By Jerry Hanley
I’ve had a keen interest in railroads as far back as memory takes me. I came by it honestly as my father was a locomotive fireman and engineer for the Milwaukee Road from 1942 through 1977. Dad mainly worked out of Lewistown on the Northern Montana Branch.
One of Dad’s regular runs took him right by our big home in Lewistown. (Big was necessary with eleven kids.) The thrill of running up to the tracks and waiving to him has never left me. Even greater was the thrill of occasionally riding with him and waiving to my siblings and friends from the cab of a locomotive rumbling through the neighborhood. Even got to toot the horn at them! Now those tracks are gone and the right-of-way is occupied by Lewistown’s hiking trail system. My Dad’s – and many other central Montana railroaders’ – memories and memorabilia are now left to history.
I began studying locomotives and railroading at a very young age. Eventually, I became an accomplished railroad artist. Dreams of becoming a locomotive engineer were dashed, also at a young age, when I was determined to be color blind. Fortunately, over my long career in the hard-rock mining business, I experienced plenty of narrow-gage railroading in numerous underground mines. Didn’t matter if you were color blind or not down there in the dark!
A half-dozen years ago the Lewistown Historic Resource Commission approached me regarding a railroad heritage site they were planning. I was working out of town at the time and had to defer. A couple years ago, after I’d retired, they contacted me and I was happy to help out with the history, photos, and map. We eventually finalized the narrative, etc., and even included a reproduction of one of my drawings for the interpretative sign. The sign was erected at the Central Montana Railroad Heritage Site (CMRHS) in May 2016. The site includes other displays and is located on the trail system by the Lewistown swimming pool at Frank Day Park.
I was awarded the Historic Preservationist of the Year award for my efforts. I need say no more but rather share some of the fascinating history of central Montana railroading.
History of Central Montana Railroads 1903-2016
(The following is an abridged version of that found on the interpretative sign at the CMRHS)
The railroad era in Lewistown ended in 2003. Subsequent to the end of rail service, the BNSF Railway Company negotiated an interim trail use and rail-banking agreement for the transfer of the rail corridor to the City of Lewistown. (A rail-banking agreement allows the railroad to reclaim use of the corridor if ever needed.) The agreement was executed in December 2006. The salvage of track was completed by the end of 2006 with 150 feet left as a historical reminder of the glory days of Lewistown’s railroads. The remaining corridor was converted into a splendid walking trail system.
The first railroad to reach Lewistown was an extension of a line from Harlowton which originated in Lombard. The line was built and operated by the Montana Railroad Company (popularly known as the “Jawbone”). The first train arrived in October 1903. In 1910, the Chicago Milwaukee and Puget Sound Railway (eventually known as the “Milwaukee”) purchased the Montana Railroad as part of their extension to the Pacific Northwest.
The Great Northern Railway (GN), having already built a mainline between Billings and Great Falls in 1908, completed a 30 mile branchline from Moccasin to Lewistown in 1912. Construction of a line eastward from Lewistown, intended to reach New Rockford, ND, was underway by 1913. The roadbed for this line was completed to Grass Range but the track was never laid. World War I brought a halt to construction and the project was never revived. Evidence of the roadbed can still be seen from the highway east of Lewistown.
Meanwhile, the Milwaukee was also expanding its presence in central Montana. Between 1912 and 1917, 332 miles of branchlines were constructed from Lewistown reaching out to: Hilger, Winifred and Roy; Grass Range and Winnett; and an intended mainline to Great Falls, Agawam and beyond. The most ambitious undertaking was the 137 miles from Lewistown to Great Falls which required five massive steel viaducts (trestles) and six tunnels. Along these routes were many stations, some with water and coaling facilities for the steam locomotives and facilities for section crews and other necessary infrastructure, all needed to accommodate the numerous passenger and freight trains. As a side note, steam locomotives were the only power used in central Montana until the late 1940s when diesel locomotives began appearing. (Electric locomotives were also used from Harlowton and west between 1915 and 1974.) By 1955, all locomotives were diesel. Lewistown was the hub of the 394-mile Northern Montana Division originating from the Milwaukee’s mainline at Harlowton with connections to Chicago and Seattle.
Both GN and the Milwaukee built good-sized terminals in Lewistown and Great Falls. The Milwaukee constructed their Lewistown depot in 1913 and the large yard and engine facility shortly after. The depot operated until 1955 and after abandonment was renovated to become part of the Yogo Inn. The GN depot was last used in the 1980s and is now owned by local businesses. The Milwaukee’s Harlowton-Lewistown-Great Falls daily passenger service ended in 1955. The GN’s Lewistown-Great Falls daily passenger service ended in 1966.
Freight traffic had decreased on most of the Milwaukee’s branchlines by the 1960s. In addition to declining revenues, tracks and infrastructure were deteriorating on both roads. Over a span of 10 years, one-third of Milwaukee’s branchlines were abandoned. On March 28, 1980, the bankrupt Milwaukee’s last train left Lewistown and the remaining two-thirds of the line was abandoned. The abandoned segments between Lewistown and Geraldine, Lewistown and Heath, and Lewistown and Moore were taken over by the BN following the Milwaukee’s failure. (Note: The BN and then BNSF succeeded the GN through various mergers commencing in 1970.) Complex and involved circumstances eventually resulted in BNSF’s last train leaving Lewistown on April 10, 2003. After ninety-nine and one-half years of continuous railroad service, no more train whistles would be heard in Lewistown.
However, railroading did not end in the central Montana. The State of Montana acquired key portions which BNSF relinquished and the non-profit Central Montana Railway (CMR) was organized in 1984 to haul grain between Geraldine and Spring Creek Junction. Here, it connected with the BN. In the late 1980s, five miles of new track from BNSF’s mainline near Sipple to Moore, and nearly one mile at Kingston Junction (just west of Spring Creek junction) was constructed to augment BNSF and CMR operations. (This also opened the door to eliminate traffic into Lewistown, which, as mentioned earlier, occurred some 15 years later.)
Today, BNSF continues to serve large grain terminals at Moore and Moccasin. An excursion dinner train, called the Charlie Russell Chew Choo, has, for over 20 years, been operating over a portion of the former Milwaukee’s Lewistown-Great Falls line between Kingston Junction and Denton. This unique railroading experience is operated by the Lewistown Area Chamber of Commerce and CMR.
When in the Lewistown area, enjoy a visit to the CMRHS and see the 150 feet of track located in the same place it was in 1903; the interpretative sign; the former depots; the Milwaukee, and subsequent BNSF, freight house; the restored brick “sand house” at Brewery Flats; the impressive wooden Spring Creek trestle near Hanover; and the railroad museums at Geraldine and Harlowton.