Railroads Open Dakota for Settlement

The railroads opened North Dakota to a flood of land seekers.  They, especially the Northern Pacific and the Manitoba (Great Northern), made possible the white settlement of the prairies and plains.
Between 1871 when the Northern Pacific entered northern Dakota Territory and 1889 when North Dakota became a state, the railroad companies laid 2,093 miles of track.  The Northern Pacific’s main line crossed the state from Fargo to Beach; the Manitoba ran from Grand Forks to Williston.  And the railroads built hundreds of miles of branch lines, tracks that ran to areas north and south from the main line.  Northern Dakota became a gigantic web of railroad tracks.
Congress passed a bill for a northern railroad route, and President Abraham Lincoln signed the charter of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1864.  As incentive to build, the Northern Pacific received a generous tract of land—the biggest grant that Congress ever gave a railroad.  More than 50 million acres—20 sections per mile in Minnesota and Oregon and 40 sections per mile in Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington—went to the Northern Pacific.  The company, however, did not begin construction for five years.
Although the northern road attempted to attract investors, none showed interest until 1869, when the famous banking house of Jay Cooke and Company of Philadelphia offered to promote the financing.  Cooke signed a contract to see $100 million worth of bonds.  In return, he was to receive 12 percent commission and about three-fifths of the company’s stock. 
The financing of the Northern Pacific Railroad was the largest single business venture ever undertaken in the United States up to that time.  Plans called for the building of a 2,000-mile railroad from the head of the Great Lakes at Duluth to the Pacific Ocean through the yet unsettled northern country.
Jay Cooke sold the bonds that financed the Union government during the Civil War.  He knew the value of advertising and began an extensive campaign to sell the new railroad bonds.  Calling the area through which the right-of-way would pass the “fertile belt,” Cooke waged an all-out advertising campaign.  He raised five million dollars to start construction of a road that was to run from Thompson Junction near Duluth to the Red River.  After that, the company was to continue construction only as fast as he could sell the bonds.
The Northern Pacific was under construction and pushing toward the Red River.  It reached Moorhead in 1871.  By the summer of 1872 it had crossed the Red River, and by 1873 it was completed to Bismarck.  On the West Coast, 150 miles of track had been laid from Tacoma, Washington, to the Columbia River.  The tracks stopped in Bismarck because the Northern Pacific went bankrupt and had to reorganize.
In 1875 Frederick Billings became president of the Northern Pacific.  The company, reorganized under his management skills, made its first profit in 1876.  Now the railroad was able to secure the money it needed for completion.  By 1881 the Northern Pacific went through the Badlands and moved on to the Pacific.  A million-dollar bridge had been constructed across the Missouri at Bismarck, and branch line construction was under way.  From 1880 to 1887 the Northern Pacific built several branch lines.  In 1882-83, it ran tracks from Fargo to LaMoure along the James River.  Other lines were constructed north and south of Jamestown in 1883-85, and by 1887 a line that entered the state at Grand Forks was completed to the Canadian border.
Although the Northern Pacific was the first railroad to enter North Dakota, it would soon have to compete with another.  The Great Northern Railway had its beginning as the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad.  It, like the Northern Pacific, experienced financial difficulties.  The railroad eventually went into bankruptcy after it had built as far north as Crookston, Minnesota.
James J. Hill finally completed what the St. Paul and Pacific had set out to do.  After the depression of 1873, railroad building began again.  The Northern Pacific constructed a line from Brainerd to Sauk Rapids, which met with the St. Paul and Pacific by 1878, thus giving the road a St. Paul connection.  In March 1878 Hill and three associates signed an agreement with the investors of the St. Paul and Pacific to take control of that company.  Hill had to find money to complete the lines from Crookston to St. Vincent and from Melrose to Alexandria.  With his individual zeal, Hill secured the money, materials, and labor.  Under his personal direction, the line to St. Vincent was completed by December 1878.  This line met the Canadian Pacific, providing a direct connection between Winnipeg and St. Paul.  The Melrose-to-Alexandria line was finished the same year.
In 1870 the St. Paul and Pacific became the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba, which was commonly called the Manitoba.  Hill organized and managed the new company, which had 657 miles of track and nearly two million acres of land in the state of Minnesota. 
Under Hill’s brilliant management, the railroad progressed.  The old line was extended west of Crookston to the Fisher’s Landing, 14 miles east of Grand Forks.  Here supplies were loaded on the steamers for the trip north.  By the spring of 1880, tracks linked Fisher and Grand Forks.  From 1880 to 1884 the Manitoba made great strides in constructing branch lines.  Running north and south through the Red River Valley, lines connected Fargo, Grand Forks, St. Thomas, and Neche on the Canadian border.  Farther west, the Manitoba built from Wahpeton through Casselton, Mayville, Larimore, Park River, and finally to Langdon in 1887.  Two lines in 1883 went west, one from Wahpeton and one, which would be the main line, from Grand Forks to Devils Lake.  Later, two branch lines, one to Cando and the other to Bottineau, connected those towns with the main line at Devils Lake.  Hill’s road reached Minot in 885 and Williston in 1887.  This was a tremendous feat; road construction averaged three and a quarter miles per day.  In the next years, the line would reach the Pacific Coast, and its name would be changed to the Great Northern Railroad.
Three other major railroads were also built in North Dakota.  The Chicago and Northwestern ran a line from the southern part of the state to Oakes.  The Soo Line had track in the southeastern part of the state, and the Chicago-Milwaukee and St. Paul ran from Ortonville, Minnesota, to Fargo, with a branch line to Edgeley.
The railroads tied North Dakota to the grain markets of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Settlement progressed as rail lines extended through the state and the railroads promoted the region.  As Minneapolis became a chief milling center, more and more wheat would be needed.  The railroads provided the means of transporting wheat from the Red River Valley and brought supplies to the settlers.  The railroads, indeed, “created” North Dakota.

By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change