Steel Wheels and Tires in the North Country

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Steel Wheels and Tires in the North Country

Published in the Daily Record July 11, 2019

On a recent road trip along U.S. Route 2 from Everett, Washington, to Duluth, Minnesota, I was struck not only by the spectacular scenery (I can recommend the journey to anyone), but also by the fact that almost everywhere my wife and I drove, we were close to the tracks of what is now called the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. I had a feeling, which I later confirmed to be accurate, that the tracks we kept seeing were a single train line built by one BNSF predecessor railroad, the Great Northern, and that there was a story there. It’s a story of nature, business, and law – all of which dictated us traveling along the same path as the rails.


Much of what I learned came from a huge academic history of the Great Northern (Ralph W. Hidy et al., 1988) that I picked up in a Duluth bookstore. It had obviously been written in light of the 1970 merger among three “transcontinental” roads, including the Great Northern, that extinguished the individual lives of these roads and gave birth to the Burlington Northern (which in turn merged with the Santa Fe in 1994). (In U.S. railroad parlance, “transcontinentals” link the Pacific to the Mississippi basin.) The life cycle of the Great Northern exhibited a lot of the phases that all the transcontinental roads seemed to pass through. They might be characterized loosely as: finance and corporate machinations, eventual actual construction, operation and then (though less relevant here) more machinations, and finally consolidation. The earlier phases present a lot of reasons why highways bind to the railroads.

In the mid-19th century, state and federal governments encouraged railroad development. In the Minnesota Territory, home to the ambitiously-named St. Paul & Pacific, the seed that grew into the Great Northern, these sovereigns chartered railroads to connect legislatively-specified points, and sweetened the deals by granting them huge swaths of land, basically ten square miles for every mile of roadbed. In effect, railroads were granted not only the ability to bring specified areas, and with them a customer base, to life, but the responsibility for doing so. Plus an incentive to do so: Selling settlers the land so granted would help finance the railroads that made it available.

But even so, to take this incentive and run with it, entrepreneurs needed lots and lots of additional capital. It was touch and go, even with a dizzying array of bonds, boardroom maneuvering, and incestuous deals among local lines to raise the additional cash. It was not until 1879 that the basic main line in Minnesota was up and running.


The Great Northern finally did consolidate its Minnesota footprint, though, and then grew serious about the “Pacific” part of its former name. The routing of the line across North Dakota, Montana, Idaho and into Washington followed different incentives and imperatives from that in Minnesota. The land grants were not as generous and the route was up to the railroad to choose. Competition with the GN’s great rivals the Northern Pacific and Canadian Pacific had to be taken into account. Surveying teams were charged with considering distance, grade, track curvature, construction costs and climate. Their reports could dictate a difference of a hundred miles in the siting of the line. In effect the railroad was doing exactly what water does when choosing a downhill course: aiming for the path of least resistance to reach the sea. That path generally stayed close to the Canadian border and wound through the spectacular Marias Pass and Stevens Pass (which will awe you when you drive through them today).

What existed at the end of four years of the resulting construction could be looked at as a necklace, stringing together “beads” like Spokane, Williston, Minot, Grand Forks, and Duluth. Some of the towns had existed earlier, while others came into being as the result of the construction. In either case, these towns certainly were connected in a way they never had been before. Roads were inevitably going to knit them further together. Indeed, the Great Northern was a part of that process. The 1880s witnessed the birth of a “good roads movement,” soon fostered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. My history book reports that the Great Northern participated in it, “not foreseeing the devastation that railroads would eventually suffer from hard-surfaced roads…” Railroad managers at that time believed there was “a direct and measurable relationship” between road conditions and rail traffic volume.

Rail Routes Become Road Routes

And the routing of the roads connecting the beads on the Great Northern’s necklace (at least outside Minnesota) would predictably be subject to the same imperatives of distance, grade, climate, etc. as those that had faced the railroad. No surprise, therefore, that the roads would end up sited near the rail line, and viewed together as an identifiable entity. As early as 1919 most of the roads connecting Spokane and Duluth were jointly designated as parts of a unitary “Theodore Roosevelt International Highway.” And in 1925, the Route 2 designation was applied to all of the Roosevelt Highway except for the segment in Washington. That omitted segment, together with the road between Everett and Spokane (which also follows the Great Northern main line), was brought under the Route 2 shield in 1946.

In this manner, legislative policies to foster railroads, formulated by Congress before the internal combustion engine was even invented, ended up dictating the paths that highways created for cars and trucks would follow over half a century later. (You can see something similar, for example, with old Route 66 and the main line of the Santa Fe.)

That’s why today, when you make your way over the Cascades through Stevens Pass (named after the assistant to the Great Northern’s chief engineer), or when you spend the night at the Great Northern Hotel in Malta, Montana, or visit the airbase in Minot (named for a Great Northern general manager), or drive almost anywhere along Route 2 west of Duluth, you may be riding on tires, but your course was set by one railroad company’s steel wheels.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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