Great Northern Railway

“Nothing lasts forever,” Jeff Bezos acknowledged, and someday the mighty Amazon, having outlasted its usefulness to the American consumer, will find itself in the history books.

Great Northern Railway engine

The Great Northern Railway

The Great and Wonderful Oz comes across many oddities in his travels. The world is full of them, oddities we call them because they are unusual, persons and things defying common description.

It is easy to see them, but harder to find them.

Here in Whitefish, Montana the railroads still run, hauling timber, coal, cattle, and crops. The railroad now is the Burlington, Northern, and Santa Fe (BNSF), but once upon a time it was just the Great Northern (1899-1970). The idea of 19th-century railroad entrepreneur James J. Hill, The Great Northern ran from Saint Paul, Minnesota, through North Dakota, Montana, and Idaho, to Seattle, Washington. One of the oddities of the Great Northern is that it was built without the the financial aid of the United States government.

No land grants, no bonds, just pure capitalism at work.

Where are the railroads that built America?

The railroad tamed the west, crossed this vast land and made America great. It brought immigrants to new lands and provided a means to ship crops and produce from the productive west to a starving east.

The Great Northern created value from tourism. Another oddity about the railway is that it promoted legislation that lead to the establishment of the Glacier National Park in 1910. Then, it developed mountain retreats, built touring cars, and promoted the trip as a tourist destination. Indeed, the Great Northern Railway built fabulous trains like the Empire Builder, Western Star, and Oriental Limited, that whisked thousands of curious tourists each year to and from the Pacific Northwest.

But, the automobile and paved roads defeated the railway’s hopes and dreams for a profitable tourist business.

cars and trucks in Glacier National Park

Change is the only constant

No, Oz is not suggesting that the railroad, like the buffalo, will vanish from the American landscape. In Montana and elsewhere freight trains still travel the tracks delivering goods more cheaply and quickly than other means of transportation. This has given rise to a new concept, the Inter-modal station where goods are delivered by train and then distributed to trucks for local shipment.

Change, Oz knows, is the only constant, the only means to staying relevant.

Yes, the sight of a railroad track, the sound of the faraway whistle, and the rumble of a passing engine and cars still stirs Oz’s imagination with thoughts of long ago.

Odd, how the mind wanders from thought to thought.

Hear the train blow

Speaking of which, Oz fondly recalls a mother softly singing to her child the sweet words from Down in the Valley:

Late in the evening, hear the train blow
Down in the valley the valley so low
Hang your head over, hear the wind blow
Hear the wind blow love, hear the wind blow
Hang your head over, hear the train blow…
Purple wildflower Glacier National Park


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