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Montana Rockies Rail Tours

by Chris Guenzler

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My mother saw an ad in the Sunday Travel Section of the Los Angeles Times on Sunday July 27th, 2003 and suggested that we should go to Montana to ride this seasonal excursion train. It's a trip that I have wanted to take for years. The special round trip price of $895 for two definitely beat the one way price of $599 for one. I checked the air fares to Spokane on the Alaska Airline Site and gave my mother the prices. She called the Montana Rockies Rail Tour and learned the trip would be out of Bozeman. Alaska's partner Horizon Air flies into Bozeman so that would not be a problem. My mother then called and booked our trip then I worked on getting us there. The price of the flight was really high so I offered to use my Alaska Airline Miles to get me there which then cut the air fare in half making it acceptable. I did all this On-line and received more Airline Miles for doing it that way.

Alaska Airline Flight 489 8/21/2003

Packing first thing in the morning, I drove my mother and I down to my brother Jon's house leaving my car in his driveway before he drove us to Orange County Airport. Having printed our boarding pass on my computer, we got into the security line which was the worst that I had ever seen. How long did it take us to go through? If I would have gotten on Surfliner 562 in Santa Ana the same time we got in this line 7:02 AM, I could have ridden including a meet with 763 to the San Clemente Pier so it took 43 minutes. We sat down at Gate 13 for our 9:34 AM flight to Seattle at 7:45. I bought a USA Today to read as we waited to pass the time. At 8:55 they changed us to Gate 10 which at least had an Alaska plane at it. We boarded the plane at 9:28 taking window seat 10F on this 737-400 plane. We took off at 9:47 AM and after flying over a deck of clouds into Oregon, Mt Hood was beautiful and I finally got an excellent view of Mt St Helens before we touch down at 11:50. We came into Gate D11 and since we had to go to C2G I introduced my mother to the Rail Shuttle System to get us to the "C" Terminal. Once there, my mother decided to get some Clam Chowder while I watched the bags. My turn was next and I took the Shuttle Train to the "North" Terminal for two scoops of Dyers Mint Chip Ice Cream. I returned to our gate to wait for our flight listening to the Chicago albums 12 and 13.

Horizon Flight 2385 8/21/2003

At 2:50 PM they announced our boarding so we walked down some stairs and through a covered passageway to the end exiting onto the tarmac. We boarded the Bombardier Q 400, a plane with two large propellers with me in seat 15G. We took off at 3:16 PM with a flight highlight for me being the view of Spirit of Washington Dinner Train in Renton and then the former Milwaukee Road crossing of the Cascade Mountains. Horizon serves free wine and beer on their flights which made my mother really happy to be enjoying a glass of wine on our flight. Out the window we saw many large wildfires burning out of control putting out large plumes of smoke into the Montana Big Sky. We landed in Butte at 5:34 PM MDT and took off at 5:45 PM for the fifteen minute flight to Bozeman. Highlight of this flight was seeing the former Milwaukee Road grade especially the Vendrome Loops before we touched down at 6:19 at the Gallatin Airport. We called the hotel and twenty minutes later a van pulled up and we were driven to the Best Western Gran Tree Inn. Following our Tour Introduction from Daniel Sullivan, we enjoyed dinner in the hotel's restaurant. I took a long walk before watching "Without a Trace" and calling it a night.

Montana Rockies Rail Tour's The Montana Daylight 8/22/2003

Waking up to alarm clocks and wake up calls, we enjoyed a buffet breakfast before boarding the bus for the trip on Interstate 90 to Livingston. We would cross Bozeman Pass east on the highway then later west on our train trip. At Livingston we toured the Livingston Station Museum before I walked to the north side of the tracks for a picture of this former Northern Pacific Station.

The helpers returned from a train we saw crossing Bozeman Pass and passed us before our train backed into the depot. At 8:35 AM boarding began with Montana Gold and then Big Sky. With only two gate entrances to the train the boarding is really a slow process.

They back the train up to load the Discovery Passengers. Due to misinformation, we were some of the very last to be boarded. The car they told us to go into had no seats, so we went into the next car finding a pair of seats at the bulkhead with of course no fold down tables. I thought we could do better, so I ventured into the next car, the 4734 ex Santa Fe coach, finding a pair of seats with a much better view. Our train departed Livingston at 9:18 AM starting my new mileage over the rails of the Montana Rail Link.

We are seated in Discovery Service which is coach service with huge picture windows and long distance reclining seats with fold down tables. Complimentary snack and nonalcoholic beverages are served by the always smiling car attendants. For the lunch meals they are served at your seat with a beverage. The trip is fully narrated with all points of interest pointed out. We each got a "Corps of Discovery" lapel pin and had access to the lounge car which has the train's gift shop. Great pictures can be had from the car's vestibules. All passengers on the train are given a "Facts Along The Tracks" guide that has important route information and highlights to be on the lookout for on their journey.

Our train consisted of Montana Rail Link 651 and 652 SD-19-1, power car 104, crew car 151, Baggage 150 ex US Army used as a dorm and commissary car, coaches 4013 ex SP, 4734 ex ATSF, 4700 ex ATSF and 4001 ex SP, Lounge 3150 ex ATSF, Diner 8750 ex Atlanta West Point, Dome Coaches CZ 22 ex Rio Grande, 9410 ex Great Northern and 9407 ex Northern Pacific and the Bella Vista, a rebuilt from the trucks up private car used for Gold Service with a Dome, bedrooms, a kitchen and covered open rear platform. It is a very impressive train.

Now time for a little bit of history. The Northern Pacific Railroad Company was created on July 2, 1864 when President Abraham Lincoln signed an act of Congress for the construction of it. It would be built from the Great Lakes to the Puget Sound and would follow the route Lewis and Clark had followed across the west. Ground breaking took place in Carlton, Minnesota in the east and Kalma, Washington in the west in 1870. Over the next three years it was built from Duluth to Bismark, North Dakota in the east and north to Tacoma in the west. The line was in trouble and by the Panic of 1873 Cooke and Company lost control with the line sitting idle for a few years. Henry Villard used a "Blind Pool" to finance the rest of the construction in 1881. The crews built in earnest in 1882 to complete the railroad by 1883. The line was completed with the pounding of the Golden Spike at Gold Creek, Montana on September 8, 1883 as the first of the northern lines to be built to the Puget Sound in Washington. While the line ended up being the longest of all the lines built to the Pacific Northwest, it did benefit from serving most of the major cities that developed in the states it served something neither the Great Northern or later the Milwaukee Road could lay claim to. The North Coast Limited was introduced on April 29, 1900 as the crack passenger train of the railroad and in 1947 it was improved by adding diesel engines and new light weight equipment. In October 16, 1952 the Mainstreeter was introduced as a second transcontinental passenger train. Vista Domes and Dome Sleepers were added to the North Coast Limited on August 16, 1954 and in 1955 Stewardess-nurse service was added, another Pacific Northwest "first". Both the North Coast Limited and the Mainstreeter passed the Northern Pacific's merger into the Burlington Northern on March 3, 1970 and were discontinued with the start up of Amtrak on May 1,1971. Amtrak reinstated a train over the old Northern Pacific route across Montana on June 5, 1971 as the North Coast Hiawatha which ran until the October 1, 1979 bloodbath that was a result of a hostile Department of Transportation. The Montana Rail Link was organized on July 1, 1987 to start operating the former Northern Pacific Line between Sandpoint, Idaho and Billings, Montana to operate the freight service over this piece of railroad for the Burlington Northern in a haulage agreement. That then led to the formation in 1995 of the Montana Rockies Rail Tours by LLC with four partners that started operating seasonal passenger trains. In the year 2000, the company was purchased by Rail Quest America who now operates the Montana Daylight on an increased schedule.

I headed immediately to the vestibule for the 2.2 percent grade from Livingston at 4,746 feet above sea level to the 5,760 foot summit of Bozeman Pass which was the highest point on the original Northern Pacific mainline. I photographed here back in 1989.

As we started our climb we had the Absaroka Range to the east and the Bridger Mountains which we were going into the west. Looking south you really see the Paradise Valley that leads to Yellowstone National Park. It was a really windy morning but the views are so stunning. On a farm to the south I spotted a passenger car sitting to the east of a farm building. Our two SD-19-1's were working hard, with great chugging sounds and really smoking it up almost like a steam engine. We climbed the brown slopes with green next to the creeks as we made our way up the grade to Muir where we ran into the siding to meet an eastbound freight train.

The Montana Daylight plunged into the Bozeman Tunnel, a 3015 foot tunnel completed on July 28, 1945 replacing the original tunnel built in 1883. The vestibules were all closed to keep the diesel smoke out of our train. We emerged at West End, passed the original tunnel entrance and then the Bozeman Pass sign.

We descended into the beautiful Rocky Canyon following Rocky Creek. Our train looked impressive as it twisted and turned down the grade.

When we reached Bozeman 4736 feet in elevation and headed into the siding passing a MRL helper set.

For more Photos Livingston To Bozeman

As we left Bozeman the Bozeman Mountains were to the northeast while the Madison Mountains with the Spanish Peaks to the south. We made a turn to the west out of Bozeman to start our journey down the longest tangent track on the Montana Rail link, a distance of 13.3 miles. The train passed Belgrade which is also the location of Gallatin Airport which is also known as Bozeman International Airport which we flew into. We curved right before Manhattan and then we crossed the Gallatin River. The train reached Logan where the former North Coast Limited Route used to run via Butte. Our train crossed the Gallatin River again before we went by the Headwaters of the Missouri State Park and a minute later we saw where the Gallatin River flows into the Jefferson and Madison Rivers at Three Forks which forms the Missouri River.

For more Photos Bozeman to Logan

The Lewis and Clark Expedition went through here on their westward journey on July 28, 1805. From Three Forks to Townsend we will follow the Missouri River through the canyon.

Across the Missouri River, I spotted the former grade of the Milwaukee Road then a trestle and later an overhead wire pole. Our train passed Trident, a company town with a stucco depot and a large cement plant. Here we lost the roads and entered the beautiful Missouri River Canyon. Our route was on the east bank while the former Milwaukee Road is on the west bank. The views are constantly changing as we passed Clarkston siding and the spur track at Stanley. We turned to the west and into view came Lombard the former Milwaukee Road Missouri River Bridge. First we crossed Sixteen Mile Creek which the Milwaukee Road followed out of the Missouri River Canyon. We came to an unexpected stop with my car right at the Milwaukee Road Bridge giving me a great view of it. The train was inspected and work was done on one of the Dome Cars.

On the move again, the former foundations of the coke ovens of the Western Coal and Coke Company were seen. We reached the eastern end of the Toston Reservoir and at MP 189 we passed the Toston Dam built in 1939 for irrigation purposes. It is a truly Montana Big Sky Day with the temperatures really pleasant. At MP 190 we crossed Mammoth Springs, a cold spring which produced beautiful colors and is the source of the Big Spring Ditch which is an irrigation project.

For more Missouri River Canyon Photos

The train ran to Toston before exiting the Missouri River Canyon at Townsend. At MP 206.3 we crossed the Missouri River before it flows northwest into Canyon Ferry Lake which is visible for the next forty minutes. The Big Belt Mountains are to the north while the Elk Horn Mountains are to the southwest. To leave the Missouri River Valley our train climbed Winston Hill crested at 4,351 feet before our next short climb to Spokane Summit at 4,346 feet prior to our train dropping into the Helena Valley. The train ran through Louisville and crossed Prickly Pear Creek then ran into East Helena. Our train made its way into Helena, the state capitol of Montana and the capitol building with its copper dome could be seen off to the south. We made an extended stop here. First we dropped off a female worker before the train was blue flagged. One of our Dome Cars was being worked on as a light rain shower took place. An eastbound freight with a CNW unit pulled into Helena before the Blue Flag was dropped and we were on the move again. We passed the Helena Depot and a Northern Pacific 1382, a 4-6-2 in Bettie Park west of the depot.

For more Photos Toston to Helena

Our train started our assault on Mullen Pass. Helena is located at 3,930 feet and the summit at Blossburg and our crossing of the Continental Divide at 5,548 feet. Our train will be climbing the 2.2 percent grade to the summit west of the Mullen Tunnel. We passed Helena Jct where a Great Northern Line to Great Falls took off from the Northern Pacific built mainline. To the south, the Harrison Reservation can be seen as we follow Seven Mile Creek. We met two eastbounds on the double track on our way to Tobin and we returned to our single track running for our climb. The train went through Birdseye where we started to follow Greenhorn Creek. As we neared Austin, we saw a BNSF stack train coming down the middle level of the Austin Loops.

The train reached Austin with a BNSF empty coal train holding the mainline for us to arrive. We went into the siding to wait for the stack train to get a yellow signal to proceed by us. The stack train showed all the passengers our route up through the loops before we took our turn.

We made the 180 degree turn to climb the middle level before we made another 180 degree turn back to the southwest.

The view is spectacular and it is a really fantastic piece of railroading to ride over. Here we ran by the old Weed Tunnel that was abandoned in 1965 as we cut through the Iron Ridge. After making more curves to gain elevation, we reached the 580 feet long, 98 feet high curving Greenhorn Trestle over Greenhorn Gulch.

A mile and a half later we crossed the curving Skyline Trestle over Austin Creek. This trestle is 494 feet long and 94 feet high.

That led us to the East Portal of the 3,898 foot long Mullen Tunnel where all the vestibules were closed once again for the tunnel passage.

The train exited the West Portal at Blossburg and crossed the Continental Divide with the old Northern Pacific sign still standing.

What an incredible climb it was over Mullen Pass and I was so glad to have finally gotten to ride over it.

For more Mullen Pass Photos

Heading down the west slope at a much faster pace, we crossed Dog Creek before reaching the Little Blackfoot River which we would follow to Garrison. At Elliston we held the main for an eastbound MRL freight led by F-45 390.

The train passed through Avon before we reached Garrison where we were rejoined by that Northern Pacific Butte Line we last saw at Logan. Our Montana Big sky turned to Montana No Sky due to all of the smoke from some of the 57 wildfires burning in Montana at this point. It was all smoke as rain started to fall off and on as we headed west to Missoula. I hope this rain will do some good for all those fires. I returned to my coach seat as I did not feel like breathing smoke. At Garrison our route was joined by the Clark Fork River which we could follow all the way to Pend Oreille Lake just to the east of Sandpoint unless we go over Evaro Hill tomorrow.

There are a total of 18 crossings the railroad does across the Clark Fork River before we reach Idaho. Through the smoke you could barely see the Flint Creek Mountains to the south and the Garret Mountains to the north. We passed through the 1,394 foot Garrison Tunnel prior to passing the Last Spike Sign commemorating where on August 22, 1883 the Northern Pacific was completed. Gold Creek joined the Clark Fork River before we reached Drummond where the Phillipsburg Branch left the mainline. It was operated from 1887 until it was taken out of service in 1983. The former Milwaukee Road line had been paralleling our route since Garrison. At Bearmouth there is the elephant rock formation to the north. Later we passed through the 909 foot Nimrod Tunnel at MP 90.8 and later the 896 foot Bonita Tunnel at MP 94.4. At the town of Bonner the Stimson Lumber Company stood out to our north. We crossed the Blackfoot River right below the Millerton Dam on the Clark Fork River built in 1907. We crossed Rattlesnake Creek prior to our arrival at the 1901 built Northern Pacific Missoula Station in the rain.

More Photos Blossburg to Missoula

I got off the train to a waiting bus stashed my bags before going to get a picture of the depot and the Northern Pacific 4-6-0 1356 on display there. Standing there, looking at the Montana Daylight train I could not believe how great the service provided on the train was. Every time I thought about having a Coca-Cola it was provided as if on cue. The smiling staff members who provided such outstanding service created the feeling that I could not wait to reboard this train with them tomorrow. What a great train riding day it had been! Great train, great service and fantastic scenery.

Missoula 8/22/2003

The bus took us to Holiday Inn Parkside where after getting into our room, we ate at the Encore Restaurant. After dinner, I walked over to the Missoula Carousel. It is a community treasure and the first fully hand carved carousel built in the United States since the Great Depression. It opened on May 27, 1995 and I took a ride on it. I returned to the room and then spent the next hour and a half writing today's rail adventure. Watching the news, there is a flash flood watch out for the burn area with periods of heavy rains due so I hope the firemen get the needed rain to help put out the blazes burning in Montana.

This is a post card of the Missoula Carousel.

Part 2 The Missoula to Sandpoint Trip