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Homestead History
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Written by Christopher W. Czajka

photo
U.S. Military Railroad Engine. "W.H. Whiton.". National Archive.
"I have conquered the West without firing a single shot."
-- Henry Villard, President of the Northern Pacific Railroad, 1883


n the morning of September 8, 2001, the students at the Frontier Valley School celebrated a momentous occasion. Teacher Judy Hardy presented each of her frontier pupils with an unheard-of luxury: an orange. Exactly 119 years earlier, in 1883 -- the year her students were re-living -- crews completed the Northern Pacific Railroad in Montana Territory. Goods and products that homesteaders had done without for years suddenly became available. Visits from far-off relatives and trips away from their homesteads became a possibility. Life in Frontier Valley -- and elsewhere throughout the West -- would never be the same.

The completion of the Northern Pacific was nothing short of a miracle to eager Montanans. When the final spike was driven into the roadbed on September 8, 1883, it signaled the completion of more than twenty years of legal maneuvering, financial mismanagement, economic depression, false advertising, and exploitation of Chinese workers. The journey of the Northern Pacific to Montana -- like the journeys of many homesteaders -- had not been smooth.

Many settlers saw the arrival of a railroad as a ticket to immediate and long-lasting economic security. Since their creation in the early 19th century, railroads had a dramatic impact on people's lives and fortunes. Railroads enabled farmers and ranchers to ship their crops and animals to far-off markets. Miners could export their metals and minerals and import machinery to retrieve more. Railroads guaranteed the arrival of more settlers and stimulated industrial development. Even the poky, unreliable frontier postal service was reborn with the arrival of a railroad. Railroads stuck to timetables, and insured a relatively prompt delivery of mail to even the most rural areas. Railroads symbolized progress and prosperity. Without a railroad, one Montana newspaper reported in 1876, the area was cursed to forever remain "a dull, monotonous Territory, cut off from the world and all civilization."

frontier fact Following their land grants from Congress, the Northern Pacific Railroad was the second largest landowner in Montana after the federal government.
As early as 1835, proposals appeared in New York City newspapers discussing the need for a railroad that would link the settled cities of the East with the Columbia River (and the Pacific Ocean) of the West. In 1845, New York storekeeper and entrepreneur Asa Whitney began seeking support for a railroad that would link the Great Lakes to the Columbia River. Traveling up and down the eastern seaboard to secure sponsorship and funding for the gargantuan project, Whitney eventually spent his entire fortune and was forced into retirement. By the 1850s, government officials gave more serious consideration to the railroad, and the Governor of Washington Territory sponsored a two-year expedition to survey the most feasible route across the country between the 47th and 49th parallels of latitude.

However, regional tensions hampered the building of a transcontinental railroad. Until the Southern states left the Union in 1861, there was bitter conflict in Congress over just what route such a railroad would take -- after all, railroads were an economic boon to the lands through which they passed. Once the Confederate states seceded, Congress swiftly approved the building of the transcontinental railroad. The celebrated completion of the Union Pacific-Central Pacific Railroad at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869, was a momentous occasion, but there was one problem with it, as far as Montanans were concerned: the railroad roughly followed the path of the Oregon-California Trail, and came nowhere near Montana. Though Montana's primary railroad, the Northern Pacific, was in its early phases of construction in 1869, it would take another 15 years before it -- roughly following Lewis and Clark's more northerly route across the country -- reached the Territory.



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