Monday, July 6, 2009

The Northern Pacific Railroad

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Northern Pacific’s charter making it the beneficiary of the largest government railroad land grant in American history. This grant would eventually include over forty million acres and a vast extinguishment of Indian land titles. The original incorporators, led by the tireless advocate Josiah Perham set out to link Lake Superior to Puget Sound. It would take nearly twenty years and countless heartaches and setbacks until the final spike completing the line was ceremoniously driven on September 8, 1883 fifty-five miles west of Helena, Montana.

The history of the Northern Pacific's growth as an entity is filled with the stories of western legend and Wall Street intrigue. From the white-collar offices of New York investment bankers to the lowliest Chinese coolie worker grading the road, the construction of the Northern Pacific was fraught with danger. Indeed, the early engineering parties were protected by none other than George Armstrong Custer as the railroad cut a swath through lands of the Sioux and other Indian tribes. As Indian lands shrank, opportunity grew for the capitalist white man. And a mesmerized Wall Street continued to pour millions upon millions more into the new frontier which offered untold potential riches, as well as some of the greatest financial risks ever taken by the investment community. As one of the largest corporate undertakings of the 19th century, the Northern Pacific’s development attracted many of America’s most well-known financiers, bankers, industrialists, and businessmen from virtually every imaginable pursuit.

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