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Mapping the Northern Pacific Railroad

In mid-19th Century America, an expanding nation had a major transportation need: rail lines that could stretch from coast to coast. Western explorations and survey crews began to sketch out potential railroad routes in the decades before the American Civil War.

“Preliminary sketch of the Northern Pacific Rail Road exploration and survey” by I. I. Stevens, Governor of Washington Territory, 1855. Geography & Map Division.

Lloyd’s American railroad map of the US, seen below, shows three proposed rail routes: the Southern Pacific line, which would run through modern-day Texas and end in California; the Central Pacific line, which would run through the middle of the country; and the Northern Pacific, which would cross through the Dakotas and end in what was then Washington Territory. Congress debated which rail line should be constructed first, ultimately passing the Pacific Railway Act in 1862. This culminated in the completion of the first transcontinental railroad by 1869, which ended in Sacramento, California.

Map showing proposed rail routes across the United States

“Lloyd’s American railroad map of the United States…” by James T. Lloyd and Rae Smith, 1859. Geography & Map Division.

But what about the nation’s second transcontinental railway? Meet the Northern Pacific. Groundbreaking for the Northern Pacific took place in 1870, with Jay Cooke operating as the railroad’s main financer. Cooke had previously served as one of the Union Army’s main financers throughout the American Civil War. Now that the war was over, he turned his attention to rail.

As planned, the Northern Pacific would cross large stretches of uninhabited land across the northern reaches of the country, much of which was incredibly difficult to traverse during winter. Some of the landscapes along the route were not ideal for settled agriculture, so in order to succeed, the railroad would need to generate interest in bringing visitors to the area. 1870 also happened to mark the Washburn-Landford-Doane Expedition, the second formal expedition to the area we now know as Yellowstone, followed the next year by the Hayden Expedition. Cooke helped finance artist Thomas Moran’s inclusion in the Hayden Expedition, which generated national interest in the area through photographs and sketches. By 1872, Yellowstone was declared America’s first National Park. This was hugely beneficial to the railroad, which owned land just north of Yellowstone. For more detail, see Rand McNally’s 1890 map showing the Northern Pacific Railroad’s land grant.

Map showing land held by the Northern Pacific Railroad in green

“Map showing the land grant of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company…” by Rand McNally and Company, 1890. Geography & Map Division.

Tourism to the great mountains of the West would become inextricably linked to the strategy of the Northern Pacific, with railroad hotels situated inside Yellowstone National Park (such as the Lake Hotel, which would be built in 1891). The map below is a great example of a tourism map highlighting the natural splendor of the Yellowstone area, complete with detailed information on the Northern Pacific’s railway lines and available hotels.

“Yellowstone National Park, Northern Pacific Railroad” by Charles Fee and Poole Brothers, 1895. Geography & Map Division.

By 1873, rail line construction reached Bismarck, North Dakota and a decision was needed as to the the western terminus of the line. Young western cities in Washington Territory such as Seattle, Olympia, and Tacoma all competed for the role. Tacoma won the bid due to the large amount of vacant waterfront land it could offer the railroad, as well as the deep waters of Commencement Bay that were prime port material.

Panoramic map showing Tacoma, Washington in the late 19th century with Mt. Rainier in the background

“View of new Tacoma and Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, Washington Territory” by Eli Sheldon Glover, 1878. Geography & Map Division.

By 1873, things started to get complicated for the Northern Pacific. The United States Army set out on what is now known as the Yellowstone Expedition of 1873 to survey a route for the Northern Pacific along the Yellowstone River, wherein the expeditionary force encountered resistance from indigenous Sioux communities. Cost overruns for the railroad began to stack up, European investors began to look toward more local investment opportunities, and bond prices for the Northern Pacific began to fall. Towards the end of 1873, the Northern Pacific was unable to pay its bills and Jay Cooke was out of business.  Cooke’s fall played a large role in the “Panic of 1873,” wherein the US stock market fell and runs were made on the banks.

After 1873, control of the Northern Pacific would shift back and forth with different railway Presidents. One of the more controversial presidents was Henry Villard, already president of the Oregon and California railroad and heavily invested in steamboat lines in and around Oregon when he proposed to Northern Pacific that they connect their line to his. When they refused, he took over a controlling interest in the Northern Pacific, eventually becoming its President. Villard’s first move in 1881 was to announce an additional western terminus in Seattle, with the addition of an additional line between Tacoma and Seattle. He then focused on completing the rail line across the Rocky Mountains. 

Illustration showing men on stage competing for investor (audience) attention with drums and instruments

“The great rival adverting shows to “boom up” stocks” by Bernhard Gillam, 1883. Prints & Photographs Division.

By 1883, Northern Pacific was still struggling financially. The print above is an illustration of Villard advertising the Northern Pacific Railroad and Rufus Hatch (a Northern Pacific investor) advertising Yellowstone Park Company to American and European investors in a bid for greater investment in rail. By 1884, with mounting debts, Villard was forced to resign.

The final years of construction for the Northern Pacific focused on slowly completing construction across the Cascade mountains, culminating in the construction of a tunnel through Washington’s Stampede Pass. By 1888, the Stampede Pass tunnel was finally complete, allowing the first train to make it to Puget Sound. 

Map showing the final route of the Northern Pacific

“New and correct map of the lines of the Northern Pacific Railroad and Oregon Railway & Navigation Co.” Rand McNally and Northern Pacific Railroad Company, 1883. Geography & Map Division.


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