The towering elevated rail bridge that drivers see from I-90 has its origins with the early rail barons.
James J. Hill, builder of the Great Northern Railway from Minnesota to the Northwest, purchased an interest in the financially troubled Northern Pacific Railway in 1896. He wanted to merge the two track systems, but the NP management resisted that idea.
Still, the GN and NP, then controlled by banker J.P. Morgan, worked together, against Edward Harriman of the Union Pacific, to buy up the stock of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, gaining the final leg of a direct route to Chicago.
Hill created Northern Securities to oversee his three railroads.
The federal government sued under the Sherman Antitrust Act, asserting that the company was a monopoly. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1904 that Northern Securities must break up and remain three separate entities.
Undaunted, Hill went on to start the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway in 1906, completing a route from Spokane to Vancouver, Washington.
Hill died in 1916, but his legacy railroads continued to try merging over the next 60 years. Later merger plans included a new rail bridge in Spokane.
In 1970, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the 1904 ruling, allowing the Hill’s four railroads, and various subsidiaries, to unite as Burlington Northern.
Back in Spokane, the new company agreed to remove its tracks from Havermale Island and move traffic away from the river through Spokane. BN would build a $10-million, 4,000-foot elevated bridge over Latah Creek with a Y intersection called Latah Junction. Architect Warren Heylman designed the straight concrete legs, the box girder structure and cement bridge deck. At one point, the bridge reaches a height of over 200 feet above Latah Creek.
Over the next 40 years, BN continued to grow. In 1995, the merger with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway changed the company’s name to Burlington Northern Santa Fe. In 2005, the name was shortened to BNSF Railway.
The new bridge opened in December 1972 to carry BN trains, as well as traffic from the Union Pacific and Milwaukee Road. The unified route allowed the GN to abandon High Bridge in West Spokane and several miles of track through the city.
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