THE NORTHERN PACIFIC RAILROAD
Perhaps no other industry in the history of America captures the adventurous spirit embodied in capitalism quite like that of the railroad. And the completion of the Northern Pacific as America's second trans-continental railroad offers no better example of the triumph of the entrepreneurial spirit in the face of overwhelming odds. In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Northern Pacific's charter making it the beneficiary of the largest government railroad land grant in American history. This grant would eventually include over forty million acres and a vast extinguishment of Indian land titles. The original incorporators, led by the tireless advocate Josiah Perham set out to link Lake Superior to Puget Sound. It would take nearly twenty years and countless heartaches and setbacks until the final spike completing the line was ceremoniously driven on September 8, 1883 fifty-five miles west of Helena, Montana.
The history of the N.P's growth as an entity is filled with the stories of western legend and Wall Street intrigue. From the white-collar offices of New York investment bankers to the lowliest Chinese coolie worker grading the road, the construction of the Northern Pacific was fraught with danger. Indeed, the early engineering parties were protected by non other than George Armstrong Custer as the railroad cut a swath through lands of the Sioux and other Indian tribes. As Indian lands shrank, opportunity grew for the capitalist white man. And a mesmerized Wall Street continued to pour millions upon millions more into the new frontier which offered untold potential riches, as well as some of the greatest financial risks ever taken by the investment community. As one of the largest corporate undertakings of the 19th century, the Northern Pacific’s development attracted many of America’s most well-known financiers, bankers, industrialists and businessmen from virtually every imaginable pursuit.
By the time the road was completed in 1883, it had already gone through two reorganizations and it would ultimately suffer more. The fortunes of illustrious Americans such as Jay Cooke, Frederick Billings and Henry Villard would become inextricably tied to the railroad’s success and failure. Villard’s “Blind Pool” strategy to secretly secure funding for a takeover remains today as one of the boldest market innovations in Wall Street history.
Great pioneer American photographers such as William H. Jackson, Edward Curtiss, Charles Russell, Timothy O'Sullivan and the Northern Pacific’s official photographer F. J. Haynes brought eastward via the road awe-inspiring images of the wonders of Yellowstone Valley and the unique intrigue of the American Indian. These extraordinary photographs would become a most important medium for selling the west. They also remain today as an essential reminder of what inspired the Northern Pacific’s tireless developers who risked so much to see the railroad through to completion.
In the final analysis, the Northern Pacific and its various branch and subsidiary lines contributed in large part to the opening of the Northwestern United States. Vast natural resources including minerals and timber were tapped. Immigrants traveled from around the globe seeking better opportunity and indeed, many fortunes were won by those who barely spoke a word of English upon their arrival in America. The numerous frontier boom and bust towns which sprang up along the NP and its branch lines remain today as a testament to its importance in America’s history. The Northern Pacific Railroad opened the opportunity for many to realize the American Dream. As such, its story offers us one of the finest examples of the human spirit to realize that ideal.