The Great Northern railroad was the first profitable transcontinental railroad in the United States. The completion of Great Northern's transcontinental line to the Pacific in 1893 was the fulfillment of one man's dreams. That man was James J. Hill.

The Great Northern originated in 1857 as the Minnesota & Pacific Railroad Company when the Minnesota legislature granted a charter to "construct a railroad in the direction of the Pacific." In 1862 the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad Company acquired the rights to the railroad after they had been forfeited to the state. The St. Paul & Pacific ultimately met the same fate, and after foreclosure in 1879, the properties were reorganized as the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway Company, with James J. Hill its general manager.

The expansion of the railroad in Minnesota and into Dakota Territory continued at a steady pace. By 1885 the system of main and branch lines had grown to 1,470 miles. While other parts of the West were settled from the ox cart; "Hill Country" was settled from the boxcar. Hill laid his rails first, then labored tirelessly to create traffic for his trains.

The formula enabled Hill to expand his railroad's mileage rapidly without land grants or government subsidies of any kind, other than the original grant of the Minnesota & Pacific. In September 1889 the name of the railroad was changed to Great Northern Railway Company. At the close of 1892, only a seven-mile gap remained in what was once referred to as "Hill's Folly." On January 6, 1893, near Scenic, Washington, the final spike was driven and the Great Northern became the second railroad to link Puget Sound with the upper Midwest.

Hill attempted to merge the Great Northern and Northern Pacific in 1893, only to have the merger denied by the U.S. government. In 1901, Hill again tried to merge the two railroads, this time along with the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad Company, but was turned down a second time. After two more denials, in 1927 and 1961, they finally received ICC approval in 1970 and the Great Northern became part of the Burlington Northern railroad.

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