Northern Pacific Railroad

Map of NPR Land Grant, c1890

In1853 army teams were sent out to survey routes for a transcontinental railroad along the 32nd, 35th, 38th, 39th, 41st, 42nd, 47th, and 49th parallels. Isaac I. Stevens, Governor of Washington territory, led the party to survey the northern route. Stevens would survey the route from St. Paul. Captain George B. McClellan would lead a unit from Puget Sound to meet Stevens at Colville, Washington territory on the Columbia. With McClellan were Lt. John Mllan and Lt. Rufus Saxton. The Stevens party explored the general route taken by Lewis and Clark in 1804-06. They also explored the Coeur d’Alene and the upper Columbia. McClellan surveyed the area between Seattle and the Columbia, including Snoqualmie Pass. Stevens filed his report in 1855. It stated that it would be practical to bring a railroad through to the Pacific by way of the Valley of the Missouri or the Yellowstone. He recommended bypassing the Bitterroot Range and going further north near Lake Pend d’Orielle and on to Spokane. From there the route could either go across the Cascades to Puget Sound or along the Columbia to Portland, then north to Puget Sound.

His report was ignored at first in favor of the route along the 35th route favored by Secretary of State Jefferson Davis. He used the reasoning that this, and the route along the 38th parallel, would be the only ones free of snow. Also, now that California was a state, it badly wanted a railroad. Secretly, he was from the south and wanted to extend southern influence, i.e., support of slavery, across the southern United States. That effort resulted in Congress granting a charter to the Union and Central Pacific railroads in 1862. Those two railroads, Union being built west, and Central being built east, met at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869.

Stevens had died during the civil war, so the Northern Pacific had lost its champion. Josiah Perham, stepped in. He made friends with Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, the most powerful congressman. He proposed a northern Pacific route from Lake Superior to Puget Sound. This bill was passed by congress and was signed into law by President Lincoln on July 2, 1864. The land grant give the railroad 47,000,000 acres to the railroad. It also canceled any land titles along the route that had been given to the Indians. He was given permission to issue $100,000,000 in stock.

The original charter called for construction to start by July 2, 1866. But not enough money had been raised and Perham was able to get an extension. His debts were paid by a group of eastern investors, who took over the controls of the Northern Pacific. He died in 1868. J. Gregory Smith took over the effort for the investors, but was still unable to get adequate funds. Once again he had to have the construction date postponed to July 4, 1870, with completion time postponed to July 4, 1877. This time, mortgage of the railroad, its telegraph lines, and the land grant were permitted to raise funds. Jay Cooke and Company managed the financial end of the railroad. Cooke sent two survey teams into the field in 1869 to survey the feasibility of the route. W. Wilnor Roberts explored the Puget Sound and Columbia River areas and went east to the Rocky Mountain passes and the Upper Missouri country. Governor Marshall of Minnesota explored the route from Lake Superior west to the Red River of the North and across the Dakota plains to the great bend of the Missouri. It was decided that the main line would follow the Columbia, and the branch line would go through the Cascades. Construction cost was estimated at $85,277,000.

In 1870, Jay Cooke began selling bonds for the railroad. Large advertisements were sold in newspapers around the country and even in Europe. The merits of the Pacific Northwest were praised, namely the forests, mountain valleys, grassy plains, and mild climate, where bumper crops of grain and fruit could be raised. By the end of 1871, $30,000,000 had been raised. Groundbreaking for the railroad took place at Thomsons Junction, west of Duluth on February 15, 1870, but construction began in July. This spot would be where the Northern Pacific would meet the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad. The Minnetonka was built in 1870 for $6,700. It was the railroad’s first locomotive. It was first used in construction work in Minnesota, but later shipped to San Francisco by rail and by steamer to the Columbia River for construction at the west end of the line from Kalama to Tacoma, Washington.

But money ran out right away. Shipping rails around Cape Horn was enormously expensive. And the purchase of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company on the Columbia, Snake, and Willamette Rivers and on Puget Sound also took a big chunk. In 1872, Tacoma was finally chosen as the western terminus. Smith resigned from the board and General George Cass took over as president of the railroad.

In 1873, there was a financial panic and construction halted. The line had only gotten as far as Bismarck, North Dakota, 450 miles from Duluth. The line from Kalama to Tacoma had been finished but was not making any money. It was not connected to Portland by bridge, so passengers or freight had to be ferried across the Columbia. The company was bankrupt and had to be reorganized. In 1876-77, finances improved. In 1879, Frederick Billings took over as president. He urged completion be commenced as soon as possible. They were already past the deadline of July 4, 1879, and he knew Congress could repeal the charter at any time. Attempts had already been made to extend the deadline, but they had been blocked, mostly under the influence of the Union Pacific, which did not want to see its monopoly disappear. New bonds were issued and construction began in Hell Gate Canyon west of the Rockies and in Washington territory between Wallula and the Snake River crossing. First headquarters of the railroad had been at Brainerd, Minnesota, but were moved to St. Paul in 1880.

Things were finally looking up when Henry Villard stepped in. He had been president of the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company, the most successful transportation company in the country. He had a huge fleet of steamboats and connecting portage railroads. They had a main line along the south bank of the Columbia and had planned feeder lines in eastern Washington and Oregon. The area was his and he planned to keep it that way. On October 20, 1880, an agreement was reached whereby the Northern Pacific would use his rails on the south bank until they could build their own line. He wanted to make this arrangement permanent. But he soon realized that complete control of the Northern Pacific would be the only satisfactory arrangement. He and his wealthy friends bought controlling interest in the Northern Pacific.

By 1882 there was still 900 miles of track left to be laid between Glendive, Montana, and Ritzville, Washington. On the western end, thousands of Chinese were bought in as laborers. Mormons from Utah were subcontracted to grade. Veteran Swedes and Irish were hired on the eastern end. Between September 1881 and August 1883, the gangs laid about a mile and a half per day.

Now the construction problems began. It had been relatively flat land up to that point from St. Paul. Now they had to go over the Bridger Mountains of Montana. The grade was steep and eventually a 3,610 foot tunnel had to be drilled at 5,557 feet above sea level. While building the tunnel sticky blue clay kept sliding into the excavation and one landslide filled up a cut that had taken four months to excavate. They had to use hydraulic mining methods to sluice away the clay. Track laying in winter was difficult because they kept getting buried by snow. Bozeman was reached on March 14, 1883 and the first train came in on March 21. In June of 1883 the line reached Helena. Here was another difficult passage as a huge trestle over O’Keefe’s Canyon had to be built. It was 112 feet high and over 1,800 feet along. Another huge trestle was built over Marent’s Gulch at 226 feet high and 860 feet long.

Now a tunnel had to be built through the main divide of the Rockies. Mullan Pass was selected and approved by the Interior Department in May 1883. The tunnel would be 3,850 feet long. They expected to be drilling through hard rock to make the tunnel. But it was not, it was very soft. Almost the entire length had to be shored up with timbers. It even had to be bypassed temporarily.

On August 23, 1883 the east and west crews met at Hell Gate Canyon 55 miles west of Helena. A golden spike ceremony was held on September 8 at Gold Creek, Montana. The last spike was not actually golden, but was the first spike drilled in at Thomsons Junction, Minnesota. It was hammered by Mr. Davis, who had drilled the same spike in Minnesota.

Now it was time to complete the line from Pasco, across the Cascades to Seattle. Work began in 1884. There was no particular problem from Pasco to Thrall, just south of Ellensburg. Then started the hard work as they went up the mountains. Many bridges had to be built. V.G. Bogue, principal engineer, surveyed for the summit tunnel. The place he selected was then known as Garfield Pass, 75 miles east of Tacoma at 2,852 feet. It was renamed Stampede Pass. The tunnel would be 1.8 miles long. In 1886, bids were taken for building the tunnel. Sidney and Nelson Bennett had built the railroad from Pasco to Ellensburg and now wanted the rest of the job. Their low bid of $837,250 got them the job. Most thought they were out of their minds with such a low bid.

They began work on the approaches to the tunnel in February of 1886. Drillers began boring through the rock on the east side with hand drills. Other men diverted a waterfall. Some crews erected barracks, a hospital, supply buildings, and the engineers’ headquarters. Drilling averaged three and a half feet per day. Many men quit at the hard work. After four months the Bennetts bought a complete set of Ingersoll air operated drills in Tacoma. Production doubled right away. Then electric lighting was placed in the tunnel. Finally they were really making progress. They started using a platform car to haul out the blasted rocks. By May of 1887 they were making 14 feet per day. On May 27, the timbering of the tunnel had been completed and the first train rolled through.