Northern Pacific Railway (through 1922)

The Lake Superior and Mississippi Railway was, of course, nearing completion in early ’70, but perhaps the most portentous development of that year, at least in its relation to Duluth, was the beginning of the work of constructing the Northern Pacific Railway. The company was incorporated in 1864, the bill creating it being signed by President Lincoln on July 2, 1864, the charter authorizing the company to “build a railroad and telegraph line from Lake Superior to Puget Sound, on the Pacific Coast, by the northern route,” the land-grant being “generous.” Perham was the first president of the road, stock in which he expected to sell to the general public without difficulty. Associated with him in the preliminary work of incorporation, and with the early engineers of the survey, was Hiram Hayes.

Money, however, did not flow in as expected, and Josiah Perham was succeeded, as president, by John Gregory Smith, in 1865. In 1869 Jay Cooke became identified with the project, and undertook the placing of bonds, agreeing to raise $5,000,000 within thirty days from January 2, 1870. He raised the money within the time agreed, and the construction work was commenced almost forthwith, the time-limit within which the land-grant could be obtained, by the beginning of railway construction, having almost expired. George R. Stuntz wrote: The year 1870 was another important year. The land-grant to the Northern Pacific Railroad was about to expire by limitation. The company for some reason had delayed, so that it did not get its first section built and in running order by a certain date, which was fast approaching, and so it was compelled to buy in the St. Paul and Duluth Railroad, securing a half-interest in that road from Duluth to Carlton Junction.

Such an arrangement, it may well be imagined, was considered indeed portentous by the far-seeing citizens of Duluth, who had hitherto more than suspected that the Northern Pacific officials had a leaning toward Superior, as the lake terminus of their road, which was to open the wonderful Northwest, as far as the sea. Stuntz continues: Here Mr. Cooke figures again conspicuously. He and the officers of the St. Paul and Duluth Railroad entered into an arrangement whereby each agreed to pay the other forty per cent of the proceeds arising from the carrying over of all freight and passengers on this part of the line, the Northern Pacific Railroad meanwhile agreeing to make Duluth its eastern terminus, until it built its road to the Pacific. It soon became apparent that this part of the arrangement was disagreeable to both companies, so after awhile each company built a separate line.

Still, such a possibility was not evident in February, 1870, when Duluth men gathered at Komoko, near what is now Carlton, for the ceremony of cutting the first sod on the surveyed route of the Northern Pacific. Regarding that memorable occasion, Hiram Hayes in 1911 wrote to Mr. O. D. Wheeler, of St. ‘Paul, as follows: I have your inquiry of October 16th, regarding the time the construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad was begun. The place was about threequarters of a mile westerly from the Northern Pacific Junction, at a point a little northerly of the present track to Brainard, in a dense wood. It was the site of a paper town, as then proposed by some exploiters, and a name was afterwards given to it-“Komoko.” An imaginary branch of the road was to start from Komoko and run to the Bay of Superior. The town and 197the branch were of course a myth. It was in the month of February, 1870, that the work began there. Quite a crowd from Superior and Duluth gathered on the spot that day. … Speeches were made around the fire-a bonfire heaped with crackling limbs and burning with alacrity.

The deep snow melted and ran in torrents of water; the snow liquified as did the crowd. The earth thawed incidentally, and so did all present, for the occasion was one of hilarity and rejoicing for the start that was made.

A half a dozen railroads might be building today, simultaneously, and not cause half the stir in the neighborhood as did that solitary start of the Northern Pacific.

Judge Egan wrote of the same great occasion as follows: The first work on the Northern Pacific Railroad was begun in the winter of 1870, at a point about one mile south of the now Northern Pacific Junction, at a place called Komoko. General Spaulding was chief engineer, and a party of the then distinguished citizens started to inaugurate this great enterprise as his guests. We were far prouder then of the invitation than we would be if in attendance as the guests of Mr. Villard. The proceeding was opened by prayer. Ray, Seip, Markell, Marvin and others were rigid Presbyterians and insisted that, as that denomination was the first to have built a church in Duluth and had a large majority of its inhabitants, it was entitled to have its minister, the Rev. Mr. Suter, go down in history, crowned with the eternal fame to follow. General Spaulding, however, selected the Rev. Mr.

Gallagher, an Episcopalian clergyman, to bless the enterprise. Ray and Marvin were blue, as if the growth of Presbyterianism were checked for all time. Doctor Foster swore; said it was an outrage and a shame. And we all thought that a religious war would begin then and there, and the work of the construction of the road would cease for all time. But the opening of the road had developed other troubles. Hiram Hayes, of Superior and representing that city, was selected to handle the first spade, and filled the wheelbarrow with dirt. Then the question arose as to who should have the honor, on the Minnesota side, of wheeling the barrow. Ray, Nettleton and generally everyone of the old settlers, claimed being the oldest inhabitant.

Colonel Culver was selected by General Spaulding, and then the disgust that clouded the brows of the disappointed men was fearful to behold. Some went into the bushes and left the scene. One disgusted pioneer was heard to exclaim: “They could go to … with their darned old road; he would have nothing to do with it.” Then came speeches, and as all were natural orators, everyone wanted to talk, so that Jay Cooke could see what important men they were. The religious warfare had not yet died out; the Presbyterians rallied, and, to heal the wound, General Spaulding closed the proceedings with prayer by the Rev. Mr. Suter.

This is the first instance in the history of American railway construction when a railroad “blow-out” opened and closed with prayer. Yet it is hard to please everyone in the world, for the voice of that pious and good man, R. C. Mitchell, was heard strenuously objecting to any more prayer at all.

The date of the ceremony was February 15, 1870, and another account states that the Duluth and Superior people journeyed to “the birthplace of the Northern Pacific Railroad” in sleighs over the Military Road. The account states that Dr. Thomas Foster, who was made “President of the day,” made an address in which he declared that it was his belief that the railway would be “an assistant in eventually compelling the annexation of Canada to the United States.” He is reported to have “made a wonderful address and to have held his hearers spellbound.” Col. Hiram Hayes asserted that the Northern Pacific “was an offspring of the people” and considered that that day “would be reckoned in the book of the historian as one of the greatest in the history of America.” J. B. Culver thought “the day was a wonderful epoch in the lives of the people of the Northwest,” and admitted that “the building of this road had been a subject of anxiety in the minds of Duluth people for several years.” J. J. Egan, of Duluth, “prophesied that the wilderness between the lakes and the coast, which had never hitherto heard the sound of 198anything but the war-whoop of the Indian and the cries of wild animals, was now going to listen to the music of the shriek of the locomotive, and where the savages had scalped the white men now temples of God would rise and happy homes and wives await the arms of industry and labor.” Captain Starkey, contractor for the clearing and excavation of the first section, J. E. Shields, WV. W. Hungerford, Richard Marvin, Maj. A. N. Seip, and Charles F. Newcombe also spoke, and, all in all, the day was indeed a memorable one for the people at the Head of the Lakes.

The ceremony at Komoko on February 15, 1870, was probably greater than that which was held in September, 1882, to witness the driving of the last spike, to complete the road, at Gold Creek, Hell Gate Canyon, Montana, even though salvos of artillery were provided to emphasize the importance of the latter celebration. The pieces of artillery, however, probably gave no more emphatic voice than that which came, with the full force of sound lungs, from the frames of more than one of the many born optimists of Duluth on that day in 1870 when the Northern Pacific was first “given legs,” and pointed westward.

And the people of Duluth of this day are probably willing to think as kindly of the Northern Pacific, even though it was directly the cause of the failure of Jay Cooke in 1873, which collapse swept away the foundations of almost all of the promising enterprises courageously begun in Duluth, during the great period 1869-73.


  • Van Brunt, Walter, ed. Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota Vols. 1 – 3. The American Historical Society. Chicago: 1922.
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