429-2. 
  • Yenne, Bill (2005). Great Northern Empire Builder. St. Paul, Minnesota: MBI. ISBN 0-7603-1847-6. 
  • Sherman, T. Gary, CONQUEST AND CATASTROPHE (The Triumph and Tragedy of the Great Northern Railway Through Stevens Pass), AuthorHouse, Bloomington, Indiana, 2004. ISBN 1-4184-9575-1

External links

A Great Northern train pauses for the photographer four miles west of Minot, North Dakota in 1914.
A 1909 ad aimed at settlers from a St. Paul Newspaper (publication name unknown).


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