By Brad Reynolds
Montanans are used to weird weather—sunny winters, snowy summer days, hail, tornadoes, thunderstorms, and the like—but few moments in recent history better characterize the state’s strange climate conditions than the week of January 30, 1989.
Earlier that month, Montana experienced a warm spell—so warm, in fact, that vegetation was reported exhibiting new growth. These flourishing plants were immediately squelched when, on Monday, January 30, an Arctic air mass invaded the state, bringing about subzero temperatures and inhospitable winds. Roofs were torn from buildings and powerlines were downed. Twelve empty railroad cars were blown over at Shelby. And Choteau, perhaps bearing the worst it, was struck by 124mph winds—equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane.
By the next day, temperatures had plummeted to below freezing. Great Falls dropped from 54F to -23F, and Billings set record lows for five consecutive days. Some areas of the state were nearly -70F with the wind chill.
Though there were many headlines to be made of the overwhelming cold snap, perhaps the most memorable news came out of Helena. In the early morning of Thursday, February 2, a Montana Rail Link train stopped at a malfunctioning signal on Mullan Pass. While waiting, the crew parked and uncoupled the 48-car train to switch the order of the locomotives. This proved disastrous, as the extreme temperature caused the airbrakes to malfunction, sending the train rolling uncontrollably downhill. The cars went nine miles before crashing into a parked work train near Carroll College. The resulting explosion woke residents from their beds, many of whom thought they were experiencing an earthquake. Thankfully, no one was killed and only two people were injured, but the total in damages was $6 million.