The Great Northern Railway started life as the Minnesota & Pacific Railroad in 1867. The Minnesota & Pacific Railroad was chartered to build a line from Stillwater, Minnesota to St. Vincent, in the northwest corner of the state. Unfortunately the railroad defaulted after completing the portion of the route between St. Paul and St. Vincent, and its charter was then taken over by the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (StP&P), which ran its first train between St. Paul and Minneapolis in 1862. The StP&P then went bankrupt in the Panic of 1873, and in 1878 James J. Hill and George Stephen acquired the railroad. Hill and Stephen then reorganized them as the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway (StPM&M). By 1885 the company had 1470 miles of railroad and extended west to Devils Lake, North Dakota. In 1886 Hill organized the Montana Central Railway to build from Great Falls, Montana through Helena to Butte, and in 1888 the line was opened, creating a line from St. Paul to Butte.
Hill then took over the Charter of the Minneapolis & St. Cloud Railroad and built the Eastern Railway of Minnesota from Hinckley, Minnesota to Superior, Wisconsin, and Duluth. The railroad was renamed the Great Northern Railway (GN), which then leased the StPM&M and assumed its operation. Hill had already decided that he wanted to extend his railway west to the Pacific, and chose Seattle, Washington as the western endpoint.
Getting through the Rockies proved to be fairly easy; the GN surveyors found a route over Marias Pass. GN was also one of the main founders of Glacier National Park where they developed the park and for many years furnished the only transportation to it. The park in turn drew passengers to the railroad-owned hotels and ultimately provided the railroad with it’s now famous Rocky Mountain Goat herald.
While the Rockies proved to be fairly simple, it was not so with getting through the Cascade range. Previously the Northern Pacific railroad had detoured south to the Columbia River to get past the formidable mountain range. However, Hill’s GN engineer John Stevens found a pass (which now bears his name) that made it possible to get the GN to Seattle over the Cascades.
Stevens Pass was only used from 1893 to 1900, when the first Cascade Tunnel provided relief from the switchbacks and 4% grades of the Stevens Pass line. The first Cascade Tunnel was electrified in 1909, but was then replaced with a more conventional system in 1927 when the second Cascade Tunnel was opened. The second Cascade Tunnel, at 7.79 miles long was the longest tunnel in the Western Hemisphere.
GN changed very little from the 1920s through the 1960s, apart from the migration from steam to diesel. In 1970, GN merged with the Northern Pacific and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy to create the Burlington Northern Railroad, which operated until 1996, when it merged with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway to form BNSF.