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Silk Train Passed Speedily Through Grand Forks


Silk has a natural beauty unmatched by lesser fibers. Silk ranks among the strongest of fibers and among the most lustrous and shiniest materials on earth, and softest to the touch. Nothing holds the color of dye more deeply than silk.

Spun by silkworms into cocoons, silk has always been a luxurious commodity. From 1900 to the late 1930s, silk cargoes, originating in Japan, passed through North Dakota from Seattle on special “silk trains,” in order to get raw silk across the continent to manufacturers in New York City.

On this date, in 1915, the <i Bismarck Tribune published a news report revealing that a “silk train valued at a million and a half dollars” passed through Grand Forks “on train 28 on the Great Northern” Railway. Four railcars were “packed end to end with bales of the finest silk,” destined for elite clothiers.

The Great Northern Railway competed for prestige with the Northern Pacific and the Union Pacific to be the leading cross-country transporters of the precious silk cargoes. The price of the valuable commodity fluctuated rapidly, so manufacturers wanted shipments delivered on time. Furthermore, raw silk was delicate and vulnerable to damage by heat, noxious fumes, excessive moisture or by puncture, so speed was essential. Great Northern silk trains set new transcontinental records by sending special trains on dedicated tracks.

Insuring silk cargoes was expensive, for fear of damage or theft. If stolen, it was nearly impossible to track down, being raw and unmarked. Therefore, silk trains were not often sidetracked, thus reducing exposure to robbery.

The silk trains were highly profitable for the Great Northern and other railways. “Pound for pound, silk earned more for the railway than any other product,” wrote UND historian Gordon Iseminger, in his masterful account of silk train history. After gold and silver, silk was the most-expensive product shipped by railroads, though it was far lighter in weight.

Many trainloads of silk passed through Grand Forks from 1910 until February, 1937, when the Great Northern Railway ran its last silk train. Demand for silk had declined as rayon and nylon took market share, and shipments slowed as Japanese and U-S relations deteriorated.

So ended the era of fabulously-fast silk trains passing through North Dakota.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: “Train of Silk Worth Million and a Half,” <i Bismarck Daily Tribune, February 11, 1915, p. 6.

Gordon L. Iseminger, “Silk Trains on the Great Northern Railway,” <i Minnesota History 54, no. 1 (Spring 1994), p. 18-20.

“A Trainload of Silk Passed Through Grand Forks Yesterday on Great Northern,” <i Grand Forks Daily Herald, October 23, 1906, p. 5.

“Why Roads Carry Silk So Rapidly,” <i Grand Forks Daily Herald, October 18, 1911, p. 4.

“Silk Train Makes New Record Run,” <i Grand Forks Daily Herald, November 5, 1915, p. 2.

“Silk Around The World; Speed Records Made in Handling This Precious Commodity,” <i Bismarck Daily Tribune, June 22, 1912, p. 17.

“Fastest Train Passes Through Minot,” <i Ward County Independent, October 19, 1911, p. 9.