By Hope Good

The building of the railway across the plains proved one of the most thrilling adventures enacted in America. It provided some of the most dramatic episodes in our rich history.

More than a century ago, men who had only dreamed of a great highway across the continent of North America saw it become a reality. After much preliminary discussion and many surveys, a bill was submitted to Congress in 1855 proposing three routes to the Pacific coast. The proposed routes included the “Southern Pacific,” the “Central Pacific,” and the “Northern Pacific.” Both the Senate and House of Representatives were able to pass the Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862 and 1864. These laws granted rights of way and use of building materials along the way, a 20-million-acre land grant, and government support for loans of 60 million dollars to companies that would build the transcontinental railroad and its feeder lines. Those companies included:

  • The Union Pacific Railroad, to be built from the Platte River Valley in Nebraska to the border between Nevada and California, with two feeder lines from Omaha and Sioux City
    The Central Pacific Railroad, to be built as a feeder line from Sacramento over the Sierra Nevada to meet the Union Pacific eastwards and to San Francisco in the West
    The Leavenworth, Pawnee & Western, later to be known as the Union Pacific Eastern Division, which was to link the 100th meridian Southeast with Kansas City
  • The charters awarded to the railroads provided rights of way and use of stone and timber to build the roadbed, and granted 6,400 acres of land for each mile of railroad built. Based on the estimates made after the surveys, the government agreed to provide nearly half the needed capital for the project – about 60 million dollars. More than 50 million dollars would have to be raised by private investors.

President Abraham Lincoln chartered the “Northern Pacific” as the first northern transcontinental railroad in a bill on July 2, 1864. It was granted some 47 million acres of land in exchange for building rail transportation to an undeveloped territory. Control of the Northern Pacific Railway was at that time in the hands of Henry Villard, one of the most remarkable characters in the history of the United States. Geographically, the Northern Pacific had to run through the North Dakota Badlands, climb the steep continental divide of Montana, and traverse the equally challenging Cascades of Washington. Organizationally, the railroad had to survive numerous financial upsets, takeovers, reorganizations, and lawsuits while trying to reach the twentieth century.

In addition to many setbacks, it also had to travel across land that had not yet attained statehood. It was recognized that the task of building a railway across the continent was beyond the powers of private enterprise, so grants of land and money were made. A strip of territory through public lands 400 feet wide was granted for this. In addition, the government gave land to the extent of 3,200 acres, with a radius of ten miles on either side of the line, for every one mile of track. Financial assistance took the form of bonds, payable in gold. Vermont lawyer, Fredrick Billings, became the president of the company in 1879. Billings reorganized and created bond sales, which allowed the Northern Pacific to strike out across the Missouri River.

Villard became President of the Northern Pacific Company in 1881 and immediately directed his energies to speeding the completion of the northern transcontinental route. On September 8, 1883, the eastern and western branches of the railway met at Gold Creek in Hellgate Canyon, Montana, thus bringing into operation some 2,260 miles of line.

One of the most important works undertaken in creating the Northern Pacific was the construction of trestles and bridges along the rough terrain of the Cascade and Rocky Mountains. The Cascade Mountains constituted a formidable barrier. Huge rifts in the mountains had to be spanned by massive timber trestle bridges, for which millions of feet of lumber were cut in the vicinity of the line. Mountain streams were also bridged by great timber structures, and these pioneer methods proved most successful in reducing the high cost of construction. Ledges and tunnels were cut into the mountains to accommodate the track. Trestles were among the most spectacular of the structures built for the railroads. Deck trusses and beam girder bridges were popular solutions for the railroads in the 1890s, as both forms were sturdy and dependable (not to mention visually dramatic).

The railroad construction across the Northern Great Plains averaged 5-8 miles per day in laid track. Initially, the Great Northern Railroad was poised to angle south through central Montana as a pass had not been located in the northern part of the state, but the plan was changed during the winter of 1887 when they came across the Marias Pass.