A railway to remember

James J Hill and Louis Hill
Louis Hill (right), son of James J. Hill (left), oversaw the creation of Glacier Park Lodge in Montana, a natural jewel accessible by the St. Paul family’s Great Northern Railway. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

On Jan. 6, 1893, near the town of Scenic, Washington, the final spike was driven to complete the Great Northern Railway’s transcontinental route — connecting St. Paul to Seattle.

The Great Northern Railway was the vision of James J. Hill, known as the “Empire Builder” for his work extending the rail lines and the resulting towns, industry and tourist destinations that sprang up along the route.

In 1912, upon retiring, Hill said, “Most men who have really lived have had, in some shape, their great adventure. This railway is mine.”

This scene of Glacier National Park — painted by John C. Fery in 1900 — was one of many used to promote the new destination on the Great Northern Railway line. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Crossing the Rockies

Hill began his rail career in 1866 as an agent with the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, the first company to lay track and operate regular trains in Minnesota.

Hill made a fortune in railroad investments and in 1889, he changed the name of the Minneapolis & St. Cloud Railway — which he had acquired years earlier — to the Great Northern Railway Co.

Under this new name, the railway took over the highly successful St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway Co., and by the end of 1890, the Great Northern Railway Co. was operating 3,260 miles of track.

All that was left to do to create a completely transcontinental railroad was to find a place to cross the Rocky Mountains.

Great Northern Railway engineer John F. Stevens located the perfect spot at Marias Pass in Montana. At 5,215 feet, it was the highest point on the line above sea level. By January 1893, the final work was completed and by summer the West and the East were linked by regular service.

Hill House interior
Hill House interior

The ‘ultimate American experience’

Hill enjoyed great success with his railroad and was able to move his family to a new mansion at 240 Summit Ave. in St. Paul. Completed in 1891, the mansion became the largest and most expensive home in Minnesota — at 36,500 square feet, including 13 bathrooms, 22 fireplaces, 16 cut-glass chandeliers, a large art gallery and a staff of 14.

Part of Hill’s success was that he didn’t just build rail lines: He also established towns along the routes and sent agents to Europe to encourage immigrants to populate them.

He invested in industries like wheat, iron ore and lumber to help drive a demand for rail use. He funded research into livestock and crops that would yield the most income for farmers along the line.

When his son, Louis, took over as Great Northern Railway president, he too invested in businesses that would drive rail traffic. Louis focused on passengers instead of cargo and used tourism to promote the line.

In 1908, Congress established Glacier National Park, and Louis Hill jumped into action, building a vision for the park that he could market to train riders. Louis oversaw the creation of hiking trails, roads and an elegant hotel — Glacier Park Lodge — which still hosts visitors today with much of its history remarkably preserved.

He based his vision for the park on a Swiss chalet theme, but he promoted the park and taking the train to get there as the “ultimate American experience.”

See America First seal from Great Northern railcars
An image of a white Rocky Mountain goat was emblazoned on Great Northern railcars and promotional decals to entice tourists to visit Glacier Park Lodge by rail (circa 1925–1960). Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Louis’ Glacier Park marketing campaign used the slogan “See America First,” and an image of a white Rocky Mountain goat was emblazoned on Great Northern railcars. He enlisted the Blackfeet Indians as park ambassadors and hired professional artists and writers to capture the scenery and people of Glacier.

Hundreds of works of art depicting Glacier adorned the walls of the Glacier Park Lodge, offices and depots of the Great Northern Railway, and banks and clubs across the country. The campaign proved successful, and the Great Northern logo became one of the most well-known images in all of American advertising.

Today the line from St. Paul to Seattle is operated by Amtrak and is called the “Empire Builder.”

Jessica Kohen is the media relations manager for the Minnesota Historical Society.