Building the Northern Pacific Railroad

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When construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad came to a halt in 1873, James B. Power changed American railroad history by introducing the large-scale wheat farm.

James B. Power, a land commissioner for the Northern Pacific Railroad, was instrumental in the completion of one of the most important railroads in American history. In fact, if it weren’t for Power and his bonanza farm plan, the Northern Pacific may very well have met a different fate.

Trouble for the Northern Pacific Railroad

In 1873, the eastern rail crew of the Northern Pacific Railroad had just finished laying 450 miles of track, from Duluth, Minnesota, to Bismarck, North Dakota. Meanwhile, in Washington State, the western crew had begun building the other end of the railroad. But with 1,500 miles of unbroken ground still separating the two crews, they received orders to stop construction. The railroad had run out of money.

Northern Pacific officials were partly to blame. They had made too many expensive purchases, like 50 extra “first-class” locomotives. Worse, their money lender, Jay Cooke & Company – then the biggest bank in America – went broke. Soon an economic depression swept the country, and no one could help finance the railroad. Just when it looked like America’s dream of a transportation system from Lake Superior to the Pacific Ocean would remain a dream, James B. Power stepped in.

Power’s Bonanza Farm Plan

As land commissioner for the Dakota division of the Northern Pacific Railroad, Power believed the railway could be completed if more people would move to North Dakota, where the Northern Pacific owned nearly a fourth of the vast land. Settlement would bring in money for the railroad through land sales and busier railroad traffic. It seemed like a logical solution.

The only problem was, people didn’t want to move to North Dakota. Many referred to the region as the “Great American Desert.” They thought the cold, dry prairie held little opportunity and wondered whether anything could grow in such harsh weather.

But Power argued that the land actually contained excellent soil for growing crops, especially wheat. That plus North Dakota’s mild summers made it an ideal place to start a wheat farm. Hard spring wheat (the best wheat for making bread) grew especially well there. Power thought the railroad would benefit the most from farms that produced large amounts of hard spring wheat to fill the Northern Pacific’s grain cars.

“[I have] strong faith that dirt on the line of the N.P. is a good thing . . . and in the end will prove profitable,” Power told the Northern Pacific Railway’s Board of Directors in Hiram Drache’s The Day of the Bonanza.

Indeed, one farmer had even become rich off his sizable wheat crop. Others could too, urged Power. By advertising and offering deals on land, he tried to attract settlers.

Northern Pacific Railway Investors Set an Example

People still had doubts about the “Great American Desert,” but in 1874 Power managed to convince two railroad investors—Northern Pacific president George Cass and director Benjamin Cheney—to put his plan into action. Cass and Cheney cashed in their railroad bonds and bought a large tract of land near Casselton, North Dakota. Next, they hired Oliver Dalrymple to develop and manage a wheat farm for them. Dalrymple had already operated a large wheat farm in Minnesota and had a solid reputation along with the experience that Cass and Cheney lacked.

Bonanza Farms Bring Settlers

With Dalrymple in charge, Cass and Cheney’s farm grew from about 13,000 acres to more than 30,000 acres. It became known as the first bonanza farm because of its large production of wheat, producing 600,000 bushels during one peak year. What’s more, news of Cass and Cheney’s success brought throngs of settlers to North Dakota to try this large-scale wheat farming.

Operating a bonanza farm like Cass and Cheney’s was like running a big company. Dalrymple used as many as 1,000 men and hundreds of horses, plows, and reapers to help seed and harvest the wheat. Although most bonanzas were smaller than Cass and Cheney’s (some, in fact, measured only a few thousand acres), all bonanza farms needed many helpers—and not just in the field. Other typical employees included bookkeepers, blacksmiths, and cooks.

Although the majority of bonanza farms closed before the turn of the twentieth century, the population of North Dakota had increased by more than 1,000 percent, dispelling the myth of the “Great American Desert.” More importantly, the Northern Pacific raised enough money to complete the railroad. Workers began laying track again. In 1883, the eastern and western rail crews met in Montana and drove the last spike into the ground. Soon after, trains were traveling from Minnesota to Washington.

Thanks to Power and his bonanza farm plan, the Northern Pacific Railroad is remembered today as America’s first northern transcontinental railroad and one of the most important railways in American history.

Sources:

  1. Cass County Historical Society. “Bonanzaville USA History” (2005).
  2. Drache, Hiram. The Day of the Bonanza. Minneapolis: Lund Press, 1964.
  3. Lubetkin, M. John. Jay Cooke’s Gamble: The Northern Pacific Railroad, the Sioux, and the Panic of 1873. Norman, Ok.: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006.
  4. Nolan, Edward W. Northern Pacific Views: The Railroad Photography of F. Jay Haynes, 1876-1905. Helena: Montana Historical Press, 1983.
  5. Northern Pacific Railway Historical Association. “A Brief Introduction to the Northern Pacific Railway.”
  6. Robinson, Elwyn B. History of North Dakota. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.