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The Great Northern Steamship Company


Although it is a landlocked state, North Dakota has a connection to the sea thanks to James J. Hill. On this date in 1901, the Oakes Republican announced that the Great Northern Steamship Company had acquired the use of two ships from Dodwell and Company. The City of Seattle had already been delivered, and the paperwork for the Duke of Fife would be completed on August 5th. Dodwell and Company would continue to operate the ships as an agent of the Great Northern Steamship Company. The Great Northern had acquired the use of seventeen ships.

James J. Hill was known as a shrewd businessman. He saw an opportunity to expand his passenger business from land to sea to complement his railroads. Besides chartering the Dodwell ships, he ordered two ships from the Eastern Shipbuilding Company in New London, Connecticut. The Minnesota and the Dakota were scheduled to provide passenger service between Portland, Oregon and Japan. They were completed in 1904 and 1905. At over 20,000 tons, they were the largest passenger vessels built in the United States.

In 1914, Hill established a second line with an almost identical name: The Great Northern Pacific Steamship Company. This line also ran out of Portland, operating two ships. The purpose was to compete with the railroad lines running between Portland and San Francisco. During the winter of 1914-1915, the Great Northern Pacific also provided service between the mainland and Hawaii.

The Great Northern Steamship Company operated from 1900 to 1914. The Great Northern Pacific Steamship Company lasted until 1918. Although Hill actively advertised and promoted both lines, neither was a success. By the time World War I broke out, the Great Northern Pacific was on its last legs. Hill put it up for sale. The United States government commandeered his last two ships for the war effort.

While Hill was a railroad wizard, he had little understanding of the sea trade. By the time he called it quits with the sea, his business losses amounted to almost three million dollars. That would be about sixty-five million dollars today.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher


Oakes Republican. “Line of Steamships.” Oakes ND. 2 August 1901. Page 1.

The Ships List. “Great Northern Steamship Company/Great Northern Pacific Steamship Company.” http://www.theshipslist.com/ships/lines/greatnorthern.shtml  Accessed 29 June 2019.

Dollar Times. “Inflation Calculator.” https://www.dollartimes.com/inflation  Accessed 29 June 2019.

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