Williston, ND (WTN)
From a small tent colony in 1887, Williston grew into a prosperous town at the center of an extensive agricultural and grazing region. The community recently renovated the 1910 depot.
1 South Main Street
Williston, ND 58801
Annual Station Ridership (2016): 28,062
- Facility Ownership: BNSF Railway
- Parking Lot Ownership: BNSF Railway
- Platform Ownership: BNSF Railway
- Track Ownership: BNSF Railway
For information about Amtrak fares and schedules, please call 1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245).
Located in the far northwestern corner of North Dakota, only 80 miles south of the Canadian border and 15 miles from the state line with Montana, Williston is the center of the surrounding agricultural and grazing communities. Like many towns in the upper Midwest and West, Williston developed rapidly due to the arrival of the Great Northern Railway (GN) in 1887.
The Williston depot, constructed in 1910, is a one-story reddish-brown brick structure with a steep gabled roof and deep eaves. A stone water table provides a base for the brick walls, and a stone belt course circles the building at the level of the window sills; these elements emphasize the horizontal orientation of the building as do the eaves. The designers broke the horizontality of the depot with the gables at each end which project above the roof line and are detailed with stone coping that syncs with the treatment of the belt course and water table.
The verticality and solidity of the end gables are reinforced by the series of quoins executed in brick on each corner of the depot. Both the street and trackside facades feature projecting bays with quoins and parapets; again, these prominent bays break through the roofline and add a vertical element to the architectural composition. The trackside bay would have allowed the station master to look down the tracks in both directions and monitor traffic along the line; this bay also holds a stone panel engraved with the name of the town.
Sited at the foot of Main Street near the banks of the Missouri River, the Williston depot underwent a series of renovations in summer 2010; this $1.5 million project was the culmination of three years of planning and an extensive search for funding. The city made improvements to Main Street from the depot to Front Street, enhanced the access road to the station, and added a new drop-off/pick-up area. The gravel parking lot was paved and the neighboring Railroad Park received new landscaping, benches, lighting, and art pieces. A resident offered to donate a vintage caboose to complement the GN steam engine from which Railroad Park takes its name. The station interior was also upgraded. Williston assembled a diverse finance package that included $569,000 in Transportation Enhancement funds, $250,000 in stimulus funds, $185,000 in Special North Dakota Road Funds, and $25,000 from the local Garrison Conservancy District; the remainder of the project was financed from sales tax revenue.
The Great Northern Railway is considered to have been America’s premier northern trans-continental rail route, running from St. Paul to Seattle. The GN was formed in 1889 by James J. Hill who orchestrated the merger of the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad with the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway. Hill holds a special place in railroad history and lore, and is known as the “Empire Builder.” Whereas most transcontinental lines were built with federal assistance in the form of federal land grants, the GN did not utilize this method.
Hill’s business acumen guided the planning and construction of the GN. Much of the upper Midwest and West was sparsely settled, so instead of racing across the continent, the GN developed the regions through which it travelled as it steadily moved toward the Pacific. This action helped settle the land and created a customer base. Hill the businessman actively sought to establish trade links with Asia, and the railroad is credited with putting sleepy Seattle on the map and transforming it into an important and powerful Pacific Ocean port after the railroad reached the West Coast in 1893.
The importance of the railroad to Williston and similar communities is evident in a 1920 description of the town as being located “where the Great Northern and Missouri meet.” The settlement was named for Daniel Willis James, an Englishman who came to America in the mid-nineteenth century with his merchant family. Willis was a great friend of James J. Hill and an investor in the Northern Pacific Railroad which eventually came under the control of the GN. “Williston” proved a marked improvement over the settlement’s previous designation as “Sidetrack 25.”
The James family connection to the distant North Dakota town remained remarkably strong for generations. In 1911, James’ son endowed a library in Williston in memory of his father; the funds paid for the land, building, furnishings, and 3,000 titles. The James Memorial Building was the pride of Williston, as it featured an interior with oak staircases, marble columns, and a coved ceiling supporting a vaulted dome with a stained glass skylight. The library moved out in 1983; over the next ten years, a group of citizens came together to save the structure from the wrecking ball. In 1993 the National Register-listed building became a community arts center hosting forums, workshops, and meetings, as well as a series of art, poetry, and musical shows.
The northwest corner of North Dakota was lightly populated before the arrival of the railroad. Lewis and Clark passed through the area in 1805 during their exploration of the Louisiana Territory in 1804-1806.
From a small tent colony in 1887, Williston grew into a prosperous town by the dawn of the 20th century. It was lucky to be designated a passenger and freight division point for the Great Northern, which meant that it hosted a roundhouse, car repair shop, icehouse, and stockyards capable of accommodating almost one hundred carloads of livestock. With the railroad infrastructure came jobs which helped provided stability for Williston. As the Williams County seat, Williston also became the center of local government and its attendant agencies.
The surrounding farmland was settled by immigrants primarily from Scandinavia and Germany, reflected in the deep cultural routes that many residents still have to those regions. Wheat, oats, and flax were popular crops, and in time dairy farming developed. Williston provided farmers with a place to purchase needed goods and a shipping point for their products. Today, a major grain elevator serviced by the BNSF Railway (a successor to the GN) serves the region. The importance of grains in the local economy is reinforced by a sculptural group in Davidson Park called the “Wheat Monument,” a trio of metal wheat stalks that soar thirty-five feet into the air. The discovery of oil in the border region in the late 20th century has provided Williston with a new industry.
Visitors to Williston are drawn to the lore of frontier history and the breathtaking beauty of the North American prairies. Many people head to Forts Buford and Union southwest of Williston near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. Fort Buford is a North Dakota historic site that explores early frontier settlement and the wars between federal troops and American Indian peoples. Construction of the fort began in 1866, but the settlement was rebuilt and expanded numerous times. The background and events of the Sioux Wars of 1876-1879 are examined; these battles were partially precipitated by Northern Pacific Railroad surveying in American Indian land and eventually resulted in the defeat of Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Further west on the border with Montana is Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, a reconstructed collection of buildings associated with the American Fur Company which established the post in 1828. This business enterprise was built to facilitate trade with northern plains tribes and was in operation until 1867. Assiniboine, Crow, Cree, Ojibway, Blackfeet, Hidatsa, and other tribes as well as European-Americans interacted at the post and this mix of cultures, personalities, and interests is explored in exhibits. Among the post’s famous visitors were naturalist John James Audubon, painter George Catlin, and Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux holy man Sitting Bull.
No visit to this corner of North Dakota would be complete without a visit to the plains around the majestic confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. The Missouri is the longest river in the nation, and the Yellowstone is one of its main tributaries. The Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center tells the history and prehistory of the region through its permanent exhibits which explore the geography and geology of the land and also investigate the human impacts on the landscape manifest in the region’s trails, railroad tracks, rivers, and roads.
Amtrak provides ticketing and baggage services at the Williston station which is served twice daily by the Empire Builder.
- 20 Long Term Parking Spaces
- Accessible Platform
- Accessible Waiting Room
- Accessible Water Fountain
- Baggage Storage
- Bike Boxes
- Checked Baggage
- Dedicated Parking
- Enclosed Waiting Area
- Shipping Boxes
- Ski Bags
- Ticket Office
- Wheelchair Lift