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September 8: The Great Northern Pacific

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Northern Pacific 4-8-4 No. 2654 leads a westbound freight over the long (3,860-foot) steel viaduct spanning the Sheyenne River Valley at Valley City, ND, in the early 1950s.

In 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed with the driving of the Golden Spike. The railroad ran from Omaha in Nebraska Territory to Sacramento in California. It was the first means of mass transportation to cross the country. And as the first, the Transcontinental Railroad overshadowed the later Northern Pacific. The Northern Pacific, however, has its own inspiring story. It also reached the far west, but had to overcome financial challenges to do it without government loans.

The charter for a railroad from the Great Lakes to the Puget Sound was signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1864. Wealthy banker Jay Cooke sold $30 million worth of bonds to support the work which, began in 1870. The Northern Pacific was completed as far as Bismarck in Dakota Territory when the panic of 1873 wiped out Cooke financially. Work on the railroad came to a halt.

Businessman Henry Villard, who already controlled the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company and the Oregon and California Railroad, took control of the Northern Pacific in 1881. Work resumed at a fast pace. On this date in 1883, the Northern Pacific drove the last spike at Gold Creek Montana.

Two notable names important in North Dakota history went head-to-head in relation to the Northern Pacific. By the late 1880s, James J. Hill became focused on controlling a railroad all the way to the west coast. In 1901, Hill joined J.P. Morgan and E.H. Harriman to form the Northern Securities Company. The merger was unpopular as it consolidated all major railroad lines in the northwest. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt began the prosecution of the Northern Securities Company under the Sherman Antitrust Act.

The case was tried in St. Paul at the Federal Courts Building and eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision, Northern Securities was declared to be in restraint of trade. It was a severe blow to Hill’s business and marked the beginning of Roosevelt’s efforts to break up monopolies.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher

Minnesota Historical Society. “James J. Hill.” https://www.mnhs.org/hillhouse/learn/james-j-hill Accessed 8/21/2022.
Classic Trains. “Northern Pacific Railway.” https://www.trains.com/ctr/railroads/fallen-flags/northern-pacific-railway-a-history/ Accessed 8/21/2022.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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