A Brief Introduction To The Northern Pacific Railway


Surviving almost 107 years of rugged history, the Northern Pacific Railway was a rare American institution.  Rooted in Lewis and Clark's exploration of the Northwest Territories, President Abraham Lincoln chartered it as the first northern transcontinental railroad on July 2, 1864.


The idea seemed simple - create a direct route between Lake Superior and the Puget Sound.  The reality was less so.  Geographically, the Northern Pacific had to run the North Dakota Badlands, climb the steep continental divide of Montana, and traverse the equally challenging Cascades of Washington.  Organizationally, it had to survive numerous financial upsets, takeovers, reorganizations, several Panics (1873, 1893), and lawsuits while trying to reach the twentieth century.  Even most of the land granted along its right-of-way had not attained statehood by September 7, 1883 - date of the final connecting spike driven at Gold Creek, Montana.


The railroad that emerged rightfully earned its place in American railroad history.  The NP pioneered two super-power locomotive designs - the 4-8-4 "Northern" in 1926 and the 2-8-8-4 "Yellowstone" in 1928 - both to eliminate the dual use of smaller locomotives on passenger and freight trains.  The NP was the earliest adopter of roller-bearing technology on steam locomotives (acquiring the famous Timken "Four Aces" demonstrator 4-8-4 locomotive in 1933). It was one of the last railroads to rely upon steam power due to the vital economics of its company-owned lignite coal mines.


The Northern Pacific offered famous passenger service through the North Coast Limited beginning in 1900.  The railroad created the first national park connection, proudly featuring the famous "Yellowstone Park Line" in its name until the adoption of "Main Street of the Northwest" after World War Two.  Even the corporate logo held an ancient pedigree - the distinctive red-and- black Monad that symbolizes important universal dualities (Yin and Yang) went from a symbol of good luck to a sign of good transportation.  (It was inspired by a Korean Flag seen at the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair.)


By the early 1950s, the NP commanded over 6,888 route miles in its system.  Modernization included Electro-Motive diesels, lighter-weight streamlined passenger cars, and a new two-tone green color scheme for the North Coast Limited by the famed industrial designer, Raymond Lowey.


On March 2, 1970, the Northern Pacific Railway Co. (NP) was merged with the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad Co. (CB&Q), Great Northern Railway Co. (GN), Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway Co. (SP&S), and their subsidiaries to become the Burlington Northern Railroad (BN).  On September 22, 1995, the Burlington Northern Railroad (BN) and the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad (AT&SF) completed their merger to become the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. (BNSF)  The latest railroad covers 33,000 route miles in 28 states and two Canadian provinces.