link image


Great Northern Railway Reporting mark: GN

The Great Northern Railway (GN) began in 1879 as the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway Company. Based in St. Paul Minnesota, the railway was controlled by Canadian-born James Hill along with three other Canadians, Norman Kittson, George Stephen and Donald Smith.

James Jerome Hill, age 35
Founder and CEO
Wikimedia Commons

Hill, who later became known as the "Empire Builder," was part of the original consortium involved in the creation of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). It was upon his recommendation that William Van Horne was hired as chief contractor of the CPR.

Hill's main interest in the consortium was in having the CPR routed through the US in order to connect with his own railway. When he couldn't get his way with the American-born Van Horne (who was strongly opposed), he resigned in a huff in 1883.

The Great Northern Railway (GN) was formed in 1889 following the consolidation of all Hill's railway interests and land grants. Hill then began a rapid period of acquisition and expansion westward.

The Canadian expansion was fuelled in part by Hill's intense dislike of the CPR and also by concerns over competition from the CPR which was sitting in his own backyard. Nonetheless Hill was a shrewd businessman whose motivation went way beyond simple passive aggression. Primarily Hill was attracted to the emerging mining and lumbering industries in BC where he saw new growth and opportunities for the Great Northern.

Hill's first entry into BC began with the New Westminster and Southern Railway (NWSR) in 1890. It was followed by a couple of other short lines, the Red Mountain Railway Company and the narrow gauge Kaslo and Slocan Railway, both of which served the mining sectors.

The bulk of Hill's Canadian activity took place during the first decade of the 20th century. In BC these included the Vancouver, Victoria and Eastern Railway (VV&E) and Navigation Company in 1897, the Morrissey, Fernie and Michel Railway Company in 1903 and the Vancouver, Westminster and Yukon Railway Company, which had branch lines operating by 1906.

It was during construction of the VV&E where Hill finally met his match. Both the federal and provincial governments, concerned with protection of sovereign rights, were promoting the construction of the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR), a CPR subsidiary in the same area. A nasty turf battle erupted during the construction period with each railway trying to outdo the other. They finally called a truce during the construction phase through the Coquihalla Valley. Hill recognized that both railways would suffer from over-building and excessive competition.

The GN's entry into Manitoba was far more sedate. With the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) already well entrenched, Hill formed alliances with Mackenzie and Mann, which enabled him to gain running rights in Manitoba and helped further his expansion in BC. In 1903, Hill built the Brandon Saskatchewan and Hudson's Bay Railway (BSHB) and in 1909 took over operations of the Midland Railway of Manitoba.

Following Hill's death in 1916, the GN scaled back their Canadian expansion. By the mid 1930s, many of their lines had been shut down or abandoned. Passenger service to Vancouver lasted until 1964. The magnificent terminal in Vancouver was demolished a year later, ostensibly to reduce property taxes.

The GN was never more than a minor regional player in Canada. Nevertheless the railway maintained a small but steady presence which continues to this day.

In 1970, the GN merged with three other railways to form the Burlington Northern Railroad. A second merger in 1996 with the Santa Fe Railway, led to the formation of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway (BNSF). BNSF continues to maintain small operations in both BC and in Manitoba. These include a 48-kilometre (30-mile) stretch of track that runs from the US-Canada border to Vancouver and a small amount of track along with an engine facility and yard in the south end of Winnipeg.

As an interesting side note, James Hill was among the first inductees to the Canadian Railway Hall of Fame. This recognition came not from the fact that he was Canadian-born, nor for the impressive feat of building the Great Northern Railway, but rather for his recommendation of his old nemesis, William Cornelius Van Horne, as General Manager of the CPR.