Then and Now: Great Northern Railroad

April 8, 2019 GMT

James Jerome Hill, a Canadian-American born in 1838, was a rail tycoon of the 19th century. At 18 he settled in Minneapolis, working as a bookkeeper, eventually learning the freight and shipping business. He was also adept at math and land surveying, and helped to start a steamship company and a coal business.

Following the Panic of 1873, Hill gathered partners Norman Kittson, Donald Smith, George Stephen and John Stewart Kennedy, and bought the bankrupt Saint Paul and Pacific Railroad, which he built into the Great Northern Railway, expanding east toward Wisconsin and west toward Montana.

The first Great Northern train rolled into Spokane in May 1892, starting a long association between the company and the city. Through the 1890s, while completing his railroad from Minneapolis to Seattle, he built a large complex of repair shops just north of Spokane, a strategic spot on the plains between the Rocky Mountains and Seattle. He built the Great Northern depot on Havermale Island in 1902.

The Great Northern pushed west, where they advertised the Northwest as the place to settle for European immigrants. The company bought large tracts of farmland, divided them and sold them off to settlers.

Hill put his massive rail yard outside Spokane city limits to avoid city taxes and he resisted early attempts at annexation. The yard would grow to become the biggest rail shop west of the Mississippi, including a 20-stall engine house. The Hillyard shops produced the largest and most powerful steam engine to date, the R-1 Mallet, based on the designs of Swiss inventor Anatole Mallet. Between 1927 and 1930, 26 were built there.

Hill died in 1916.

Through the 20th century, rail traffic declined. Organizers of the 1974 Spokane world’s fair pleaded with rail companies to remove their infrastructure around the river.

The Great Northern merged with the Northern Pacific Railway, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad and the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway to become the Burlington Northern in 1970. Its traffic was moved to the Northern Pacific tracks. The rails, trestles and depot on Havermale Island were cleared for Expo ’74. The Clocktower is all that’s left of the Great Northern depot.