A Modern Journey on the Vestiges of James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railway
There are few experiences that connect modern travelers to America’s past than on a train. Our resident humanities scholar recounts his journey west in preparation to tell the story of the man called both "The Empire Builder" and "The Devil's Curse."
Amtrak’s Wink and Nod to the Great Northern
I boarded the Amtrak’s Empire Builder train in Minot, N.D., not long ago, en route to the railroad’s terminus in Seattle. A journey of 1,178 miles, 27 hours, starting at 9 a.m. CDT on a Friday and ending at 10:15 PDT Saturday morning, a day later. That meant we rode in daylight (in late spring) between Minot and Glacier National Park, at night until about Walla Walla, Wash., and then a lovely morning ride through the Cascades to Everett and then on to King Street Station in the Pioneer Square district of Seattle.
I had good reasons for taking the train rather than flying to Seattle. First, I’ve loved trains all my life and have made more than a score of rail journeys in America, a few before the creation of Amtrak in May 1971. I have also had the good fortune to make hundreds of rail journeys in England and Europe, where trains still matter in a big way. Second, I was going to Seattle to narrate a four-part documentary film on James J. Hill (1838-1916), the founder of the Great Northern Railroad, and I wanted to get into the mood by riding his line (the “High Line”) across the top of the United States.
My Missed Mic Drop Moment
We rode effortlessly over the famous Gassman Coulee Trestle, just west of Minot, which is one of the greatest engineering wonders of the Great Northern line. Don’t look down! And then out onto the Great Plains for the next 553 miles. To the untrained eye this is a dreary, featureless landscape, with little or nothing to attract your attention. Apparently, that was the view of the train’s PA announcer too, because when we finally got to the portal of the Rocky Mountains that evening, he popped on to say, “Well, folks, now finally there is something to see outside the train windows,” which I good-naturedly resented. I wanted to wrest that microphone out of his hands and give a lecturette about the Great Plains: not flat at all, I would have said, but rolling hills punctuated with little badlandsy zones; that some of the most important struggles of the “Indian Wars” had occurred here, including the surrender of Sitting Bull on July 19, 1881, and the surrender of Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph (Oct. 5, 1877) just 40 miles from the Canadian border after a 1,300-mile odyssey that began in the Wallowa Valley in northeastern Oregon. I would have spoken about the mixed blessings of the Homestead Act (1862), which granted 160 acres to any individual or family that was willing to venture out to the edge of things and make some measurable improvements; but about half of all homesteads failed and now, in the middle of the 21st century, western North Dakota and eastern Montana are emptying out and essentially reverting to frontier status. I would have talked about the bold vision of the American Prairie Reserve, which is attempting to create the largest unfenced buffalo pasture in North America — a goal of 3.2 million mostly contiguous acres and tens of thousands of truly free-ranging bison. (And I would have mentioned the fierce local opposition by some denizens of eastern Montana.)
But nobody on the train seemed to care. I ventured up into the observation car, remembering from my youth the rich plaid fabrics of the seats there, the semi-domed glass high above the rail ties. But alas. The modern observation car is plasticized and there are plenty of tables where people worked on their laptops. Some played cards. Many had earbuds. Few studied the landscape much or even looked out except with a kind of “ugh.”
The Unchanging Rhythm of the Rails
The train establishes a swaying rhythm with occasional screeching of the iron wheels on iron rails, and a lulling chung-shung, chung-shung sound that throws you into reverie. No such opportunity on a crowded plane where you spend much of the flight elbow jousting with your seatmates or trying to nap without the inevitable head-flop. There is plenty of elbow room on a train. I remembered other train journeys of my life, jotted down notes of places I saw from the observation car that I would like to visit by car some time, wrote several long letters to my daughter over in England, read in several books, drifted into short naps. But wait. Think about that for a moment. I was able to compose spontaneous letters to my 27-year-old child who lives 5,000 miles away in another country and send them from the train, and she was able to read them within a few minutes of my pushing send. Tell that to Meriwether Lewis or George Armstrong Custer or a lonely pioneer who left his family in Tennessee to follow the Oregon Trail to the gold rush in California.
The Great Industrialist Behind the Great Northern
James J. Hill was truly an empire builder, but he was not a garden variety post-Civil War robber baron. This I learned while preparing for the documentary film. Hill could be as ruthless as the others — Harriman, Carnegie, Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan — and he cheerfully dispossessed the Assiniboine, the Sioux, the Blackfoot and other Native Americans to secure his right of way across their ancestral lands. But he sought to encourage stewardship among the homesteaders who lived along his line, gave improved seed stock to farmers, collected soil samples for study by agronomists and created an agricultural experiment station a few miles north of his headquarters and home in St. Paul, Minn. He cared about the people he brought — or lured — to the northern tier of the country.
The film, The Empire Builder: James J. Hill and the Great Northern Railway from Great Northern Filmworks, narrated by Clay Jenkinson, was released earlier this fall. It is the work of Stephen Sadis and Kyle Kegley. Clay says, “With any luck, viewers will be able to hear in my narrative some additional depth that comes from all that rhythmic jostling and all that reverie at the heart of this monstrous land.”
He never entirely forgot his own humble beginnings in Ontario and designed his route to carry maximum loads at the statistically minimal cost to the farmers who depended on the Great Northern to get their grains and cattle to markets. Although I was wired to look on any railroad baron with a jaundiced eye, I wound up admiring Hill. If, as Emerson said, an institution is “the lengthened shadow of one man,” James J. Hill was that man for the fourth of the nation’s great transcontinental railroads. His crews lay 700 miles of track in the summer and fall of 1887, including, at one flat section of Montana, 8.3 miles in a single day. As I sat thinking about this as we rattled through what was, and still is, the “empty quarter” of America, I was filled with wonder, and wondered, too, whether I will have cast any shadow at all during my hectic life. There were giants in the earth in those days.
OK, I admit, when we began to climb into the mountains along the southern edge of Glacier National Park, we found ourselves in landscapes of world-class beauty and everyone spent much of their time gazing out the windows at dusk. You can try to say the grasslands of the Great Plains are as magnificent, but you’d be lying. We were passing through country that is heartbreakingly beautiful.
I slept as well as one sleeps on a moving train, woke up when we stopped for some reason at a hamlet somewhere. A handful of people got off with their luggage, and a few weary-looking individuals boarded the train. I kept humming to myself lines from Simon and Garfunkel, “We’ve all come to look for America ... ” And then drifted back to sleep.
Train Travel and Experiencing a Sense of Place
I was sorry there was no interpretation on the train — no brochures with a short history of the Great Northern and of Amtrak, no commentary by the conductor on James J. Hill or the landscapes through which we hurtled. A little of this goes a long way, of course, but I believe a modicum of historical interpretation would have enriched the experience for everyone. Nobody wants to hear about the history of Delta or United Airlines from 38,500 feet, but trains occupy a special romantic niche in American memory. How can we experience spirit of place if nobody helps us understand what we are seeing out the window?
When we lurched up to the top of Marias Pass at 5,213 feet, the lowest pass through the Rocky Mountains, I saw out the window an obelisk glowing in the dusk. The train had intermittent Internet service. I looked it up. The obelisk is a monument celebrating Theodore Roosevelt, who lived in the American West and loved it with all of his great heart. After TR died on Jan. 6, 1919, the nation sought to celebrate his heroic life by designating US2 (then still largely unfinished and unpaved) the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway. Here, at the top of the world, he is remembered.
I was sorry to feel the train slow as it finally slipped through Seattle to the King Street Station, recently restored, a monument to James J. Hill himself.
You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour. He is also a frequent contributor to the Governing podcast, The Future in Context. Clay’s most recent book, The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota, is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing email@example.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.