The Pacific Northwest Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society

The Northern Pacific

By Glenn Laubaugh and Ron McCoy

The Northern Pacific was the second transcontinental railroad. President Abraham Lincoln, still in the midst of the American Civil War, signed the company charter in July1864 to build the route from the edge of Lake Superior to the port waters of Puget Sound, a vast inland network of natural deep waterways connected to the Pacific Ocean by the Straight of Juan de Fuca at the border with Canada. There was debate that this route should be the first transcontinental line to be constructed, rather than the Central Pacific / Union Pacific line that proved to be the first, but regardless of the order of construction, the Northern Pacific route was viewed as being substantially important to the monumental task of reuniting the war- torn United States.

In late 1870, regularly scheduled NP trains began operating between the NP headquarters town in Brainerd, Minnesota and Duluth, Minnesota, little more than one hundred miles west. Meanwhile, out west, work had only just begun with a survey by Northern Pacific representatives starting at Olympia, Washington. The starting point of the construction was selected to be a few miles south of where the Cowlitz River enters the Columbia River. The location was selected because it was felt that it was below the ice line on the Columbia River, and the depth of the river was about the same as at the mouth of the Columbia, which would have allowed ships of equal weight into the area. It was also thought that the location was reasonably convenient to the Willamette Valley, as river steamship service had started in the 1840's on the lower Willamette and Columbia River system. From that point, the surveyed line followed the Columbia River briefly, and then the Cowlitz River almost straight north toward the Puget Sound area.

On March 19, 1871, track laying was started at the site which eventually grew to become the town of Kalama, Washington. By early fall, the first 25 miles had been completed northward, and by November the track reached 65 miles to Tenino, Washington. Considering the remote and rough wilderness, this was admirable progress. However, a decision on the exact location of a terminus on Puget Sound had not yet been determined. There were no obvious large cities on the sound at that time, so any small community was just as good as any other, except for economic and geographical limitations.

At this time the NP purchased a 3/4 interest in the Oregon Steam Navigation Company. This company had an almost complete monopoly of the water-based transportation on the Columbia, Snake, and Willamette rivers and Puget Sound. This company was to have served as the transportation link between the end of the NP transcontinental line in eastern Washington, the Willamette Valley in Oregon, and Kalama and Puget Sound.

Surveyors spent a week touring Puget Sound by steamboat, viewing potential railroad terminal cities Olympia, Steilacoom, Mukilteo, Tacoma, and Seattle. The conditions in these various tiny villages were examined, as well as the surrounding geography and tidal conditions, and it was determined that Tacoma would make a good terminal. The NP Board made the decision official in September of 1872.

Even as a financial crisis was expanding to become the "Panic of 1873", progress did continue on the last 40 miles of the line to Tacoma. The first steam train reached Tacoma on December 16, 1873, and the line was accepted for regular operation in May of 1874. Soon however, the economic problems typical of the era constrained the company's finances. Problems also persisted in the line across the northern plains states, and progress in the Pacific Northwest stopped for a few years as the company and the nation struggled to emerge from the worst financial disaster since 1837.

The railroad was reorganized in 1875, possessing almost six hundred miles of rail line and ten million acres of land. However, control of the OSN was lost. Earnings improved, and in 1876, construction started on a 30-mile branch between Tacoma and new coalmines near Puyallup, WA giving the railroad access to its own local fuel supply.

During the spring of 1877, at a stockholders meeting, the prospect of extending the line from Kalama to Portland was officially mentioned. By late that year the coal line to Puyallup was completed and construction was progressing on 100 coal hoppers for use on the line.

In January of 1878 various surveys were provided to the Board, including routes across the Cascade Range. After more progress in the northern plains states and more high-level management changes, in June of 1879 a line proposal was sent to the Interior Department for a route from Puget Sound east through the Washington Territory. After approval, various land grant resources were sold to raise funds for continued construction. Construction in October started near what would become Pasco, WA for a line to connect with the east. However, due to weather and other problems construction mostly stopped with only 16 miles of track and 47 miles of grade work done.

By 1880 work was again moving to close the gaps in the incomplete line. In October 1880, NP struck a deal with the powerful Oregon Railroad & Navigation Company (OR&N) allowing the NP to use their newly constructed main line on the south bank of the Columbia (the Oregon side) and thus gain a route into Portland, Oregon. Northern Pacific intended to eventually build its own line, either down the Columbia or over the Cascades, but using the OR&N line was expedient way to tie the isolated western line to the growing NP network in the east. Work started on lines south from Pasco to connect to the OR&N at Wallula, and westward to Yakima, as well as progress toward Spokane Falls to connect with the line being built from the east.

In 1881 survey work was progressing in the Rockies, and on possible routes over the Washington Cascades. The Cascades route that would become known as Stampede Pass was discovered in March 1881. During the spring, track construction near Ritzville, WA was moving steadily. Completion of the entire 150 miles of track from the mouth of the Snake River, near Pasco, through Ritzville and Cheney, WA to Spokane Falls occurred on June 25. Work was also progressing southward.

With a modern fleet of steamboats and their new railroad east from Portland, the Oregon Railroad & Navigation Company now had an effective monopoly on transportation on the lower Columbia, and the deal allowing the Northern Pacific to use their tracks down the Columbia was the first of many steps that the OR&N took to protect that monopoly. In February 1881 the president of the OR&N, Henry Villard, organized his infamous "blind pool" used to purchase Northern Pacific stock. Throughout the course of 1881 & 1882, he exerted increasing control over the NP, eventually being elected its president. According to the author Louis T. Renz this was done to prevent the certain expansion of the NP from threatening the OR&N. Villard's use of the "blind pool" to gain control of the NP became an infamous example of the financial dealings of the era.

In August 1882 survey crews in the Washington Cascades determined the location for the 1.8 mile long tunnel at the summit of Stampede Pass, but the projected expense combined the conflicting goals of Henry Villard meant that this route would remain only a proposal for the time being.

In January of 1883, it was reported that 300 miles of track were remaining to complete the line over the Rockies. 250 miles of that were graded. In February of 1883, in the interest of finally connecting the Puget Sound line with the rest of the system, work started on a line from Portland north along the west bank of the Columbia River to a point opposite Kalama, WA where a ferry would be used to cross the Columbia River, half a mile wide at this point. On August 23, the NP lines were connected at a point 55 miles west of Helena, Montana, although the line was not officially "completed" until September 8. Certain traffic did pass over the line before official completion ceremonies occurred. For a more complete description of the ceremonies, please see The History of the Northern Pacific by Renz. The nation now had another trans-continental railroad, and railroad traffic could pass all the way through to Portland over the OR&N. This was the first all-railroad connection from the Pacific Northwest to the rest of the North American railroad system. It's important to note that at this point, the Puget Sound was still disconnected from the rest of the nation's growing rail system.

From 1874 to 1884, passengers and freight on the isolated rail line from Tacoma would transfer to steamboats at Kalama to continue their journey to Portland by going up the Columbia & Willamette Rivers. For various reasons work on the rail line north from Portland along the Columbia was slow, but by October of 1884 the line was in operation to Goble, on the Oregon side of the Columbia opposite from the end of the Puget Sound rail line in Kalama.

In 1883 a new railcar ferry, brought in 57,159 pieces from New York via sea ship was assembled in Portland. First christened Kalama, she was renamed Tacoma before being placed in service. At 338 feet long and 42 feet across her beam, she was the second largest ferry in the world. Attractively styled, the Tacoma was essentially a floating rail yard with three parallel tracks to carry entire trains, including engines, across the untamed Columbia. Launched on May 17, 1883, the Tacoma was placed into operation between Goble and Kalama in October, creating an all-rail route, albeit one requiring a short trip on the railcar ferry. After the ferry went into service, the NP saw a sharp increase in ridership between Portland and Tacoma, and by1883 four passenger cars were being operated on these trains, where before only one passenger car was needed.

Henry Villard lost control of the NP in 1884. In 1885 the new NP president, Robert Harris, personally inspected the planned location of the summit tunnel on the surveyed Stampede Pass route, and by February1886 the contractors had been selected. As the tunnel was being built, in June1887 the NP completed a tortured temporary route over the summit using a series of switchbacks, horseshoe curves and some towering timber trestles. The grade at one point reached a staggering 5.6%, limiting trains to a mere 5 cars with powerful locomotives placed on both ends. Despite the inherent danger of the line over the top, no serious accidents occurred during the year it was in use. On May 27, 1888 most work on the tunnel was complete enough for the first train to roll through. While expensive to build, this now gave the NP access to huge tracts of large timber, better access to its expanding coalfields northeast of Puyallup, and access to the growing agricultural towns of Washington. Perhaps more importantly, the Northern Pacific now had an uninterrupted rail route comprised solely of its own track from Lake Superior to the waters of Puget Sound, nearly twenty-four years after President Lincoln signed the company's charter.

A period of building branch lines to a number of locations followed.

In 1886, the Oregon & Washington Territory Railroad was formed to build from Wallula, Washington Territory to Pendleton, Oregon. Pendleton is located on the Oregon Railroad & Navigation line, so this was an effort to create some competition in that area. It was originally an independent company from the Northern Pacific, but was regarded as friendly to the NP. The line constructed several branch lines in the area, and graded and surveyed others. When the company ran low on capital, it was reorganized as the Washington & Columbia River Railway. This ultimately gave the NP a line from Wallula to Walla Walla, completed in late 1888 and a line from Wallula to Centreville (later renamed Athena) Oregon that was completed the same year. An addition to the Centerville line was also completed from Smeltz to Fulton on the OR&N, which was not far from Pendleton. By the early 1890's the reorganization had left the company under the control of the NP, but official integration with the rest of the NP corporation would not happen until the very early 1900's. Eventually a line was also built from Walla Walla to Milton-Freewater, Oregon.

From Kalama to Portland via the Washington Side:

In 1902, a NP related company called the Northwestern Improvement Company purchased the remains of a Union Pacific effort to build a railroad north from Portland to Vancouver and on to Puget Sound that dated from the 1890's. This included sections of graded right of way, and a stone pier in the middle of the Columbia River that had been constructed for the purpose of a bridge at that location.

The Portland & Puget Sound Railroad started construction of a line from Vancouver to Kalama, Washington. It is not entirely clear from the literature when this line started construction. In 1901 this company was taken over by the Washington & Oregon Railway Company. Construction of the line between Kalama and Vancouver was completed in 1901, according to Robertson. In 1903, it also became part of the Washington Railway & Navigation Company. Later in 1903, the WR&N was sold to the Northern Pacific, and became a non-operating subsidiary of the Northern Pacific.

In 1907, the NP line from Kalama to Vancouver was revised to main line status and a second track added. Work was completed in 1909.

The Spokane, Portland & Seattle, jointly owned by the NP and the Great Northern, eventually constructed the bridges over the Willamette and Columbia Rivers and connected the NP line in Oregon to Vancouver, Washington. Connection to the old west side line was made at what came to be known as Willbridge (short for "Willamette River Bridge") just south of what is now the community of Linnton. This completed an all-rail route from Portland to Puget Sound.

It soon became obvious that the line north from Kalama needed to have expanded capacity just as the line south from Kalama had done to it in preparation for the opening of the new bridges. By 1910, the line was handling trains from the Union Pacific, Great Northern, and the Northern Pacific. This single-track line saw 22 passenger trains and 18 freight trains per day at that time. Work therefore began on a project to improve this line. Included were grade reduction projects, track doubling, and the new Point Defiance tunnel in Tacoma. Also part of the plan was to eliminate the backing of trains over a drawbridge to get them in and out of the station in Tacoma. Although the total track distance would increase, the grade reduction was thought to be worth it.

There were many changes over the years to the NP that cannot be covered here. In particular, the many complex financial moves, the entire complex nature of the NP land grant, and a number of other items not directly related to NP operations in the Northwest could fill many pages. For those interested in a more complete history of the Northern Pacific, we suggest the various resources listed below.

The NP, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist in 1970 after the Burlington Northern merger.

The History of the Northern Pacific Railroad © 1980 by Louis Tuck Renz, published by Ye Galleon Press, Fairfield, Washington. ISBN 0-07770-235-7. ASIN: B0000EE2ED

The NORTHERN PACIFIC - Main Street of the Northwest © 1968 by Charles R. Wood, published by Superior Publishing Company, Seattle, Washington. ASIN: B000UCWB6O

Library of Congress Catalogue Card Number 68-26752.

Early Oregon Days, © 1987 by Edwin D. Culp, published by The Caxton Printers, Ltd., Caldwell, Idaho. ISBN 0-87004-314-5

Library of Congress Catalogue Card Number 86-23294.

Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, by Lewis & Dryden, edited by E.W. Wright, published by The Lewis & Dryden Printing Company, 1895, p. 320: