The mainline began at Saint Paul, Minnesota, heading west and topping the bluffs of the Mississippi River, crossing the river to Minneapolis on a massive, multi-piered stone bridge. The Stone Arch Bridge stands in Minneapolis, near the Saint Anthony Falls, the only waterfall on the Mississippi. The bridge ceased to be used as a railroad bridge in 1978 and is now used as a pedestrian river crossing with excellent views of the falls and of the lock system used to grant barges access up the river past the falls. The mainline headed northwest from the Twin Cities, across North Dakota and eastern Montana. The line then crossed the Rocky Mountains at Marias Pass, and then followed the Flathead River and then Kootenai River to Athol, Idaho and Spokane, Washington. From here, the mainline crossed the Cascade Mountains through the Cascade Tunnel under Stevens Pass, reaching Seattle, Washington in 1893, with the driving of the last spike at Scenic, Washington, on January 6, 1893.

The Great Northern mainline crossed the continental divide through Marias Pass, the lowest crossing of the Rockies south of the Canadian border. Here, the rails enter Glacier National Park, which the GN promoted heavily as a tourist attraction. GN constructed stations at East Glacier and West Glacier entries to the park, stone and timber lodges at the entries and other inns & lodges throughout the Park. Many of the structures have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to unique construction, location and the beauty of the surrounding regions.

The Great Northern's Western Star streamliner in the Montana Rockies.

In 1931 the GN also developed the "Inside Gateway," a route to California that rivaled the Southern Pacific Railroad's route between Oregon and California. The GN route was further in-land than the SP route and ran south from the Columbia River in Oregon. The GN connected with the Western Pacific at Bieber, California; the Western Pacific connected with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe in Stockton, California, and together the three railroads (GN, WP, and ATSF) competed with Southern Pacific for traffic between California and the Pacific Northwest. With a terminus at Superior, Wisconsin, the Great Northern was able to provide transportation from the Pacific to the Atlantic by taking advantage of the shorter distance to Duluth from the ocean, as compared to Chicago.

The Great Northern energetically promoted settlement along its lines in North Dakota and Montana, especially by German and Scandinavians from Europe. The Great Northern bought its lands from the federal government—it received no land grants—and resold them to farmers one by one. It operated agencies in Germany and Scandinavia that promoted its lands, and brought families over at low cost. The rapidly increasing settlement in North Dakota's Red River Valley along the Minnesota border between 1871 and 1890 was a major example of large-scale "bonanza" farming.

Later History
In 1970 the Great Northern, together with the Northern Pacific Railway, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad and the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway merged to form the Burlington Northern Railroad. The BN operated until 1996, when it merged with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway to form the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway.

In popular culture
The Great Northern Railway is considered to have inspired (in broad outline, not in specific details) the Taggart Transcontinental railroad in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.
The railroad is mentioned in the lyrics of the Grateful Dead song Jack Straw: "Great Northern, out of Cheyenne, from sea to shining sea".

Route Map of the Great Northern Railway, ca. 1920.

By Elkman at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Route Map of the Great Northern Railway, ca. 1920.

The Great Northern Railway
The Great Northern Railway (reporting mark GN) was an American Class I railroad. Running from Saint Paul, Minnesota, to Seattle, Washington, it was the creation of 19th century railroad tycoon James J. Hill and was developed from the Saint Paul & Pacific Railroad. The Great Northern's (GN) route was the northernmost transcontinental railroad route in the U.S.

The Great Northern was the only privately funded — and successfully built — transcontinental railroad in U.S. history. No federal land grants were used during its construction, unlike all other transcontinental railroads. In 1910 the Great Northern fell victim to the deadliest avalanche in U.S. history at the site of the defunct town of Wellington, Washington.

Great Northern's Empire Builder, circa 1970.

Great Northern EMD E7 diesel locomotives, circa 1945.

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Great Northern EMD E7 diesel locomotives, circa 1945.
Great Northern EMD FT diesel locomotives, circa 1943.
Great Northern publicity tour featuring the Oriental Limited and the William Crooks, circa 1924.

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The Great Northern was built in stages, slowly to create profitable lines, before extending the road further into the undeveloped Western territories. In a series of the earliest public relations campaigns, contests were held to promote interest in the railroad and the ranch lands along its route. Fred J. Adams used promotional incentives such as feed and seed donations to farmers getting started along the line. Contests were all-inclusive, from largest farm animals to largest freight carload capacity and were promoted heavily to immigrants and newcomers from the East.

The earliest predecessor railroad to the GN was the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, a bankrupt railroad with a small amount of track in the state of Minnesota. James Jerome Hill convinced John S. Kennedy (a New York banker), Norman Kittson (Hill's friend and a wealthy fur trader), Donald Smith (an executive with Canada's Hudson's Bay Company), George Stephen (Smith's cousin and president of the Bank of Montreal), and others to invest $5.5 million in purchasing the railroad. On March 13, 1878, the road's creditors formally signed an agreement transferring their bonds and control of the railroad to Hill's investment group. On September 18, 1889, Hill changed the name of the Minneapolis and St. Cloud Railway (a railroad which existed primarily on paper, but which held very extensive land grants throughout the Midwest and Pacific Northwest) to the Great Northern Railway. On February 1, 1890, he transferred ownership of the StPM&M, Montana Central Railway, and other rail systems he owned to the Great Northern.

The Great Northern had branches that ran north to the Canadian border in Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana. It also had branches that ran to Superior, Wisconsin, and Butte, Montana, connecting with the iron mining fields of Minnesota and copper mines of Montana. In 1898 Hill purchased control of large parts of the Messabe Range iron mining district in Minnesota, along with its rail lines. The Great Northern began large-scale shipment of ore to the steel mills of the Midwest. At its height Great Northern operated over 8,000 miles.

The railroad’s best known engineer, 1889 to 1903, was John Frank Stevens. Stevens earned wide acclaim in 1889 when he explored Marias Pass, Montana, and determined its practicability for a railroad. Stevens was an efficient administrator with remarkable technical skills and imagination. He discovered Stevens Pass through the Cascade Mountains, set railroad construction standards in the Mesabi Range of northern Minnesota, and supervised construction of the Oregon Trunk Line. He then became the chief engineer in charge of building the Panama Canal.

Great Northern EMD E-7 No. 500 builders portrait.

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Great Northern's Empire Builder, circa 1970.

Great Northern EMD FT diesel locomotives, circa 1943.

Great Northern EMD E-7 No. 500 builders portrait.

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Great Northern publicity tour featuring the Oriental Limited and the William Crooks, circa 1924.

Great Northern EMD E7 diesel locomotives, circa 1945.
Great Northern herald.
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Passenger service

GN operated various passenger trains but the Empire Builder was their premier passenger train. It was named in honor of James J. Hill, known as the "Empire Builder." Amtrak's Empire Builder operates over much of the same route formerly covered by GN's train of the same name.

Named trains
Alexandrian: St. Paul–Fargo
Badger Express: St. Paul-Superior/Duluth (later renamed Badger)
Cascadian: Seattle–Spokane (1909 1959)
Dakotan: St. Paul-Minot
Eastern Express: Seattle-St. Paul (1903–1906) (replaced by Fast Mail in 1906)
Empire Builder: Chicago-Seattle/Portland (1929–present)
Fast Mail No. 27: St. Paul–Seattle (1906–1910) (renamed The Oregonian in 1910)
Glacier Park Limited: St. Paul–Seattle (1915 1929) (replaced by Oriental Limited in 1929)
Gopher: St. Paul-Superior/Duluth
Great Northern Express: (1909-1918) Kansas City-Seattle
International: Seattle-Vancouver, B.C.
Oregonian : St. Paul–Seattle (1910–1915) (replaced by Glacier Park Limited in 1915)
Oriental Limited: Chicago-St. Paul-Seattle (replaced by Western Star in 1951)
Puget Sound Express: St. Paul-Seattle (1903–1906) (replaced by Fast Mail in 1906)
Red River Limited: Grand Forks-St. Paul (later renamed Red River)
Seattle Express
Southeast Express: (1909–1918) Seattle-Kansas City
Western Star: Chicago-St. Paul-Seattle-Portland
Winnipeg Limited: St. Paul-Winnipeg

Unnamed trains
Nos. 23–30: St. Cloud–Grand Forks
Nos. 31–32: Sandstone-Willmar
Nos. 35–36: Duluth-Grand Forks
Nos. 43–42: Billings-Sweetgrass
Nos. 43–42: Billings-Great Falls local (GN's only RDC operation)
Nos. 47–48–49–50: Morris-Browns Valley
Nos. 53–54: Watertown-Sioux Falls
Nos. 61–60: Minneapolis-Hutchinson
Nos. 99–100: Fargo-Minot via Grand Forks
Nos. 105–106: Sauk Center-Bemidji
Nos. 131–132: Crookston-Noyes
Nos. 135–136: Crookston-Warroad
Nos. 161–162: Garretson-Sioux City
Nos. 185–186: Willmar-Huron via Benson
Nos. 197–198: Breckenridge-Larimore
Nos. 201–202: Grand Forks-Larimore
Nos. 215–215: Neilhart-Great Falls
Nos. 219–220: Berthold-Crosby
Nos. 221–222: Havre-Great Falls
Nos. 223–224: Williston-Havre
Nos. 235–236: Havre-Great Falls Western Star connection (later used GN's only RDC)
Nos. 237–238: Havre-Great Falls Empire Builder connection
Nos. 243–244–245–246–247–248–249–250: Columbia Falls-Kalispell
Nos. 253–254: Oroville-Wenatchee
Nos. 255–256: Nelson, BC-Spokane
Nos. 285–286: Snowden-Richey via Fairview
Nos. 287–288: Watford City-Fairview
Nos. 291–292: Fairview-Sidney
Nos. 301–302: Fergus Falls-Pelican Rapids
Nos. 317–318: Sioux Falls-Yankton
Nos. 359–358: Vancouver, BC-Seattle
Nos. 365–366: Great Falls-Augusta
Nos. 367–368: Lewiston-Moccasin
Nos. 373–374: Great Falls-Pendroy
Nos. 401–402: Seattle-Portland (four months per year) – joint Coast Pool train with NP and Union Pacific Railroad (UP)
Nos. 459–460: Seattle-Portland – joint Coast Pool train with NP and UP

See also:

James J. Hill - The Empire Builder

Railroads of the U.S.A.