The Upper Missouri Historical Expedition

In 1925 and 1926, the Great Northern Railway offered two “historical expeditions” of the Northwest that featured colorful Indian ceremonies, lectures by a variety of historians and other experts, and the dedication of at least six impressive monuments to early explorers and pioneers, all of which remain standing to this day. The idea for these expeditions may have come about in 1924, when GN Chairman Louis Hill and President Ralph Budd promoted the newly re-equipped Oriental Limited by inviting 20 prominent eastern writers to join them on a “publisher’s edition” of the train.

Great Northern sent this 13″-by-20″ invitation to Waldo Lincoln, who was then president of the American Antiquarian Society. Click the image for a larger view.

The Upper Missouri Historical Expedition that the GN organized in 1925 was far more elaborate. To maximize time spent at various points of historic interest, a train informally called the “Upper Missouri Special” travelled mostly at night, taking five nights to get from St. Paul to Glacier National Park (a journey that took the Oriental Limited about 32 hours). To reduce the appearance of commercial self-interest, the railway persuaded the governors of North Dakota and Montana and state historical societies in Minnesota, the two Dakotas, and Montana to co-sponsor the tour.

The Great Northern also convinced a number of distinguished citizens to speak at various points during the tour, including Major-General Hugh Scott, a former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, and Supreme Court Justice Pierce Butler. In June, the railway sent invitations to some 5,000 historians, politicians, writers, artists, and other notables to participate in the expedition. With the exception of the distinguished speakers, most were expected to pay a combined rail-and-hotel fare for the trip. Though it is difficult to determine today how many paid their own way, about 75 people ended up joining the expedition.

Click image to download a 4.8-MB PDF of this booklet.

As detailed in this report in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, the tour started in St. Paul on July 16 with a luncheon sponsored by Ralph Budd at the exclusive Somerset Country Club in Mendota Heights, outside of St. Paul. They then took an auto tour of local historic sites, such as the Sibley House and Fort Snelling. It was during this tour that expedition members were given copies of a booklet, An Important Visit, which the railway had published for the occasion. This contained excerpts from the logs made by Zebulon Montgomery Pike during his 1805 expedition to what is now Minnesota.

After the tour, the group boarded the train at St. Paul Union Depot, which had been completed just two years before. As the train left on its journey west at 9:00 pm, passengers received several more booklets that the GN prepared for the tour. I’ll present each booklet as I describe the tour over the next several days.

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