SEATTLE and the GREAT NORTHERN RAILWAY
From the Public Relations Department,
Great Northern Railway Company
Seattle, Washington, 1952
In the colorful panorama of
Seattle's first 100 years, the coming of
the Great Northern Railway in 1893 emerges as one of the momentous
events which helped shape the destiny of this dominant city of the Pacific
The dramatic westward-building of the Great Northern in the late
1880's and early 1890's had precipitated a vigorous struggle among
ambitious Puget Sound communities -- including Tacoma, Seattle, Olympia,
Bellingham, Everett, Anacortes and Mukilteo -- for recognition as the
railway's western terminus. For this was an era when the approach of the
iron horse from the east proclaimed almost certain growth and prosperity
for the pioneer towns and villages along its route.
Seattle's own thwarted efforts to attract a transcontinental railway
... the fierce pride and spirit of its early-day citizens who, heartbreakingly
rebuffed on one occasion, marched forth with pick and shovel to build a
railway of their own over the Cascades ... is a story well-known to every
Then came the electrifying news that fabulous
James J. Hill, "the
Empire Builder," had singled out the tenacious town on Elliott Bay to be his
terminus, C. T. Conover, veteran Puget Sound historian, writes: "Nothing
that had happened before had meant so much to Seattle -- it was a shot in
the arm without precedent. Seattle went marching on by leaps and bounds."
An atmosphere of expectancy and historic moment cloaked the little
frame station at the foot of Marion Street on the morning of June 18, 1893.
The newspapers of the day reported no formal ceremony, but told of a
mighty cheer which arose from the crowded platform at 8:15 a.m. when
Seattle's first through passenger train to the east chuffed off down Railroad
Avenue on its 69-hour run to St. Paul.
Progress of the first west-bound train, which arrived June 22, was
colorfully chronicled in the daily press, which carried dispatches telling
how the train was being wildly cheered in every town and hamlet, the
passengers waving back their greetings with hats and handkerchiefs. The Post-
Intelligencer of June 21 described the coming of the first train as "...a
historic event in the city and people are ready to give it a rousing welcome.
The passengers on it will be the witnesses of an unwonted outburst of
Reporters describing the equipment of the new train soared to poetic
heights. "Handsomest of all," declared one, "is the buffet car, which is an
addition to the equipment of this line. It is sixty feet long and is finished in
old gold and polished oak. It has its large sitting room, with a dozen easy
chairs of willow with easy cushions, and its graceful refreshment stands,
whereon can be deposited the refreshments to come from the buffet in the
corner. At one end is a library Containing anything from Gibson's 'Decline
of the Roman Empire' [sic] to a French novel that will curl the hair like a
blast from a Great Northern locomotive on a Montana prairie. At the other
end is a writing table fairly littered with all of the late periodicals and
daily papers. Then come little tete-a-tete rooms, separated by delicate
screens of scroll work and velvet, where little parties can assemble by
themselves in the company of royal personages, kings and queens. Next
comes the barber shop, where a tonsorial artist will give the traveler a
clean shave, shampoo, sea foam and cut his hair every day on the trip, so
that he will be ready to attend a church sociable or meeting of the city
council when he arrives at his destination. To complete the equipment, a
bathroom is ready for anyone who finds traveling is dusty."
To commemorate the coming of the Great Northern to Seattle a great
civic celebration was planned about June 16 -- "an historic event to take
place of a Fourth of July celebration." It was referred to in the press as
the "Jim Hill Carnival," and Hill had promised, in his own words, to "bring
about 300 men here who in their own persons would represent a thousand
millions of money and reveal to them a virgin field of enterprise and invest-
ment whose resources and reasonable expectations exceeded those of any
other part of the country."
However, the first tremors of the panic of 1893 were being felt and
it was necessary for Hill to postpone his June trip to Seattle. So the date of
the celebration was moved back to July 4 and intensive plans were launched
for a great two-day celebration -- "the grandest demonstration in the history
of the Northwest." The event was a huge success, with bicycle and
torchlight parades, elaborate floats, songfests, speeches and dancing. Special
excursion rates on trains and boats were established and thousands of
celebrants poured into Seattle from neighboring communities.
Centerpiece for the festivities was the "Coal, Lumber and Mineral
Palace" on Pioneer Square, an elaborate and ingenious showplace for the
resources of the territory. Over the north entrance of the palace was a
design in electric lights symbolizing the union of St. Paul and Seattle by the
locomotive, "J. J. Hill." It was proudly described as consisting of "about
500 electric lamps, ranging from a 32 candlepower down to miniatures, the
power being furnished by a 50 horsepower generator, and the lights forming
the wheels of the locomotive flashing in and out so as to cause the illusion
that the engine is in motion."
The establishment of through service on the Great Northern
precipitated a rate war, both freight and passenger, led by Jim Hill. When the
first train left Seattle the passenger fare to St. Paul was cut to $35. Round-
trip fare to Chicago was $86.20. On June 22, 1893 a new rate cut was
announced by Great Northern, reducing the first class fare between Seattle
and St. Paul to $25. Another innovation introduced was a "3000-mile ticket,"
which sold for $75, was good for one year and could be used anywhere on
the entire system.
The vast timber resources of the Pacific Northwest challenged Hill's
imagination, for the predominant movement of traffic was then east to west
and he could not tolerate the thought of a return haul consisting of long
strings of empty boxcars.
"Unless I can move that crop," he told Judge Thomas Burke, his
representative in Seattle and one of the community's most esteemed
leaders, "I might as well have not built the railroad. First, it is a natural
product which is in demand; second, unless it is moved there will be no
room for farmers. It must be moved at a low rate, lower than any such
commodity was ever moved in the history of the world. Ask the lumbermen
what they can pay to get their lumber to the Middle West."
The rate then was ninety cents a hundred pounds and the lumbermen
ventured, though not hopefully, that they might be able to do something on a
sixty cent rate. "Sixty cents!" declared Hill. "They're crazy. At that
rate they couldn't compete with Southern pine."
Within two weeks Seattle lumbermen received the astonishing news
that with the opening of the Hill line the rate on lumber would be forty cents.
"The result of this sweeping cut," says Historian Welford Beaton ("The
City That Made Itself"), "was magical; the woods became alive, and instead
of the empty cars going eastward they were soon coming westward, for
there was not enough westbound traffic to offset the enormous lumber ship-
ments to the prairie states. The State of Washington entered upon an era of
development, of growth in population and of general prosperity almost
without a parallel even in this country of wonderful growth."
The completion of the transcontinental line in 1893 was so epochal
an event that the "coming of the Great Northern" has ever since been linked
with that date. Actually, the railway had become an integral part of the
Seattle scene nearly two years earlier, with the opening of the "Coast Line"
between Seattle and New Westminster.
At the time of its completion the Coast Line comprised three
separate divisions. The section from Fairhaven and Southern junction to
the International Boundary had been built in 1889 and 1890 under the name of
the Fairhaven and Southern Railroad. The line from the Boundary to the
south bank of the Fraser River was constructed that same year as the New
Westminster Southern Railway. And between Seattle and Fairhaven and
Southern junction the rails were those of the Seattle and Montana Railway,
with the final spike being driven on October 12, 1891 at a point between
Stanwood and Silvana.
But even at that date the jig-saw railway was recognized as a Hill
enterprise, a component of the line then being rushed westward toward an
undesignated terminus on Puget Sound.
The first passenger run north was a gala occasion up and down the
Coast Line. The 10-car train, decorated with evergreens, chrysanthemums
and festoons of red, white and blue, carried 275 prominent civic, business
and railway officials and their ladies when it left Seattle. But by the time
it had reached the south bank of the Fraser River the number had swelled to
nearly 600. Each of the ladies in the party carried a bouquet, while the men
wore badges inscribed, "The Great Northern. Nov. 27 and 28, 1891. We
rejoice in the completion of the Washington and British Columbia sections."
At the Fraser River the train was met by steamers which carried the
celebrants to New Westminster, where they were greeted by His Worship
the Mayor and entertained at lunch by the Chamber of Commerce.
In 1903-1904 the Fraser was bridged and the line into Vancouver
A boyhood dream of sailing ships trading with the Orient continued
to captivate the vision of James J. Hill, and the completion of the Great
Northern into Seattle renewed in him the challenge of the broad Pacific.
Determined to extend the trade of his railroad beyond that ocean, he
sent Captain James Griffiths to Japan to negotiate with officials of Nippon
Yusen Kaisha, the Empire's principal steamship company. Captain
Griffiths' spadework led to the signing of a contract in St. Paul in mid-
On August 31, 1896, the Nippon Yusen Kaisha steamer "Miike Maru"
sailed into the port of Seattle. It was a gala day on Elliott Bay. Business
was suspended and practically the whole population was assembled on the
bluffs overlooking the Sound, in order to obtain the first glimpse of the in-
coming ship. Later all joined in a mammoth parade to celebrate the arrival
of Seattle's first steamer in regular trans-Pacific service. And thus began
Seattle's ascendancy as a world port.
Favorable rates enabled the Great Northern to gather up freight
from all parts of the United States as far east as Pittsburgh. Flour was
shipped from Minneapolis, the cotton trade grew rapidly and rails moved
in competition with the Suez Canal.
In 1900 the Great Northern Steamship Company was organized with
a capital of $6,000,000 and contracts let for two giant steamships of
28,000 tons capacity each -- the "Minnesota" and the "Dakota" -- to ply
between Seattle and Yokohama and Hong Kong. The following year Great
Northern's "Asiatic Dock" (Pier 88) was completed on Smith's Cove and
occupied by Nippon Yusen Kaisha.
The arrival of the "Minnesota" and the "Dakota" at Pier 88 on
December 24, 1904 brought an exciting Christmas that year to the citizens
of Seattle, for the twin steamships, largest ocean carriers afloat in their
day, had attracted world attention to the booming port on Elliott Bay.
The "Dakota" was wrecked in Japan in 1907, but the "Minnesota"
remained in service until 1917, at which time it was sold for use in the
European trade developed by World War I.
Meanwhile, the agreement with Nippon Yusen Kaisha remained in
effect until 1941, after which Pier 88 was under lease to the U. S. Govern-
ment. Following World War II the pier was extensively remodeled by the
Great Northern and occupied by the American Mail Line.
Deep under the heart of downtown Seattle is another monument to the
vision and enterprise of James J. Hill.
With the arrival of the Great Northern, the inadequacy of the little
station at the foot of Marion Street became acute. When plans for a new
station on the waterfront were put forth, Hill hurried to Seattle by special
train and forcibly warned the city: "If you put such an obstruction across
the front of your city and vacate the streets to the waterfront, you will
commit commercial suicide."
A bitter fight before the City Council ensued, with a final unanimous
victory for the defeat of the plan. Then Hill revealed his own plans for a
tunnel under the city and a station where King Street Station now stands.
For its day this was a spectacularly audacious venture, regarded by many
practical people as "Hill's Folly."
Construction of the double track tunnel was begun in April, 1903, and
clearing of the station site got underway on July 3 of that year. Cost of the
tunnel, borne jointly by the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railways,
was $2,348,765. Estimated cost of replacement today is $10,000,000.
King Street Station, whose lofty clock tower has been a Seattle land-
mark for over half a century, was described in the press of the day as
"unequaled by any city of the same size in the United States." It was opened
on May 9, 1906, with the arrival of the first passenger train through the new
tunnel. No formal ceremony marked the occasion since the interior of the
imposing structure had not yet been completed, but large crowds were
drawn to the station nonetheless.
Today many of Seattle's own citizens are unaware of the fact that
transcontinental streamliners and freight trains roll noiselessly beneath
their downtown streets and buildings. The concrete-lined passage which
has been Seattle's salvation from a transportation standpoint is 5,142 feet
in length, and civic boosters, with tongue in cheek, once hailed it as "the
longest tunnel in the world -- running from Washington to Virginia."
Actually, the south portal is between Washington and Main Streets
and the north portal between Virginia and Stewart Streets. The tunnel extends
northward under Fourth Avenue to Spring Street, then begins to swing west,
passing approximately under the intersections of Third and Union, First
and Pike and Western and Pine before emerging near the waterfront.
Twenty-four regularly-scheduled passenger and mail trains, sixteen
Great Northern and eight Northern Pacific, now depart and arrive daily at the
terminal jointly owned by the two railroads and operated by the King Street
Station Company. Running beneath the city on Great Northern's main line
are some of the nation's top streamliners, including the transcontinental
Empire Builder and
Western Star, and the twin
Internationals, which link
Seattle with Vancouver, B. C.
On January 7, 1957, Great Northern dedicated and placed in service
the first suburban station north of Seattle to better serve non-local
travelers in the growing area north and east of the city proper as well as
communities on the Olympic Peninsula.
This modern facility at Edmonds,
17 rail miles north of King Street Station, includes paved, fenced and
lighted parking area for 175 automobiles. In keeping with the times,
passengers boarding Great Northern trains at Edmonds may leave their
cars pending their return. The station is located within walking distance
of cross-sound ferries serving the Olympic Peninsula.
At the great Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909 the city paid
a double tribute to the man of whom Historian C. H. Hanford ("Seattle and
Environs, 1852-1924") says; "He was Seattle's greatest benefactor." After
President Taft had opened the exposition by pressing a gold nugget key in
Washington, James J. Hill ascended the rostrum at the fair grounds as
orator of the day, addressing a throng of 80,000 people.
On Minnesota Day, August 3, a bronze bust of the "Empire Builder"
was unveiled and dedicated in a ceremony which included speeches by
dignitaries from far and near. Ex-Senator John J. Wilson said of him, "He has
captured more territory with the coupling pin, and made it habitable for
man than did Julius Caesar with the sword."
J. M. Hawthorne, chairman of the Hill Testimonial Committee,
voiced the sentiments of the Northwest when he said, "The victor in war or
the leader in politics may be worthy of a monument after he dies, but the
genius of civilization, the agent of peace, is entitled to a statue while he
lives." The statue still stands on the campus of the University of
Seattle and the Great Northern Railway have grown and prospered
and progressed together.
An even closer linking of the railway and the community of which it
is a part was realized on October 31, 1951, when the Great Northern became
owner of all the capital stock of the Pacific Coast R. R. Co. and took over
the management of that line -- thereby adding an appropriate Centennial
footnote to one of the most colorful chapters in Seattle history.
For it was the little Pacific Coast, incorporated in 1873 as the
Seattle and Walla Walla, which became Seattle's first railroad, actually
constructed in part by this city's pioneer citizens, who zealously graded
the line and laid the first rail while the womenfolk prepared a community
picnic. In later years it was extended through Renton to Maple Valley,
Black Diamond and Franklin, where it prospered as a coal carrier.
In becoming part of a strong transcontinental rail system the Pacific
Coast finally achieved its destiny. For Great Northern the consolidation of
interests promised additional trackage, yard facilities and industrial
property to better enable it to serve the Seattle industrial area.
Mindful of the distinctive place held by the Pacific Coast in the
history and development of Seattle, the Great Northern has continued to
preserve the local character and traditions of the line, while at the same
time giving it the benefit of Great Northern management and enterprise,
Seattle today is the home of 1200 Great Northern officers and
employees. It is headquarters of the railway's
Cascade Division and center of
operations for all of its lines west of Williston, North Dakota. As one of
Seattle's leading industries, its wages, purchases and taxes comprise a
substantial contribution to the city's economy and welfare.
At a time when increasing international tensions have made Seattle
a focal point in our national defense, the dependency of the community and
the railway on one another is greater than ever. The Great Northern is
proud of the continuing partnership in which both embark on Seattle's second
Seattle began its yearlong centennial observance Nov. 13, 1951.