Marias Pass, Montana is the lowest U.S. railroad crossing of the Continental Divide. Here a BNSF (successor to Great Northern) train emerges from a snow shed.
The Great Northern Railway was the only "transcontinental" service built with almost no land grants from the federal government, and one of the few that did not go into receivership in the Panic of 1893. It's transcontinental route primarily from St. Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, Washington was north of the Northern Pacific route. This was the sixth railroad company in the United States to offer transcontinental service. Their route was built up slowly by making each part commercially successful before building further. It was completed in 1893.
Settlers were attracted to nearby communities because the railroads provided access to markets. Railroads encouraged settlement along their routes to help increase the need for their service. For example, the Great Northern in some cases paid immigrant expenses from Europe, supplied seed and animals to start-up farmers, held promotional contests for largest farm animal and largest freight car capacity. If an ancestor settled near a railroad, you may be able to trace their place of origin back to another place along the tracks.
Early transcontinental railroad visionaries proposed several possible routes including one along the border with Canada. Such a route offered more flat prairie land and known mountain passes, but had the disadvantage of less population and greater snow-weather problems.
The Great Northern was formed by James J. Hill in 1889 by merging three railroads, the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway, and the Montana Central Railroad. His goal was the produce profits on lines before extending them further. He also sought the flattest, straightest possible route with fewest curves. The Great Northern crossed the continental divide at Marias Pass, 5,213 feet, lowest divide crossing south of the Canadian border.
A few months after the transcontinental line was completed the Panic of 1893 started. Hill aggressively reduced expenses, including repeatedly cutting employee wages. By also cutting fares, freight rates, and extending credit he actually increased the value of the Great Northern Railway during the panic. However, after the panic there were strikes and he had to restore wages to pre-panic levels.
Routes were also extended into Montana mining areas, and south from Seattle into California. The California connections made the Great Northern one of the main competitors to the Union Pacific Railroad. The Great Northern, the Northern Pacific, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, and the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railways merged to become the Burlington Northern in 1970. In 1995 a merger with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad created the BNSF Railway.
From east to west some of the most signficant towns on a typical route were:
- Chicago, Illinois
- Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin
- La Crosse, Wisconsin
Great Northern Railway route map about 1920 in brown.
- St. Paul, Minnesota
- Minneapolis, Minnesota
- Moorhead, Minnesota
- Fargo, North Dakota
- Minot, North Dakota
- Culbertson, Montana
- Havre, Montana
- East Glacier National Park, Montana
- Kalispell, Montana
- near Coeur d'Alene, Idaho
- Spokane, Washington
- Seattle, Washington
Settlers who made their way west on the Great Northern Railway were likely to be from the Midwestern states, especially Illinois, Wisconsin, or Minnesota. The railroad also helped some overseas immigrants from Eastern Europe settle along their lines. Most people using the Great Northern to migrate would have settled in Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, or Washington, but especially Minnesota and Washington.
There are no known passenger lists for the Great Northern Railway. GN employee records were destroyed as a result the 1970 merger.
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