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Central Montana Hikes & Attractions

Central Montana Railroads

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Montana is a very large state and in the late 1800’s it was a long way from Montana to any of the nation’s population centers. Before railroads reached the state regular commercial travel was problematic at best. The first rail lines brought both people and goods into the state and provided a way to send minerals and other products to distant markets. The Central Montana Railroads were critical to growth in the area.

History of Montana Rail Lines

Rail lines crossing Montana from east to west connected the Pacific coast with cities in the Midwest. Private companies constructed three rail lines which crossed the sate from east to west. The Northern Pacific Railroad was completed in 1883 and ran across southern Montana. The Great Northern Railroad which crossed the northern part of the state was completed to Seattle in 1893. Each of these lines received significant governmental support in the form of massive land grants which provided significant financial incentive.

The third line, the Milwaukee Road,  crossed through central Montana. It was the last of the lines across Montana and was completed in 1908. The Milwaukee Road was the only train line that was constructed without any land grants to reduce their development costs. However, the Milwaukee Road was developed in a fiscally sound fashion. It began as a regional rail line in the upper mid-west and only expanded as its profits justified. The Milwaukee Road was the hub for all Central Montana railroads.

The Milwaukee Road began operations in Montana by running the steam engines common at the time. Unfortunately, steam engines didn’t have the power needed to pull trains up some of the grades that had to be traversed. This was especially true in winter when very cold temperatures would significantly reduce the power a steam engine could generate.

Electric Powered Trains

The owners of the Milwaukee Line decided that electric locomotives would provide the consistent pulling power needed. Cheap electricity generated by dams along the Columbia River made electric trains very economical to operate. Consequently, the decision was made to switch to electricity. In 1915 the first section of the line switched to electricity and soon the entire line was electrified. The electric trains proved to be efficient and effective. They were dependable and operated well in the cold harsh conditions.

Providing uninterrupted power all along the rail line required significant infrastructure including overhead lines and power substations. Despite the cost of these improvements, the electrified railroad was more profitable and effective.

The story of electrification of the Milwaukee road has been fully documented in the book The Electric Way Across The Mountains: Stories Of The Milwaukee Road Electrification.

The Jawbone Railroad

One of the most interesting stretches of the Milwaukee Road was the “Jawbone Railroad”. This was a 157 mile stretch  between the cities of  Lombard and Lewistown MT. The Jawbone was officially named the Montana Railroad. It was a private line built to serve the mining and agriculture communities in central Montana.

The primary visionary responsible for the Montana Railroad was Richard Harlow, an attorney from Helena MT. Harlow believed that rail service was vital to the economic future of central Montana and worked hard to achieve his vision. His first attempt to construct a line began and ended in 1893. However, in 1894 he once again began to work on a new rail line and this time he succeeded.

Photo of abandonded wooden railroad trestle in Central Montana
This very impressive abandoned wooden trestle crosses Big Spring Creek northwest of Lewistown, MT. The terrain of central Montana is such that the railroads had to build many trestles and tunnels. This trestle is mostly built of wood but there are several “fire brakes”, sections built entirely of steel, designed to keep a potential fire from burning the entire structure.

The Montana Railroad began construction in 1895. Construction began from Lombard which was a Northern Pacific station located about 50 miles east of Helena, MT. Construction ran east toward the Castle Mountains where gold fields created a demand for train service. In 1896 the line reached Leadboro (also known as Leadborough) at the southern end of the Castle Mountain mining district. This was the first of the Central Montana railroads.

Unfortunately, by the time the rail service arrived the gold was exhausted. Harlo decided to extend the line further east into the open lands of Central Montana. In 1900 the line reached the new town of Harlowton which was named after Harlo. After reaching Harlowton more track was laid heading north and in 1903 the Montana Railroad was complete to Lewistown, MT.

Read the full history of The Montana Railroad: Alias the Jawbone

The Milwaukee Road

In 1908, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad was in the process of building their route to the west coast. Rather than build new lines they purchased the Montana Railroad in its entirety. Thus, the Montana Railroad became a part of what became the Milwaukee Road. The Milwaukee Road brought additional resources to the area. The Milwaukee Road only used the section of the line from Harlowton to Lombard. However, tracks were laid from Lewistown to Great Falls, MT as a secondary line serving that part of the state. Subsequently several spur lines were built that provided access to much of the country north of Harlowton.

This very large, long trestle crosses the Judith River. It is mostly all steel but there are concrete and wooden sections at each end. Although this is a particularly large trestle, there are many others scattered across central Montana.

By 1980 all of these lines had become abandoned and today the grade remains in most places as a testament to the peak of rail traffic. Losing the railroad meant significant change for this part of Montana. The Rail stations had become focal points for communities and grain elevators became major fixtures around which communities sprang up. Once the rail traffic slowed and trucking became the most common way to transport grain these small communities quickly lost their reason for existence. Today most stand as modern ghost towns dotting the plains.

Photo of abandonded building sitting along an abandonded railroad in Central Montana
Abandoned buildings such as this stand in many places as testament to days gone by. At one time there were quite a few small towns and railroad stations in central Montana. Both the raised railroad bed and an abandoned grain elevator can be seen in the background.

Abandoned Rail Lines

Abandoned rail lines and modern ghost towns provide a lot of opportunities for people looking for an interesting glimpse into the Montana of years gone by. Some of the rail lines are easily followed by paved roads while others mostly cross private property and can only be accessed in remote places.

A careful study of the widely available maps will show you lots of major trestles, tunnels and town sites that can be visited. Half the fun of exploring these areas is the discovery. Follow the tracks and look for grain elevators. In many places the abandoned elevators are easily visible from miles away. Very often there will be interesting sights to see around these sites.

Photo of an abandoned church in Central Montana
Once an anchor of a vibrant community, this abandoned church sits just across the street from an abandoned schoolhouse. This is jut an example of the history on display when you seek out the abandoned rail lines of Central Montana

Harlowton, Montana

Harlowton, MT is a great place to visit for some railroad history. The Milwaukee Road had a big presence in Harlowton and the community is trying to preserve the heritage. The Harlowton Milwaukee Depot Museum and the Upper Musselshell Museum each have significant Milwaukee Road exhibits.

Be sure to visit the locomotive that the community has on display. This is one of the last two engines operating when the electric line was eliminated. It is hard to imagine the apparatus attached to the roof of the engine connected to overhead wire that supplied enough electricity to power a train.

The round house that was in use for many years still stands but it is not open to visitors. It is a massive building complex that is used for storage and should only be explored from the outside. Before you leave the site be sure to check out the snow plow blade that has been placed near the station. This blade was originally abandoned in Ringling, MT but was moved to Harlowton. The massive concrete weights that were used to weight down the plow are still located alongside the abandoned rail line just on the edge of Ringling.

Although they are abandoned, the Central Montana railroads provide lots of interesting railroad history. The rails had a very significant influence on the people and development of Montana. Exploring these towns and rail lines is a great way to explore and enjoy the Big Sky State.

Learn more about all the railroads of Montana in Railroads of Montana

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