Ridin’ the Northern Pacific Route | TheFencePost.com
YOUR AD HERE »

Ridin’ the Northern Pacific Route

Candy MoultonTracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad now skirt the north bank of the Columbia River in western Washington.

Buy Photo

St. Paul, Fargo, Jamestown, Bismarck, Glendive, Billings, Livingston, Bozeman, Missoula, Spokane, Yakima, Tacoma … These are some of the largest towns in the Northern Plains and Northwest, all either spawned – or given a growth hormone – by the construction of the Northern Pacific Railway that went into service 126 years ago.

President Abraham Lincoln chartered the line on July 2, 1864, as the first northern transcontinental railroad through a region where few communities existed. The twin rails eventually stretched west from the Great Lakes to Puget Sound, traversed the North Dakota Badlands, Montana’s eastern prairie, and climbed across (or through) the Continental Divide separating western Montana and Idaho and the Cascades in Washington. Once construction started, it took 20 years before the line overspread the general route pioneered by Lewis and Clark.

Like the rugged terrain, the railroad development itself had peaks and valleys. It was affected by financial swings including the Panic of 1873, takeovers, and reorganizations. When the final spike linking the road was hammered home at Gold Creek, Montana Territory, on September 7, 1883, there were still vast areas with few people. Much of the area remained territorial – statehood would come in 1889 for North Dakota, Montana, and Washington, and in 1890 for Idaho. Minnesota had been a state since 1858.



Groundbreaking for the eastern section of the line started in 1870 near Carlton, Minn., and during the next three years crews pushed west from Duluth, Minnesota, to Bismarck, in Dakota Territory. Simultaneously western crews began building from Kalama to Tacoma – a town organized to serve the railroad – in Washington Territory. Jay Cooke, the Civil War bond financier, played the first pivotal role in development of the Northern Pacific, pushing the line west across Minnesota and into North Dakota during his three years of company management.

The route west begins in Minnesota. I made my first trip there in last September, and while I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked – and did not get to visit some of the nearby historic sites – it was great to be in St. Paul with its very cool, very interesting architecture. My hotel room window had a view of the St. Paul Basilica.



The Northern Pacific began operating from St. Paul on December 23, 1868. With new bonds issued and under Cooke’s fiscal control, construction picked up and two years later the 155-mile run between St. Paul and Duluth was in place. By 1871 the line had been completed across Minnesota and had spanned the Red River at present Fargo.

As the tracks of the Northern Pacific overspread the prairie and pushed into lands occupied by the Sioux, President Ulysses S. Grant ordered military troops into the field to protect crews both surveying and building the line. In may of 1872, troops from Fort Ransom, Dakota Territory, marched west taking 40 days’ rations. They camped where the Northern Pacific rails would transverse the James River.

You can follow the Northern Pacific Route west across North Dakota on Interstate 94, a highway nearly as straight as a rail line, but that sweeps through farmland west of Fargo. Make a stop at Jamestown, situated along the James River. The troops ordered to survey and protect track layers established Camp Sykes, named for Colonel George Sykes of the 20th Infantry but soon called Fort Cross and then renamed Fort William H. Seward on November 19, 1872. This final and lasting name for the post came to recognize the Secretary of State during the Lincoln administration (and the man who had been responsible for purchasing Alaska from Russia).

Built on a ridge above the James River, Fort Seward had more than 30 buildings including barracks, a company kitchen, mess room, company office, storeroom, three officers’ quarters and four sets of laundresses’ quarters. There was a guard house and hospital. No original buildings remain at Fort Seward, which was in use from 1872 to 1877, but you can see the locations of building foundations and learn about the post at the Fort Seward Interpretive Center.

Also in Jamestown visit the Frontier Village, a collection of historic buildings from the region that now sit adjacent to the National Buffalo Museum, where you will have an opportunity to see White Cloud, a white buffalo revered by area Indian tribes.

From Jamestown continue west on I-84. The rails reached Bismarck in 1873. Camp Hancock, now a state historic site in Bismarck, was established in 1872 in advance of the railroad track layers. This camp was expected to be a temporary post that would serve the Northern Pacific crews as they moved across North Dakota, but Cooke’s efforts to build the line failed on September 18, 1873, when his banking company, having overextended itself, closed, precipitating the Financial Panic of 1873.

Since it was at the end of the tracks, Camp Hancock soon became a supply depot for nearby forts and the Northwest Territory. Today there are exhibits related to its use as a railroad supply point and as a weather monitoring station.

Facing financial difficulties, the tracks dead-ended at the Missouri River in 1872, but when construction resumed railroad supplies were ferried across the river, and during winter tracks were laid right on the ice. By 1882 the company was reorganized as management shifted from Cooke to Henry Villard. That year the railroad bridge across the Missouri River was completed at Bismarck. This original bridge still spans Missouri between Bismarck and Mandan providing a tangible link to the past for both communities.

Railroad surveys and track construction pushed across the Dakota Badlands and into Montana Territory. The route pushed west through Glendive, Billings and on to Livingston, which became an important stop on the early Northern Pacific, especially after company officials established the Yellowstone Branch of the line, providing easy access to Yellowstone National Park, which had been established in 1872 with support from Jay Cooke and other representatives of the Northern Pacific.

Visit the Livingston Depot Center, a building constructed by the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1902, and which now houses a museum with exhibits and photos about the line.

Railroad construction crews – including more than 4,000 men, some 2,600 of them Chinese laborers – had a difficult time building the line through western Montana, digging or blasting cuts and tunnels, as the tracklayers crossed Bozeman Pass to the town named for John Bozeman and pressed on to Missoula.

Northern Pacific Railway construction began at both eastern and western terminuses, and the two ends joined near Gold Creek, Montana Territory, about 60 miles east of Missoula on August 22, 1883, although the official celebration of the road’s completion did not take place until September 8. While Northern Pacific officials attempted to keep secret the earlier joining of the rails, about 500 people gathered on that day in August when the “unofficial” completion occurred. They had arrived in “carriages and dashing turnabouts,” and were “flitting hither and thither over the freshly mowed greensward,” a Missoula newspaper reported. Upon the joining of the rails, a boxcar from Seattle traveled east over the line. The first east-to-west-bound transcontinental train arrived in Portland on September 11, 1883, marking the official beginning of service on the entire length of the NP.

From Missoula the NP continues west through Idaho’s panhandle and then on to Spokane, Wash. Explore Riverfront Park before you continue west.

The railroad headed toward Pasco and then chugged through the Yakima Valley on the way through the Yakima Canyon to Ellensburg. When the line reached the Cascades it became necessary to build switchbacks in the steepest sections over a route known as Stampede Pass (so named when workers “stampeded” back to Seattle after hearing they would be forced to work even harder). The Stampede Pass line was in place on June 1, 1887, but the following year workers hired by Nelson Bennett of Tacoma completed the “Stampede Tunnel” eliminating the switchbacks.

Unlike the Union Pacific, the Northern Pacific Railway received no government loans to effect construction, although 44 million acres were provided in the largest land grant ever approved for a single rail line development. The railroad financiers promoted the land – beginning with Jay Cooke who advertised a temperate climate and attracted hundreds of Scandinavian families to North Dakota. German settlers also took advantage of the land grants settling across both North Dakota and Montana. In Washington, railroad financing came in part through sales of land grants to logging companies.

St. Paul, Fargo, Jamestown, Bismarck, Glendive, Billings, Livingston, Bozeman, Missoula, Spokane, Yakima, Tacoma … These are some of the largest towns in the Northern Plains and Northwest, all either spawned – or given a growth hormone – by the construction of the Northern Pacific Railway that went into service 126 years ago.

President Abraham Lincoln chartered the line on July 2, 1864, as the first northern transcontinental railroad through a region where few communities existed. The twin rails eventually stretched west from the Great Lakes to Puget Sound, traversed the North Dakota Badlands, Montana’s eastern prairie, and climbed across (or through) the Continental Divide separating western Montana and Idaho and the Cascades in Washington. Once construction started, it took 20 years before the line overspread the general route pioneered by Lewis and Clark.

Like the rugged terrain, the railroad development itself had peaks and valleys. It was affected by financial swings including the Panic of 1873, takeovers, and reorganizations. When the final spike linking the road was hammered home at Gold Creek, Montana Territory, on September 7, 1883, there were still vast areas with few people. Much of the area remained territorial – statehood would come in 1889 for North Dakota, Montana, and Washington, and in 1890 for Idaho. Minnesota had been a state since 1858.

Groundbreaking for the eastern section of the line started in 1870 near Carlton, Minn., and during the next three years crews pushed west from Duluth, Minnesota, to Bismarck, in Dakota Territory. Simultaneously western crews began building from Kalama to Tacoma – a town organized to serve the railroad – in Washington Territory. Jay Cooke, the Civil War bond financier, played the first pivotal role in development of the Northern Pacific, pushing the line west across Minnesota and into North Dakota during his three years of company management.

The route west begins in Minnesota. I made my first trip there in last September, and while I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked – and did not get to visit some of the nearby historic sites – it was great to be in St. Paul with its very cool, very interesting architecture. My hotel room window had a view of the St. Paul Basilica.

The Northern Pacific began operating from St. Paul on December 23, 1868. With new bonds issued and under Cooke’s fiscal control, construction picked up and two years later the 155-mile run between St. Paul and Duluth was in place. By 1871 the line had been completed across Minnesota and had spanned the Red River at present Fargo.

As the tracks of the Northern Pacific overspread the prairie and pushed into lands occupied by the Sioux, President Ulysses S. Grant ordered military troops into the field to protect crews both surveying and building the line. In may of 1872, troops from Fort Ransom, Dakota Territory, marched west taking 40 days’ rations. They camped where the Northern Pacific rails would transverse the James River.

You can follow the Northern Pacific Route west across North Dakota on Interstate 94, a highway nearly as straight as a rail line, but that sweeps through farmland west of Fargo. Make a stop at Jamestown, situated along the James River. The troops ordered to survey and protect track layers established Camp Sykes, named for Colonel George Sykes of the 20th Infantry but soon called Fort Cross and then renamed Fort William H. Seward on November 19, 1872. This final and lasting name for the post came to recognize the Secretary of State during the Lincoln administration (and the man who had been responsible for purchasing Alaska from Russia).

Built on a ridge above the James River, Fort Seward had more than 30 buildings including barracks, a company kitchen, mess room, company office, storeroom, three officers’ quarters and four sets of laundresses’ quarters. There was a guard house and hospital. No original buildings remain at Fort Seward, which was in use from 1872 to 1877, but you can see the locations of building foundations and learn about the post at the Fort Seward Interpretive Center.

Also in Jamestown visit the Frontier Village, a collection of historic buildings from the region that now sit adjacent to the National Buffalo Museum, where you will have an opportunity to see White Cloud, a white buffalo revered by area Indian tribes.

From Jamestown continue west on I-84. The rails reached Bismarck in 1873. Camp Hancock, now a state historic site in Bismarck, was established in 1872 in advance of the railroad track layers. This camp was expected to be a temporary post that would serve the Northern Pacific crews as they moved across North Dakota, but Cooke’s efforts to build the line failed on September 18, 1873, when his banking company, having overextended itself, closed, precipitating the Financial Panic of 1873.

Since it was at the end of the tracks, Camp Hancock soon became a supply depot for nearby forts and the Northwest Territory. Today there are exhibits related to its use as a railroad supply point and as a weather monitoring station.

Facing financial difficulties, the tracks dead-ended at the Missouri River in 1872, but when construction resumed railroad supplies were ferried across the river, and during winter tracks were laid right on the ice. By 1882 the company was reorganized as management shifted from Cooke to Henry Villard. That year the railroad bridge across the Missouri River was completed at Bismarck. This original bridge still spans Missouri between Bismarck and Mandan providing a tangible link to the past for both communities.

Railroad surveys and track construction pushed across the Dakota Badlands and into Montana Territory. The route pushed west through Glendive, Billings and on to Livingston, which became an important stop on the early Northern Pacific, especially after company officials established the Yellowstone Branch of the line, providing easy access to Yellowstone National Park, which had been established in 1872 with support from Jay Cooke and other representatives of the Northern Pacific.

Visit the Livingston Depot Center, a building constructed by the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1902, and which now houses a museum with exhibits and photos about the line.

Railroad construction crews – including more than 4,000 men, some 2,600 of them Chinese laborers – had a difficult time building the line through western Montana, digging or blasting cuts and tunnels, as the tracklayers crossed Bozeman Pass to the town named for John Bozeman and pressed on to Missoula.

Northern Pacific Railway construction began at both eastern and western terminuses, and the two ends joined near Gold Creek, Montana Territory, about 60 miles east of Missoula on August 22, 1883, although the official celebration of the road’s completion did not take place until September 8. While Northern Pacific officials attempted to keep secret the earlier joining of the rails, about 500 people gathered on that day in August when the “unofficial” completion occurred. They had arrived in “carriages and dashing turnabouts,” and were “flitting hither and thither over the freshly mowed greensward,” a Missoula newspaper reported. Upon the joining of the rails, a boxcar from Seattle traveled east over the line. The first east-to-west-bound transcontinental train arrived in Portland on September 11, 1883, marking the official beginning of service on the entire length of the NP.

From Missoula the NP continues west through Idaho’s panhandle and then on to Spokane, Wash. Explore Riverfront Park before you continue west.

The railroad headed toward Pasco and then chugged through the Yakima Valley on the way through the Yakima Canyon to Ellensburg. When the line reached the Cascades it became necessary to build switchbacks in the steepest sections over a route known as Stampede Pass (so named when workers “stampeded” back to Seattle after hearing they would be forced to work even harder). The Stampede Pass line was in place on June 1, 1887, but the following year workers hired by Nelson Bennett of Tacoma completed the “Stampede Tunnel” eliminating the switchbacks.

Unlike the Union Pacific, the Northern Pacific Railway received no government loans to effect construction, although 44 million acres were provided in the largest land grant ever approved for a single rail line development. The railroad financiers promoted the land – beginning with Jay Cooke who advertised a temperate climate and attracted hundreds of Scandinavian families to North Dakota. German settlers also took advantage of the land grants settling across both North Dakota and Montana. In Washington, railroad financing came in part through sales of land grants to logging companies.


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User