Read CHAPTER XII - THE NORTHERN PACIFIC RAILROAD of Minnesota Its Character and Climate, free online book, by Ledyard Bill, on

The vast reach of country lying between the Bed River and the Cascade range of mountains possesses, to some extent, a climate little inferior in healthfulness to that of Minnesota itself. The same dry, westerly winds sweep over it, and are even more marked in their continental character. Invalids will undoubtedly find as great advantages arising from a residence there as in any other part of the Union, yet for the present there are no means of easy access to any portion of this immense district. By-and-by this will be changed.

The many natural curiosities abounding in this little-explored region would alone prove sufficient to attract thither great numbers of our people, but when the almost unparalleled attractions of the climate are added, the travel and immigration must eventually become enormous.

The Northern Pacific Railroad, the power which is destined to transform these Territories into States, is being pushed rapidly westward, with the promise of an early completion.

To the energy of Jay Cooke, of Philadelphia, the distinguished banker and philanthropist, will belong, perhaps, the chief honor of its completion. Not that this great enterprise might not be begun and carried to a triumphal close by others, since the government subsidies would, in time, together with the demand for this additional highway across the continent, enlist men of resolute character and ample means, yet, withal, every new and great undertaking has somewhere a correspondingly great spirit, impelling self and co-workers to the contest and achievement of the desired ends, and we recognize in this vast enterprise the hand of this indefatigable man. Of course the able and influential associates in the board of directors must share in the honor of this national work, and their names will go down in history as among the benefactors of the country in which they lived.

How lightly we speak now of continental roads since one is a veritable fact. Novelties, to Americans, pass rapidly away.

How few realized, in 1860, that the coming decade would witness the completion of one and the beginning of another iron road across the continent. Ah! those brief years brought revolution in many things. The social fabric of half the Union was not less overturned in this brief period than were the accustomed avenues along which ran the world’s trade and commerce.

The Northern Pacific Railroad was chartered by Congress in 1864, and was approved by President Lincoln on the second of July of that year. It has no government aid beyond a right of way and cession of the public lands along its line; each alternate section for a width of twenty miles in the States and forty miles in the territories. This, as is estimated, will give, according to the survey of Gen. W.M. Roberts, about fifty millions of acres, large portions of which are known to be very fertile, while much will lie in the rich mining districts of Montana Territory.

This generous donation of public lands by the people is well deserved by this second great national enterprise. It is the only method whereby the isolated and distant portions of the interior can become utilized. The value of the remaining lands of the government will become tenfold what the whole would be if left to time and private enterprise for their development. The work was actively begun in 1870 on the Duluth end of this road; and it is expected that the present year (1871) will see it completed to the Red River, a distance of about two hundred and thirty-three miles from the above-named city. Quite a number of miles of iron had been laid at the time of our late visit, and as many more miles graded; with half a thousand men actively engaged in forwarding the vast undertaking.

The road is already completed to the Mississippi above Crow Wing, and from there will follow in nearly a straight line to Fort Abercrombie, the head of navigation on the Bed River. Here it will unite with the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (owned and operated by the Northern Pacific Railway, a branch of which it now is), already in running order half the distance from St. Paul. This line, with all its rights and franchises, has been recently purchased by the Northern Pacific, and will greatly aid in supporting the main trunk when completed.

In addition to the force on the eastern end of this road, there has been assembled at the Pacific terminus an able corps of engineers and contractors, who have already commenced the construction there, and thus the great road across the continent will be pushed to final completion, probably within five years from the first commencement of the undertaking.

The road, as located by Engineer Roberts in his report, is laid from the head-waters of Lake Superior in a nearly due westerly line across the State of Minnesota to Red River, near Fort Abercrombie; thence “across the Dakota and Missouri Rivers to the valley of the Yellow Stone, and along that valley to Bozeman’s Pass, through the Belt range of mountains; thence down the Gallatin Valley, crossing the Madison River, and over to the Jefferson Valley, and along that to the Deer Lodge Pass of the Rocky Mountains; thence along Clarke’s Valley to Lake Pend d’Oreille, and from this lake across the Columbia plain to Lewis or Snake River; down that to its junction with the Columbia; along the Columbia to the Cowlitz, and over the portage to Puget Sound, along its southern extremity, to any part which may be selected.”

A branch road is to follow the Columbia River to the vicinity of Portland, together with a link connecting the two western arms.

By this route, which may be materially departed from in the final location, the distance will swell to near two thousand miles between the two grand termini, and it is estimated will cost, with its equipments, from seventy-five to one hundred millions of dollars.

The route of this road is known to be more feasible than was that of the present line to California. Its elevations are much less, and the natural obstructions of the mountain ranges more easily surmounted, while the climate invites, on account of its high sanitary character, both the immigrant and invalid.

The line from Omaha to California shows that for nine hundred miles the road has an average height above the sea of over five thousand feet, the lowest point in that stretch being over four thousand; while the corresponding distance, embracing the mountain ranges, along this Northern Pacific line, is near two thousand feet lower than the other, giving, in this difference in elevation, according to the usual estimate, over nine degrees advantage in temperature. This becomes important in an agricultural view, as well as in the immediate and constant benefit in the increased facility for operating a railway.

In addition, the curvature of the thermal lines of the continent bear away to the northward of the surveyed route of this great enterprise, insuring almost entire freedom from snow obstructions other than is common to any of the principal railway lines in the States themselves.

The extent of country tributary to this road is entirely unparalleled by that of any other. Along the present finished continental line an uninhabitable alkaline desert stands across and along its pathway for many miles, while the Northern line leaps from valley to valley, all more or less productive, and in which large supplies of coal and timber are found sufficient for ages to come.

Of this region, and the general line of this road, the Hon. Schuyler Colfax writes as follows:

“Along the line of the Northern Pacific Railroad, as it follows up the water-courses, the Missouri and the Yellowstone on this side, and descends by the Valley of the Columbia on the other, a vast body of agricultural land is waiting for the plow, with a climate almost exactly the same as that of New York, except that, with less snow, cattle in the larger portion of it can subsist on the open range in winter. Here, if climate and fertility of soil produce their natural result, when railroad facilities open this now isolated region to settlement, will soon be seen waving grain-fields, and happy homes, and growing towns, while ultimately a cordon of prosperous States, teeming with population, and rich in industry and consequent wealth, will occupy that now undeveloped and almost inaccessible portion of our continental area.

“But this road is also fortunate in its pathway across the two ranges of mountains which tested so severely the Pacific Railroads built on the central line, and the overcoming of which reflected such well-deserved honor on their energetic builders. At the Deer Lodge Pass, in Montana, where it crosses the Rocky Mountains, its altitude above the sea is three thousand five hundred feet less than the Union Pacific Railroad at Sherman, which is said to be the highest point at which a locomotive can be found in the world. And on the Pacific side of the continent it is even more fortunate. From Arizona up to the Arctic Circle the Columbia is the only river which, has torn its way through that mighty range, the Andes of North America, which in California is known as the Sierras, but which in Oregon changes its name to the Cascades. Nature has thus provided a pathway for the Northern Pacific Road through these mountains, the scaling of which, on the other line, at an elevation of over seven thousand feet (a most wonderful triumph of engineering), cost the Central Pacific millions of dollars, and compelled them for seventy miles to maintain a grade of over one hundred feet to the mile twice the maximum of the Northern Pacific at the most difficult points on its entire route.

“It is fortunate, also, in its terminus on the Pacific coast. No one who has not been there can realize the beauty of Puget’s Sound and its surroundings. One hundred miles long, but so full of inlets and straits that its navigable shore line measures one thousand seven hundred and sixty miles, dotted with lovely islets, with gigantic trees almost to the water’s edge, with safe anchorage everywhere, and stretching southward, without shoals or bars, from the Straits of Fuca to the capital and centre of Washington Territory, it will be a magnificent entrepôt for the commerce of that grandest ocean of the world, the Pacific.”

One of the chief districts to be opened to trade and commerce by the construction of this road is that known as Prince Rupert’s Land, in British America. This region of country has been recently organized under the name of Manitoba, and embraces the rich and extensive valleys of the Red, Assiniboine, and Saskatchewan Rivers. A population of several thousands already inhabit this section, and a branch railway is to be constructed along the valley of the Red River from the point of crossing by the Northern Pacific Road, and under its immediate auspices. The influence on this people, whose interests will then be almost wholly identified with those of our own, cannot be doubtful. It requires no prophecy to determine their ultimate destiny. The time is not distant when all of British America must become “one and indivisible” with us, and the knell of parting government is likely to be sooner sounded in the region of the Red River than elsewhere along the line of our frontier.

An additional advantage inheres in this Northern Pacific line of prime importance, and that is in the fact of its offering to commerce a shorter route by several hundred miles to the Pacific coast than that which now exists. To Japan and China, from Puget Sound, is likewise, by more than half a thousand miles, less than from the port of San Francisco. This difference is sufficient to give, eventually, to this route the carrying trade of those countries.

Who can question the greatness and power which lies slumbering along the line of this royal road, through which, as through a great, pulsing artery, the life, even now already dawning, will soon throb with a force which shall vitalize this Territory, vast as an empire, and richer than the fabled realms of an Arabian tale.