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Free Railway Passes as a Corrupting Special Privilege, 1901


There was a time in North Dakota when some people had free passes to ride on trains, while most people had to buy a ticket. Those who had passes were proud to have them, but those who didn’t figured these free train rides were evil, having a corrupting influence on North Dakota’s political system.

Certain people needed free transportation. It made sense that railroad employees would get free passes to get to work, and as a public service, pastors also got courtesy passes, as did medical doctors.

The big problem with these free tickets was that state senators and representatives got railroad passes to travel to the capital of Bismarck for their legislative duties. Bismarck is situated in the middle of the state ND, it was still far from many legislators’ hometowns. The only fast way to get to Bismarck, in the time before automobiles, was by train.

Other free rides for government officials went to judges, U.S. Senators and Congressmen. They could go wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted.

The Northern Pacific and the Great Northern Railway officials also gave gratuitous passes to newspaper editors, allowing journalists to zip around to cover news events, but this was usually a matter of trading advertisements for tickets.

In the 1890s, the main giver of free passes was Alexander McKenzie, North Dakota’s political boss. McKenzie represented the Northern Pacific in Bismarck, peddling influence. If you did what Boss McKenzie wanted you to do, you could get free passes for yourself, your relatives, and your friends.

On this date in 1901, the Grand Forks Herald informed readers that railway passes were going to continue, despite public outrage. Concerned citizens felt this special privilege corrupted state politics, considering it out-and-out bribery. People knew there was no such thing as a free gift – there were always strings attached –because railroads expected favorable treatment from those ticket-holders, thereby influencing lawmakers and judges.

Therefore, reformers wanted to eliminate this special privilege. It took years, but, finally, in 1911, the state outlawed free railroad passes for all politicians and government officials. The only people who still got free transportation were railroad employees and their families, clergymen, and medical doctors.

The political evil of free railroad passes was finally eliminated.

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

Sources: “Passes To Continue” Grand Forks Daily Herald, October 12, 1901, p. 1.

“Passes Sent Out For The Faithful,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, February 22, 1908, p. 8.

“Two Cent Fare In N.D., Grand Forks Daily Herald, January 9, 1907, p. 6.

“An Anti-Pass Bill Passed,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, February 1, 1911, p. 1; Will Ring Death Knell To Passes,” Bismarck Tribune, June 28, 1911, p. 8; “Representatives Pass the House Anti-Pass Bill,” Bismarck Tribune, February 15, 1911, p. 5; “Anti-Pass Legislation,” Bismarck Tribune, January 5, 1911, p. 6; “Now That The Passage,” Bismarck Tribune, January 17, 1911, p. 4; D. Jerome Tweton and Theodore Jelliff, North Dakota: The Heritage of a People (Fargo: N.D. Institute for Regional Studies, 1983), p. 112, 132-133.

“Progressives Gain Object,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, June 19, 1910, p. 13.

“How About Passes,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, June 11, 1910, p. 8.

Charles Aldrich and N.M. Hubbard, “Bribery By Railway Passes,” North American Review 138, no. 326 (January 1884): 89-99.

“Constitutional Law; Police Power; Railroad Passes,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review and American Law Register 64, no. 8 (June 1916): 834-836.

Hannah Broen Hoff, The Bridge (Fergus Falls, MN: Lutheran Brethren Publishing Company, 1978), p. 39