The Valley City High Bridge


  Jerry R. Masters, P.E.



Fargo Division
First Sub-Division
Mile Post Telegraph Call Station From Dilworth
0311 Dh Dilworth 00.0
0315 Moorhead 03.4
0316 FO Fargo 04.6
0320 WF West Fargo 09.7
0328 Ma Mapleton 17.0
0342 Wd Wheatland 31.1
0352 Bf Buffalo 40.6
0358 Ct Tower City 46.5
0363 Ka Oriska 52.1
0368 An Peak 57.2
0374 Vy VALLEY CITY 62.3
0375 HIGH BRIDGE 63.4
0379 Ba Berea 67.4
0385 Sa Sanborn 72.9
0390 Xn Eckelson 78.2
0398 Sw Spiritwood 85.9
0409 Jy Jamestown 96.5

Hello! My name is Jerry Masters. I’m director of Freight Railroad Engineering Services at HNTB. Before that I was Assistant Chief Engineer, Maintenance of Way at Burlington Northern, and before that I was Office Engineer of the Northern Pacific Railway, a road I joined shortly after earning an MS in Civil Engineering in 1961.

The Northern Pacific, America’s second transcontinental—first of the Northern transcontinentals as it called itself—was chartered by Abe Lincoln in 1864. The NP didn’t break ground at Carlton, Minnesota, until the winter of 1871, and no sooner had it gotten off the ground than the failure of Jay Cooke dragged the road—and the country—into the Panic of 1873. Some may tell you that the NP dragged Cooke—and the country—into the Panic of 1873.

Be that as it may, the NP was no sooner resuscitated by Frederick Billings than it was snapped up by German émigré Henry Villard’s famous “Blind Pool” of 1880. Villard rushed the road to its gold spike in 1883, but was quickly ousted for his freewheeling ways after the Panic of 1883. The company recovered again—ironically, under Henry Villard—before collapsing yet again in the Panic of 1893. That panic, I might point out, has not been blamed on the NP!

Like many roads, the NP suffered from being built ahead of settlement—supply was put ahead of demand. Despite this, the NP went on to build, literally from the ground up, a place you may now call home. You may recognize the names of NP veterans in places like Adams, Billings, Burt, Darling, Dickinson, Cooperstown, Fargo, Eckelson, Hannaford, Judson, McHenry, Moorhead, Oakes, or Rapelje, to name but a few.

Finally Morganization in 1896 put the company on a paying basis. For the next twenty years demand ran ahead of supply, and men who had overseen the NP’s rough and ready days were charged with its rehabilitation and upgrade. At the forefront of this work were civil engineers like Howard Elliott, John Kendrick, Edwin McHenry, and William Darling.

I will single out one of these men for special consideration, as he was chief engineer of the Northern Pacific for much of this very hectic time. William Lafayette Darling was born in the spring of 1856 in Oxford, Mass. He graduated from Worcester Polytechnic in 1877.

In those early years, Worcester grads had a large presence on the NP. John Kendrick—class of 1873—joined the NP the same year as Darling—1879. John Quincy Barlow, class of 1882, joined the NP, and went on to the UP, WP, and chief engineer of the Western Maryland. Benjamin O. Johnson, class of 1900, followed Darling to Siberia during the Great War as part of the Russian Railway Service Corps.

WPI engineers also played a large role in building America. Worcester grads worked on the Flat Iron Building and Grand Central Terminal in New York (Hamilton Chapman, 1886), the Panama Canal and Hoover Dam (Spencer Miller, 1879), the Catskills Aqueduct (Alfred Flinn, 1893), and some of the nation’s first experiments with rocketry (Robert Goddard, 1908).

Bill Darling was a mustachioed bull of a man; athletic, outgoing, like many of that generation, the quintessential joiner. He lettered in baseball and football; over the course of his career he was a director of AREA, a member of ASCE, honorary member of General Contractors of America, a Shriner, a thirty-second degree Mason.

His career took him over much of the Northern Tier—division engineer for the NP; terminal design in the Twin Cities for the Burlington; the Sioux Falls-Yankton line for the Great Northern; back to the NP for the Little Falls-Staples line and the Coeur d’Alene Branch to the mining district of Wallace, Idaho; chief engineer of the Milwaukee; then back to the NP for two terms as chief engineer—1901 to 1903 and 1906 to 1916. These twelve years represent one of the longest terms of chief engineer on the NP, during one of the most prolific periods of expansion.

Darling’s career culminated in that pinnacle of the profession—consulting engineer. He was on the Naval Consulting Board; the Advisory Commission of Railway Experts to Russia (with GN’s John F. Stevens); the City Planning Board and the City Zoning Board in St. Paul.

The years between the Spanish-American War and the Great War saw a huge increase in rail traffic. Plans were drawn up by Kendrick and McHenry to improve the grades and alignments of the hastily built road. This called for the reduction of all suitable grades to a 0.4 percent operational basis, using Mogul locomotives with an 85,000-pound weight on drivers. On adverse grades the same train would be handled with heavier power, or pusher locomotives. This work stretched from 1896 to 1919 and continued under Elliott and Darling.

Seattle, Wash., to Portland, Ore., was straightened, double tracked, and the Columbia and Willamette rivers bridged by steel. Stampede Pass was rerouted, and double tracked. Sand Point, Idaho, to Missoula, Mont., was put onto new grades. Missoula to Garrison, Mont., was straightened, tunneled, and double tracked.

In 1871, this was the NP’s Dakota Division, including 199.4 miles of from the state line at Fargo to the Missouri River Bridge. In those days the NP crossed the river by ferry in summer, by pile bridge driven into the ice in winter. Second main track was added Fargo to Haggart (West Fargo) in 1884; Haggart to Casselton in 1906; Casselton to Wheatland in 1907; Wheatland to Buffalo in 1906; at Alta (Peak), in 1906; and Bloom to Jamestown in 1910.

The NP had a level crossing of the Red River Valley from Fargo to Wheatland. Wheatland to Buffalo is a 0.7 percent grade, followed by 0.4 from Buffalo to Oriska. Finally, Oriska Hill, Oriska to Alta, hits a full one percent. Westbound trains from Wheatland to Buffalo and Oriska to Alta both had another engine added to help them over these grades.

From Alta, the line drops away on a steady one percent into the Sheyenne Valley at Valley City. It gets out of the hole at Valley City on a 1.1 percent climb to Berea. From Berea to Jamestown is a gently rolling surface. The last grade is about a mile and a half of one percent climbing out of the James Valley at Jamestown. From Alta to Berea from Valley City and from Jamestown out two miles eastward are more pusher districts.

Grade revisions to were first suggested in 1896, with two or three potential changes, ranging in cost from $84,000 to a whopping $687,000. Only one, Wheatland-Berea, was termed “decidedly profitable,” while traffic was “not yet sufficient” for any improvements at Jamestown.

In 1903 Darling submitted a 22-page update on the master plans of the 1890s. He noted that in just two months in 1902, trains had been delayed 870 hours at Valley City because of pusher operations, with an equal number at Jamestown for the same reason.

Proposed line changes would eliminate helpers between Wheatland and Oriska, Alta and Berea, and Bloom and Jamestown, leaving only one westbound helper from Oriska to Alta—4.5 miles.

Reduction of the Oriska Hill would let one engine instead of two handle a 1,350 ton train westbound. The largest portion of the $123,000 price tag was for excavating 530,000 cubic yards of earth from the hill. The upside, Darling pointed out, was that the company could use 180,000 yards for grading an expansion of Fargo yard.

The next upgrade would be from Tower City to Berea. Here the NP had to decide on how to cross the Sheyenne River, as well as a county road and the Soo Line, coming into Valley City. A timber trestle would be less costly at $400,000, and could later be filled, save for a small steel span across the river, road, and railroad. An all-steel trestle might also be used. At 135 feet it would not be the highest—Marent Trestle west of Missoula would be nearly 100 feet higher—but at 2,820 feet it would more than double the length of any other on the system. At a cost of $724,300, it would also be the most expensive undertaken since the NP first bridged the Missouri or the Columbia.

Finally, the project would include an enormous excavation—more than 2.1 million cubic yards from Oriska to Alta.

Compared to the present line, Darling wrote, the work would “reduce the distance by 3,491 feet, total curvature by 285 degrees, and rise and fall by 329 feet. It will avoid delay forever train passing Valley City and will reduce the number of trains running over the district by the pusher mileage eliminated, which with the present business almost compels double-tracking.”

Revisiting the proposals in 1906, this time with President Howard Elliott, a Harvard-educated civil engineer, Darling now suggested double track from Tower City to Alta—a 2.8 million cubic yard excavation. The question was—where could all that dirt be used to advantage? Yard improvements at Staples? Fargo? Jamestown? Filling a wood trestle across the James to Valley City? Darling said “Nix!” to all of these. On the other hand, the smaller job of reducing Buffalo Hill might be used to grade for double track from Haggart to Casselton, eliminate the sag near Buffalo, and raise sags all along the line from Eckelson to Spiritwood. In addition, one issue was firmly settled. The increase in train tonnage and the of motive power eliminated the possibility of a wood trestle crossing of the James. Weight now dictated steel.

Elliott went to the board early in 1906. He wanted reduction of Buffalo Hill, the earth to be used between Haggart and Casselton at once to get immediate benefit from double tracking around Fargo. In addition, there would be a 9.37 mile line change, Alta-Berea, with a steel trestle across the James, for a total of more than $744,000. Elliott told the board the NP has handling three million tons a mile from Staples to Fargo. He didn’t have figures for Fargo to Casselton, but “as the branch line business is all coming in there, as well as the main line, the density must be nearly as great as east of Fargo.” The Dakota Division handled two million tons per mile in 1905, business Elliott expected to increase “very materially” over a “difficult piece of operation.” Within eight days Elliott had authority to prosecute “as diligently as possible” 124 miles of upgrades across a 223-mile territory from Wadena, Minnesota, to Berea. The total bill was more than 4.3 million dollars.

Winter, 1907, found Darling refining his plans. Cutting down the hill at Alta requires a nearly three million cubic yard excavation, a dig which makes him nervous. The NP had little experience with an operation of this size and Darling was worried about striking rock. Nor was excavating in the rough North Dakota winter a happy prospect. Snow and mud both furrowed his brow. A cut might be avoided with a 3.81-mile loop adding 280 degrees of curvature to the line, or by just falling back on the old tried and true helper service for a short four-mile shove. His stated preference was for the latter.

As the planning entered its last phases, Darling listed five possible variations for the work:
Buffalo to Berea, wooden viaduct at Valley City, revising grade east of Alta for double-track — 1.6 million
Buffalo to Berea, steel viaduct at Valley City, revising grade east of Alta for double-track — 1.8 million
Buffalo to Berea, steel viaduct, revising grade east of Alta and loop—$1.3 million
Steel viaduct at Valley City, no loop, helper between Mile Post 48 and 52, adverse westbound but revising remainder for double-track — 1,075,000
Steel viaduct at Valley City, no loop, revising grade east of Oriska for single track—875,000.
Darling recommended the $1,075,000 plan.
Between January 25 and 31, 1907, the design of the bridge itself was finalized. Elliott asked for variations on the theme—single track ($455,000), double track with just a single track put down ($665,000), and double track complete ($780,000). The board agreed to a double track bridge with a single track installed, and decided double tracking westward from Buffalo as an absolutely necessary. Elliott approved the cost difference between the single and double track bridge designs on February 17, 1907, and since that day, this has been the basis of the single tracked double track bridge at Valley City.

Updated March 13, 2006.