Northern Pacific and Great Northern Railroads

North Dakota’s history and development is inevitably tied to the Northern Pacific Railway.  Although North Dakota is “midwestern,” it was one of the last places to become a state in the contiguous US.  It only had enough population to become a state because of the Northern Pacific Railway.

The Homestead Act of 1862 gave settlers a right to claim 160 acres of land if they lived on it and cultivated it for five years.  Although this was a boon to other states, homesteaders were slow to move into North Dakota.  Only 28 claims were filed in North Dakota before the Northern Pacific Railway started being built in the territory.  After the railway was built, however, homesteaders poured into the area.  Most of the towns in North Dakota owe their establishment to the railroad moving through a particular area.  And the most populated area in North Dakota is still the line along that original Northern Pacific Railway.

The Northern Pacific Railway was built through North Dakota in the 1870’s.  Today, I-94 follows the original route of the Northern Pacific Railway.  Shortly after this line was completed, the Great Northern Railroad began a line about 100 miles north of the Northern Pacific Railway which ran from St. Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, Washington.  The train line formed a secondary population line in North Dakota and the towns along this route were all founded in the 1880’s.  In the late 20th century, the Great Northern Railroad merged with the Northern Pacific, the Burlington Northern, and the Topeka and Sante Fe Railroads to form the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF).

BNSF is the largest freight railroad network in the United States.  It has 32,500 miles of track in 28 states.  During the time Tom and I were in North Dakota, we lived along one of the BNSF transcontinental lines.  Trains went by Fort Union Trading Post frequently every day.  One time I counted 11 trains in one hour!  We saw locomotives pulling auto racks, boxcars, hopper cars, coil cars, flatcars, gondolas, intermodal equipment cars, refrigerated boxcars, and tank cars.  Usually there were two or three engines, but sometimes there were six or even eight.  Those trains were fully loaded and heading over the mountains in Montana.

Our favorite trains every day were the Amtrak trains.  The Empire Builder line ran by Fort Union twice a day.  The westbound train went by us around 11:30 in the morning.  The eastbound train went by about 6:30.  Because Amtrak doesn’t own its tracks, the Amtrak trains often ran late.  Tom liked to use the 11:30 Amtrak as a basis for when he relieved people for lunch.  One day, when he was relieving her at 1:30 for lunch, Ranger Bess commented that the Amtrak schedule was not a good basis for lunch relief.

We heard trains go by all day and night.  They had to blow their whistles at road intersections, and we got used to the two long, one short, and one long blast that signaled a crossing.  Although the trains ran less frequently at night, we learned to sleep through most of them.  A few of the heavier trains, however, shook the RV enough that we would wake up anyway.

The only time the train traffic lessened was when the Empire Builder derailed in Montana.  Tom and I had watched it go by the Fort around 11:30 and it derailed around 4 p.m.  After that it was a day before any trains used the tracks, and about a week before rail traffic was back to normal.  We had watched workers going up and down the tracks all summer, checking on safety issues, so we were surprised by the derailment.

Tom and I loved watching all the trains go by and it is one of the things we miss now that we are back in Ohio.  Here is my favorite poem about trains, one which I quoted often during the summer:

Travel by Edna St. Vincent Millay

The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.