Railroads

The surge of industrial activity near the end of the 19th century coupled with the arrival of homesteaders created a demand for transportation more efficient than stage coaches and freight wagons. Railroads met this need with the Utah and Northern Railroad entering the Montana Territory in 1880.The Northern Pacific, Great Northern, the Union Pacific and hundreds of other railroad companies followed.
In sharp contrast with the organic development of mining towns, railroad towns were platted on rigid grid patterns. A brief period of experimentation with town forms ultimately resulted in a preference for a business district perpendicular to the railroad—a T-town—with accessory structures nearby.
Railroad companies spared little expense when establishing their presence and influence on a town’s environment. Examples of the Craftsman, Rustic, Tudor, Mission, and Renaissance Revival styles can be found among the depots, dining lodges, inns, and other structures built by the railroad companies.
As expedient, direct travel became available to the public, travelers no longer relied on dangerous wagon roads. Homesteaders, promoters, miners, businessmen, and others depended on the railroads to convey themselves and their products to and from Montana. Newspaper accounts reveal a surprising level of mobility as railroads connected towns across the state and the state to the rest of the nation. In the process they provided the people of Montana with a shaped environment and structural reminders of the railroads' impact on Montana.

The Rocky Fork & Cooke City Railway Depot

Coal was discovered in the upper Rock Creek Valley in 1866. The Rocky Fork Development Company purchased the mines in 1887 and actively lobbied the Northern Pacific Railway for a branch line to carry the coal to markets throughout Montana. In 1889,…

Northern Pacific Railroad Depot, Fromberg

The Gebo Mine, founded in the Clarks Fork Valley in the late 1890s, brought the tracks of the Northern Pacific to this area. The railroad, however, bypassed the coal mine and the town of Gebo that flourished near it because of difficult…

Burlington Northern Depot, Hardin

Hardin’s first railroad depot was moved from Fort Custer after being cut into small sections and transported by train over the Big Horn Bridge. That depot was expanded in 1909, but was deemed inadequate after the homestead boom dramatically…

Oregon Short Line Passenger Depot, Dillon

The Union Pacific Railroad entered Montana Territory via the Utah and Northern narrow gauge branch line in 1880. The newly platted town of Dillon, named for Utah and Northern president Sidney Dillon, stood ready as a stopping point between Utah and…

Northern Pacific Railroad Depot, Missoula

When the tracks of the Northern Pacific reached Missoula in 1883, it was possibly the most significant event in the town’s history. Reliable transportation transformed the minor trade and lumber center to a major economic and commercial…

Milwaukee Depot, Missoula

The tracks of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railway were laid across Montana between 1907 and 1909. Completion of this final transcontinental line and the fierce competition it generated renewed interest in the railroads. Its…

Milwaukee Road Depot, Alberton

The first of the Milwaukee Road’s steam locomotives rumbled through this valley in 1908, bringing sure stability to the young settlement of Alberton. The town noisily came to life as a division point along the route, where fresh crews waited and…

Helena Railroad Depot Historic District

The town went wild as the first long-awaited locomotive steamed into Helena on June 13, 1883. The momentous arrival of the Northern Pacific linked Montana to national markets and assured Helena a permanency not previously realized. The Sixth Ward…

Union Pacific Generator House, West Yellowstone

The railroad constructed a stone and wood generator house for a gas engine here in 1918. In 1927, that building was remodeled with a new roof, stone corners, and slab siding to blend with the Rustic style architecture of the new dining lodge next…

Union Pacific Dining Lodge, West Yellowstone

As tourism blossomed during the first decades of the twentieth century, the Union Pacific Railroad considered how to better accommodate travelers. Officials conceived the idea of building restaurants and pavilions architecturally similar to the…

West Yellowstone Oregon Shortline Terminus Historic District

In 1905 Union Pacific officials began construction of a branch line in the pine-forested wilderness from Ashton, Idaho, to the western edge of Yellowstone Park. As the final tracks were laid in 1907, Samuel P. Eagle, Alex Stuart, Charles Arnet, and…

Great Northern Railway Passenger and Freight Depot, Whitefish

Whitefish served as a division point for the Great Northern Railway from its founding in 1904 until 1955. In 1925, one railroader called it “the most distinctively railroad town on the whole Great Northern system.” The second floor of this 1928…

Great Northern Railway Depot, Kalispell

On New Year’s Day, 1892, the first steam engine pulled into Kalispell on newly laid tracks. Founded as the main line division point for the Great Northern Railway, Kalispell’s tenure as a railroad town lasted only until 1904, when the main line…

Izaak Walton Inn

The Izaak Walton Inn symbolizes the difficulty of keeping the United States’ northernmost transcontinental railroad open during Rocky Mountain winters. Each winter, sixty Great Northern Railway workers were stationed here to clear the rails of snow…

Butte, Anaconda and Pacific Railway Historic District

Tired of exorbitant freight rates, copper king Marcus Daly decided to build his own railroad in 1892 to haul ore from the Butte mines to his Anaconda smelter. Daly envisioned the Butte, Anaconda and Pacific Railway extending to the Pacific Ocean.…

Geraldine Milwaukee Depot

The Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway completed its line across Montana in 1909 as soldiers began to populate rural areas under the Homestead Act. In 1913, a branch line stretching from Harlowton to Great Falls was nearly finished. Midway…

Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Depot, Great Falls

The Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway was constructed between 1907 and 1909, the last transcontinental railroad to cross Montana. Its service to Great Falls during the homestead boom supported the city’s establishment as a major urban center…

Oliver Building

The homesteading boom was in full swing in 1910, but not all of Montana's newcomers came to farm. With the arrival of three transcontinental railroads, Billings became established as a regional hub of commerce. Many businesses saw opportunity in…

Great Falls Northside Residential Historic District

Great Falls founder Paris Gibson was drawn to the power of the falls of the Missouri where he vowed to found an industrial center of “unsurpassed beauty.” Backed by railroad magnate James J. Hill, Gibson hired H. P. Rolfe to plat…