Railroads of Montana
PHOTO DISCLAIMER: The photos on this page are from my collection. I have been
researching and collecting railroad photographs and memorabilia for over
forty years, I have gathered materials from many different sources -
original owners, photographers, online groups and connections, "swap
meets" or from those who wish to remain anonymous. Unfortunately, many
images have been passed around from collector to collector and the
original photographer's identity may have become lost.
Here are links to other Marias Pass information on this website:
Click below for the -
Here is a link to the complete text of Grace Flandrau's -
Here is a
link to the
Marias Pass – the long lost “mysterious” crossing of the Continental
Divide located in northwestern Montana near Kalispell and Glacier National
Park. The following pages of this website, will explore the myths
surrounding Marias Pass and its discovery along with the railroads that
operated through the pass including the Great Northern Railway, Burlington
Northern and Burlington Northern
In the almost 100 miles of trackage in Marias Pass, the rails snake through narrow canyons, cross the swift Middle Fork of the Flathead River, twisting through numerous snowsheds and tunnels on its way to the summit at 5,213 feet above sea level. As Rocky Mountain railroad passes go, Marias Pass is one of the lowest crossings in actual elevation of any of the major railroad passes in North America.
The Great Northern was founded by James J. Hill, "The Empire Builder." In
1912, upon retiring,
The search for a railroad route through the Rocky Mountains
of the north western United States had been pursued since 1853 with the
formation of the “Stevens Survey.” This railroad line expedition was led
by Isaac Stevens [no relation to John F. Stevens of Marias Pass fame]
In 1889 James J. Hill, the power behind the Great Northern Railway, had pushed his line into Central Montana, and it was time to decide how to complete the routing on to the Pacific. At that point in time, the Northern Pacific had a line to the Coast, but it used a tunnel with a track elevation of 5,563 feet.
Jim Hill and his chief engineer wanted to know if there was
a way to route a railway through the mountains and across the Continental
Divide. In November of 1889, E.H. Beckler, chief engineer
Here is the account of the Marias Pass “discovery” as written in a 1959 Great Northern Railway Publicity Release:
[John Stevens] small party consisting of a mule team, a driver and a
saddle horse proceeded for a distance when members refused to continue.
Colonel Stevens induced a Flathead Indian to accompany him from that
fashioned snowshoes from frames and cowhide for easier movement through
the deep snow. Shortly after, the Indian dropped out and made camp, a few
miles from the true summit.
Quoting from a letter Colonel Stevens wrote years later:
"The short days of winter made a rapid move necessary, and after a terrifically hard and exhausting struggle, I managed to get back to the summit where I remained all night…It was almost impossible to build and keep a fire going, so I tramped a track about 100 yards in length and walked it back and forth until enough daylight broke to make it safe for travel."
Constant motion prevented him from sleeping and freezing to death. One advantage of the extreme cold on the summit, Colonel Stevens said, was "that the mosquitoes didn't bother me"
Upon returning to the sleeping
Indian, he found him half frozen. They made it back to their party and
learned the temperature there was 40 degrees below zero
[actually the thermometer
From an aneroid reading he took while in the pass, Stevens
knew he had crossed the Continental Divide at the lowest point north of
Lordsburg, New Mexico. The Great Northern as finally constructed crossed
through Marias Pass without a tunnel at an elevation 350 feet lower than
In 1925 a statue was erected at the site to commemorate his achievement. On the occasion, and in his usual calm manner, Stevens remarked, “I regarded it at the time as only another engineering experience.”
Construction of the Pacific Coast extension of the Great Northern Railway westward at aptly named Pacific Junction near Havre, Montana had began in 1890. The final spike was driven near Scenic, Washington, on January 6, 1893, completing the transcontinental project.
That in a nutshell is the abbreviated story of how the
Great Northern Railway came
Today the trains of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Amtrak still twist and grind up the grades and curves that were “discovered” more than a century ago.
NOTE: There is much more to the Marias Pass story – which is the subject of my upcoming book, “Off the Beaten Pass – The Marias Pass Story”
Scenes of the Great Northern Railway in Marias Pass
All material and photos that does not list specific sources are copyrighted by Dale Jones
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