The St. Paul & Pacific Railroad: An Empire in the Making, 1862-1879

Article excerpt

Augustus J. Veenendaal, Jr, The St. Paul & Pacific Railroad: an empire in the making, 1862-1879, Northern Illinois University Press, De Kalb IL (1999), 178 pp., US$49.94.

The early history of railroads in the United States is terrain that has been well covered. From the works of Overton to H. Roger Grant many early roads have been ably dissected. However, Augustus J. Veenendaal has managed to turn some new ground in his wonderful study of the St Paul & Pacific Railroad (SP&P). The SP&P was in many ways a typical early western road and faced many of the same problems. Though it was only in existence for a short time, its heritage was evident in the later Great Northern and even in today's Burlington Northern & Santa Fe.

Veenendaal begins with a chapter on the history of Minnesota from European exploration up to the coming of the railroad. The fur trade, relations with American Indians and the first settlements are all detailed. The challenges of transport on the frontier before the coming of the railroads are described and explained. The second chapter is a brief summary of the upper Midwest railroad scene as of roughly 1860. It also provides a brief look at the financial climate in Minnesota and the city of St Paul, the capital of the new state and headquarters of the new railroad.

The new railroad finally gets under way, with the help of a land grant, in 1857. Veenendaal chronicles the financial trials and tribulations that the early line endured. The lack of available capital for building the railroad was the critical factor in its early years. It was 1861 before any rails were laid and two locomotives were brought upriver and off loaded in St Paul. A few cars and facilities joined the locomotives but there were only 1,300 ft of track on which to run. The summer of 1862 saw the official opening of the line from St Paul to St Anthony, a distance of less than fifteen miles.

The SP&P continued to expand but faced many problems. The finances were convoluted and involved dealings that would make the most aggressive Internet entrepreneur blush. To overcome the chronic lack of capital available for expanding the railroad, the directors of the SP&P, like many other railroads, looked across the Atlantic to the banking houses of London and Amsterdam. …