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First Train to Bismarck


In 1853, the army completed a survey to assess the possibility of running a railroad across what was to become North Dakota. The results showed that there was no serious obstacle. Congress chartered the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1864, giving it a land grant of 50 million acres. The railroad enlisted Philadelphia banker Jay Cooke to assist with financing. He raised an initial $5 million. After that, the Northern Pacific could build the railroad only as fast as Cooke could raise money.

The Northern Pacific faced serious financial difficulties. The company’s accounting methods were so poor that it was impossible to determine the cost per mile to build the railroad. The officials spent money recklessly, often faster than Cooke could raise it. Cooke advanced money from his own bank so the railroad construction could continue. In seemed that progress was made in spite of the company rather than because of it.

On this date in 1873, the first Northern Pacific train finally pulled into Bismarck. The Northern Pacific was a significant factor in Bismarck’s development, and the small settlement grew into a thriving city. The original Northern Pacific depot was a plain wooden building that would be destroyed by fire in 1898. A new depot was completed in 1901. The prominent architectural firm of Reed and Allan designed a Spanish Revival building. It was a rather surprising choice for the Northern Plains. The Bismarck Weekly Tribune hailed the design and said the building was the finest depot in the entire Northern Pacific system. The Commercial Club of Bismarck boasted that the depot was noted for its beauty, and was one of the notable sights in the city. Everyone agreed that Bismarck could be justifiably proud of the new edifice.

In 1916, the depot serviced 24 passenger trains daily. But passenger train travel declined by the 1950s. The Northern Pacific merged with four other lines to become the Burlington Northern, and passenger traffic was discontinued. In 1977, the Bismarck depot was entered into the National Registry of Historic Places. For a time, it was used by Amtrak, but the last passenger train pulled out of Bismarck in 2009. Today the old depot houses the Fiesta Villa Mexican Restaurant.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Robinson, Elwyn B. History of North Dakota. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966

Bismarck Weekly Tribune. “New Depot is Completed.” 6 December, 1901

Bismarck Historical Society. "http://www.bismarckhistory.org/?id=32" http://www.bismarckhistory.org/?id=32 Accessed 18 April, 2015.