Northern Pacific Railroad and Seattle Development

  • By Heather M. MacIntosh
  • Posted 10/11/1999
  • Essay 1734
See Additional Media

The Northern Pacific Railroad played a pivotal role in the development of railroads in Seattle and in the Puget Sound region. The company's decision to locate its Western terminus in Tacoma ignited Seattle's indignation and brought the city together to form its own railroad company, the Seattle & Walla Walla. In the 1870s and 1880s, Seattle's relationship with Northern Pacific was fraught with highs and considerable lows. But in the 1890s the railroad's commitment to Seattle became clear when the company purchased small regional railroad interests and began contributing rails, stations, and services to the local infrastructure.

North by Northwest

The story of the Northern Pacific in Seattle began in 1864 when Congress chartered the company and awarded land grants totaling 60 million acres in checkerboard sections along a 40- to 80-mile-wide strip flanking the planned route from Minnesota to Puget Sound. Five years later, in 1869, another national railroad company, the Union Pacific, completed the country's first transcontinental railroad line. This was great for the development of the Midwest, Southwest, and California, but did little to promote the growth of the Pacific Northwest. The Northern Pacific's land grant stipulated that the company complete its transcontinental line by July 4, 1876. The company failed to meet this deadline, and forfeited some of its land holdings.

Around 1870, railroad lines from the East spread out across the expansive Western states in a contorted, piecemeal fashion. Much of the Pacific Northwest was accessible only by wagon or ship -- greatly complicating the transportation of freight to and from the region's interior. Construction of the Northern Pacific lurched along with inadequate funding. Potential investors expressed concerns about a northern route (from Minnesota to the Puget Sound) that had few population centers and harsh winters.

Despite these concerns, in 1870 Jay Cooke (1821-1905), a Philadelphia financier, pledged his fortune to the construction of the Northern Pacific. Crews immediately began laying tracks. One Northern Pacific line reached west from Duluth and the other faced east from Kalama, Washington Territory, on the Columbia River. This burst of activity soon came to an end, but not before the Northern Pacific had snubbed Seattle as its Western terminus in favor of Tacoma. This July 14, 1873, decision came after a series of generous offers from fledgling Seattle. The city offered Northern Pacific 7,500 town lots, 3,000 acres, $50,000 in cash, $200,000 in bonds, and a 30-foot-wide strip along its waterfront. It was enough to move the town onto the company's short list along with Mukilteo and Tacoma -- then barely a village on the shore of Commencement Bay.

Two months later, on September 18, 1873, the nation slipped into an economic panic. Jay Cooke's fortune evaporated and Northern Pacific activity came to a virtual halt. The company, slowly moving along in the late 1870s under the leadership of Frederick Billings, would not recover for another decade. During these years, Seattle's relationship with the ailing railroad giant lagged. Most of the company's decisions, freight rates, and routes favored Tacoma and Portland. Between the 1870s and the early 1890s, Seattle investors funded small railroad companies in and around the city. These came to form the foundation of Northern Pacific development in the 1890s and beyond.

Born Again at Gold Creek

In 1881, the charismatic Henry Villard (1853-1900) raised an extraordinary $8 millionĀ  to buy out the Northern Pacific. As a result of his capital-raising efforts and promotional talents, the languishing line quickly snapped back. Villard promoted the occasion of Northern Pacific's "final spike," driven in Gold Creek, Montana, as an event of national importance. The celebration of the completion of the nation's second transcontinental rail line included a day's worth of speeches, telegraph communications, and fanfare. This momentous event marked the beginning of daily passenger service from St. Paul to Portland, which had a connecting line to Tacoma. The journey that once took several months could now be accomplished in five or six days. Seattle saw this triumph, and hoped that the presence of Villard -- thought to be a friend of the city -- would improve its relationship with the Northern Pacific.

In 1880, before he took over the Northern Pacific, Villard purchased the Seattle & Walla Walla and reorganized it into the Columbia & Puget Sound Railroad. The Northern Pacific constructed a spur line from the old Seattle & Walla Walla to Stuck Junction where it connected to a line leading to a Tacoma terminal. Unfortunately Villard's interest in the Puget Sound did not pay off as quickly as Seattle would have liked. In 1884, he was forced out of the Northern Pacific's presidency. Between 1884 and 1892, despite the town's escalating size, Northern Pacific activities in Seattle were limited. Contemporary accounts, as well as the number of independent local railroad companies created during this time, suggest that most Seattleites were completely fed up with the Northern Pacific by the early 1890s.

In 1892, the Northern Pacific acquired the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern, which gave the company a line to Sumas at the Canadian border. This investment was motivated in large part by fear of two other entrants into the arena of Northwest railroading: the Union Pacific, with which Villard had tried to form a regional alliance, and the new St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba -- later known as the Great Northern Railway. The Northern Pacific immediately built the city a modest passenger station on Railroad Avenue between Madison and Columbia streets.

In 1893, city engineer Reginald H. Thomson (1856-1949) suggested that "Empire Builder" J. J. Hill (1838-1916) of the Great Northern should join forces with Northern Pacific and tunnel beneath the downtown and develop his main terminal south of Pioneer Square. Hill saw the wisdom of this scheme, but replied that his finances would not allow him to pursue it immediately. The Northern Pacific did not move or greatly improve its Seattle depot for the next 10 years, for the bottom fell out of the national economy just as the company warmed to its Seattle prospects. The Northern Pacific and Union Pacific were bankrupted and Seattle plunged into an economic depression that did not ease until the onset of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897.

Change of Heart

In 1899, to the delight of the recovering city, Northern Pacific president Charles S. Mellen purchased waterfront property from Washington to University streets and announced designs for a $500,000 depot. On August 1, 1899, local Northern Pacific representatives outlined the company's grand plans in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. This announcement brought Hill steaming into Seattle to negotiate a deal with the Northern Pacific to create a union depot. Hill refused to build another station on Railroad Avenue. The industrial activity of the freight yards and docks already glutted the waterfront. The new station, he asserted, would be on King Street near Pioneer Square. Hill's demands created a great, heated debate among Seattle citizens.

The terminal was built on Hill's proposed site. The tunnel idea, initially posited by Thomson, was raised again. This time a big railroad, the Great Northern, agreed to support the project. The tunnel was constructed, and the new union depot built. The station opened for business in 1906, and served both the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railroads.

Only a few decades after the construction of the King Street Station, rail traffic saw a decline in Seattle and in the rest of the country. Despite a brief surge in usage during World War II, the railroads rumbled into extinction. In 1970, the Burlington Northern purchased the Northern Pacific. This was the company that entered into the new Amtrak system that integrated virtually all American railroad companies developed over the preceding 100 years.


Clarence Bagley, History of Seattle, Vol. 1 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1916), 243-263; Carlos Schwantes, Railroad Signatures Across the Pacific Northwest, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You