Yellowstone Genealogy Forum

Northern Pacific Railroad Patents in Billings Area

Revised Tuesday, April 26, 2005(Corrected allotment value)

As the railroad progressed through Montana Territory and Yellowstone County it acquired double the normal allowance of land granted to other railroads. Twenty sections at a time on each side of the line were granted along the track route in lieu of financial aid. The sketch below locates some of the section property held by them under Patent Title as the track construction proceeded. The railroad construction faced many obstacles, political unrest, finances, and Indian attacks. They changed their legal name several times to avoid repayment of the mortgages. To understand what happened to them as the track extended westward refer to some of the many books written about their land patents and turmoil. The U.S. Railroad Retirement Board has established some genealogical links and details on the railroads on their web site. Additional details regarding Montana railroad history can be found in the following books.

Northern Pacific Railroad Surveys, 1871-1873: (Extracted from “Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center”, web site (

The Northern Pacific Railroad Surveys were brief reconnaissance across southern Montana and southern North Dakota over a three-year period to determine the most feasible route between Bozeman and Bismarck. Colonel D.S. Stanley directed the surveys. The U.S. Army provided armed escorts for the surveyors and naturalists employed on this project. This armed escort totaled 1,900 men, and included Custer and the 7th Calvary. Expeditions came from Fort Ellis in Montana and Fort Rice in North Dakota. The areas explored were along the Yellowstone River, north to the Musselshell River, between Fort Ellis and Glendive Creek (present site of Glendive), and then eastward into North Dakota (Figure 22). It was during the 1873 survey that ornithologist J. A. Allen served as the expedition naturalist. Allen was a careful observer of wildlife and habitat conditions found along the survey route and his notes are a valuable record of conditions in 1873. In addition to writing an exhaustive account of birds found on the expedition, Allen also noted mammals collected and seen on the expedition and went on to write a book on bison, which contains some original observations of bison along the Musselshell River. Allen also noted a massive die-off of pronghorn sheep during the summer of 1873 during which he estimated he saw nine dead animals for every live pronghorn.

Although the filing records for land ownership (originally located at the Bozeman Land Office) were not saved for microfilming, it would appear that the railroad pre-selected their odd-numbered land sections along the proposed routes, thus limiting the homesteaders’ choices for land. Later, the Minnesota and Montana Land and Improvement Company, was formed, and they secured much of the NPR lands for speculation and development.



The original Land Grant Patent details are defined in two documents:

Filing of the "Original Plat of the Town of Billings" (Jun 1, 1882):

Page 1 of 2; Page 2 of 2

Northern Pacific Railroad title transfer to Minnesota & Montana Land & Improvement Company of the land platted for Billings on Jun 1, 1882 (Mar 20, 1883):

Page 1 of 2; Page 2 of 2

The railroad in Billings runs essentially parallel to Montana Avenue, with the original town center located slightly east of 27th Street & south of Montana Avenue. As the track extended west, the railroad filed for additional land grants sufficiently in advance to assure that they could prepare for future mortgages and property sales. Obviously in their financial interests, they sought to get the best 'future' commercial property available. Note that the land townships from North to South do not line up with each other due to corrections for the latitude curvature. These corrections are made at each Guide. The Rimrock area is shaded in orange. The Coulson river town (1877-1885) was originally on land held by Perry McAdow, about ½ mile north of the river, then actually established a few months later on John Alderson’s land, north of Perry’s. The town was positioned on a northeast axis, roughly in line with Montana Avenue in the Billings’ plat. When the Big Ditch (M&M Canal) was created in 1882-1883, excess water was routed through the town, essentially southward on 29th street, and to the north side of the railroad line on Montana Avenue. From there it flowed east, and on to the Yellowstone. There were also several laterals existing for additional drainage, fire protection and irrigation.

The Great Northern Railroad line follows fairly close to the land survey plat made by a rival railroad some 25 years earlier. In Montana it served the Hi-Line cities near Canada, Glacier National Park, with spurs for cities of Billings, Lewistown, Great Falls, and locations within Manitoba. The Great Northern Railroad could be referred to as having been built by the Mississippi Steamboat Company shipping agent, James J. Hill. Hill thought about creating such a road in the1860’s.  This was spurred on by the land grant offers of Congress for construction of the lines. He was instrumental in starting the St Paul & Pacific Company, based in Minnesota, as the bonding agent for the planned railway. A market panic in 1873 left the stockholders with their indebtedness nearly five times the face value of the stock, and very anxious to sell. Hill was joined by George Stephen, Donald A Smith, and Norman W Kittson. They bought out the Dutch-held stock in 1879. At this time the railroad had only laid about 300 miles of track and a simple plan to lay more. Hill became Manager, took over the property holdings, and the name was changed to the St Paul, Minneapolis and St Paul Railway Company (Manitoba for short).  The routes included title to 565 miles of track and 102 miles under construction. In 1881 the Hill group bought the 25-year old Minneapolis & St Cloud Railway and part interest in the St Paul & Duluth Railroad Company, which provided access to the Great Lake region. [The following is extracted from Billings Gazette’s 75th Anniversary Issue September-1960]

On August 21,1882 Hill became president of the Great Northern lines, a post he held for 25 years. He took no salary, but retained right to the potential investment gain created by value of the property as time progressed. In 1889 he changed the name to Great Northern Railway, and on February 1, 1890, this company took over all the assets of the other railroad acquisitions. [See Northern Pacific Chronology – Presidents] The St Paul & Pacific Railway Company was again bankrupt. Hill and his partners acquired the company under new title. Hill earlier in about 1879 had talked a long time friend Paris Gibson (a Minnesota Flour Mill owner) into acquiring land in Montana, and he bought a huge acreage along the Missouri River, and acting on the advice from his friend, Hill, he created plans for the eventual town of Great Falls in 1883. Hill made his first trip to Montana, arriving in Helena the following year, in June 1884. He took a stagecoach ride to his property, a ten-hour ride by a four-horse coach over rough mountain roads. At this time he announced he would build the railroad over the mountain pass to the Pacific Ocean. He was impressed with the Sand Coulee coalfields, potential for electrical power from future dams on the Missouri River, and possible agriculture in the Sun River and Missouri River valley areas. He was concerned about how to raise capital, so he devised a plan to generate Congressional support. His competitors, the Northern Pacific and Canadian Pacific Railroad Lines leading to the Pacific were losing money, thus he was sure that he could not receive Federal land grants and would therefore require private capital. He then gave the impression to the St Paul newspapers that such a line would not be started upon, at least for several years. In 1886 the government halted construction at Minot because Congress had not received formal approval for continuation of the line through Indian reservation land. Trusted friends of Hill organized the Montana Central Railway and constructed a line from Great Falls to Helena, under the guise of a “local project”. Funds from his personal friends were channeled through Col. C A Broadwater, and he bought up virtually all land surrounding the most practical routes for a railroad line. The Montana Central surveyed land in the winter of 1886, and sold construction bonds the following year. Track from Great Falls was laid starting in May 1887. They reached Helena the same year. During the winter of 1888 most of the survey work was completed for a line from Butte to Helena. A small branch line to the Sand Coulee coalmines was laid and the use of coal from Wyoming was stopped.

In February 1887 the ‘Manitoba’ purchased land across the Dakota reservation, and Hill ordered that 545 miles of track be laid from Minot to Great Falls before “snow fell”. Work started on April 2nd, and crews averaged 3 ¼ miles per day. Nine thousand men and 7,000 horses moved more than a million cubic yards of dirt and rock in constructing this link. On two separate days more than seven miles of track were laid. Some 11,700 rail cars of supplies, including 947 cars containing rail spikes, were needed. Wagon trains hauled supplies 100 miles ahead of the track, and up to 30 miles ahead of the land graders. They used 590,000 bushels of oats for the horses. The line in Great Falls ended at a lone boxcar at the river’s edge when winter set in. It took until fall the next year before the bridge across the Missouri was constructed, and rail service could reach the rail depot located on the west bank of the river.

In 1889, John A Stevens, a locating engineer for the railroad, locates Marias Pass for Hill. [[Historians disagree as to the spelling of his name; however a monument at Summit, located west of East Glacier, honors him. At this location the Great Northern Streamliners, Empire Builder and Western Star rail lines used to cross the divide.  That same year the railroad had completed over 3,000 miles of track. This year the Great Northern Railway, Company was organized to consolidate all the properties held by the railroad, including the ‘Manitoba’ line. 

In 1893 the line reached Puget Sound on the coast. Heavier track was laid, as well as many spurs added soon afterwards.

In 1899 Hill purchased Minnesota property previously owned by the railroad, including a railroad, logging road and ore lands for $4,500,000.

In 1901 the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railway purchased the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy system through issuance of $214,154,000 in trust bonds, secured by company stock.

In 1907 Hill resigned as president and became board chairman.  In that same year 14 subsidiary railway companies were incorporated into one system, the Securities Company. By 1909 they had 7,047 miles of track. In 1912 plans for creating a Northern Line were initiated, but dissolved after it was declared illegal under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

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