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Northern Pacific Railroad


On this day in 1870, officials of the Northern Pacific Railroad held a groundbreaking ceremony, driving the first spike of a new transcontinental railway that would eventually connect Lake Superior to Puget Sound on the Pacific coast. The event was held at Northern Pacific Junction, about 20 miles west of Duluth, Minnesota. The place where the Northern Pacific Railroad would meet the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad was also known as Thompson’s Junction, and is now known as Carlton, Minnesota.

About the same time, a start was made on a line running eastward from Portland Oregon. The Northern Pacific, often called the “N-P,” would be a vital transportation link for Dakota Territory, enabling a huge increase in the flow of people and goods into and out of the territory.

Further south, the Union Pacific had built a line from east to west, the Central Pacific had built from west to east, and the two railways had met at Promontory Point Utah, nine months before the Northern Pacific groundbreaking. The NP would provide an additional main line across the northern tier of states and territories.

By the end of 1870, tracks were laid across Minnesota as far as the Red River. Moorhead and Fargo began to develop as soon as it was revealed where the line would cross into Dakota. As the line proceeded westward across the vast grasslands, the route chosen by the surveyors and engineers determined the locations of Valley City, Jamestown, Bismarck, Mandan, Dickinson, and numerous other towns. A century later, another important transportation artery, Interstate 94, would follow roughly the same path across North Dakota.

The Northern Pacific had considerable financial, legal and engineering challenges to overcome, including periods of mismanagement and corruption, the Financial Panic of 1873, Indian attacks, and getting through the Rocky Mountains.

In North Dakota, the most formidable obstacle was the Missouri River. Bismarck was the end of the line from 1873 until 1879. Then westward progress continued with a temporary crossing accomplished by laying ties directly on the frozen river. This practice continued for three winters until a million-dollar bridge was completed in 1882.

Finally, in September of 1883, the eastern and western portions of the NP met at Gold Creek, Montana Territory. With bands playing, former President Ulysses S. Grant and NP President Henry Villard drove the ceremonial final spike. It was the same spike used 13 years earlier to mark the beginning of construction near Duluth, on this day in 1870.