N.P. Ry.

Tales of the Rocky Mountain Division


By J. A. Phillips, III, with James M. Fredrickson

Hub of Western Montana

Bitterroot. Blackfoot. Clark Fork. Missoula, Montana, is the hub of three rivers and three valleys and the marshaling point for all; for mineral wealth of Wallace and the Coeur d'Alene Branch; for the livestock of the P'burg and Bitterroot; for the timber and grain of Polson and the Flathead valleys; hemmed-in by the Rockies, mountains themselves covered by the Northern Pacificís land-grant, National Forests, and timber. No where in the Northern Pacificís many miles in western Montana did the of right-of-way go without meeting a mill.

††††††††††† The Northern Pacific entered Missoula from the east via Hellgate Canyon, the end of the long, fast descent from Garrison, 60 miles to the east. By the time the rails reached the mouth of the canyon, they were a stones throw away from the Milwaukee Road's right-of-way, close enough that the trains of the two respective lines could pace each other in and out of town. Like Livingston, Helena and Butte, Missoula sits at the bottom of a grade. Unlike those points however, westbound traffic out of Missoula had the choice of two egress routes, one of which was devoid of major grades.

††††††††††† The route through Evaro which formed the Rocky Mountain Division's Sixth Sub-Division (1) started out as an Indian trail, became a wagon road by the middle-1800s (the trail blazers of which would have followed the Clark Fork, save for their inability to communicate with the locals) and finally the Northern Pacificís main line between Missoula and Paradise in 1883. Thirty miles shorter between those two points, and a comparatively straight shot when compared to its later counterpart the Fifth Sub-Division, it was handicapped by 2.2 percent grades both directions and a distinct lack of sidings.

††††††††††† The Fifth Sub-Division, (2) called The Snake, the River Line, or the Low Line, is part old Coeur d'Alene Branch, built in 1893 to reach the mineral wealth of the Idaho Panhandle, and part cut-off, built between St. Regis and Paradise between 1907 and 1909. While traffic over it was slow due to its twisting, river-hugging nature, the new route these two segments formed gave the Northern Pacific a line free of major grades and became Missoula's outlet to the western world from the day it opened.

Missoula's Own

Missoula itself was home to a two-story brick depot which served as the headquarters of the Rocky Mountain Division. It housed the Superintendent's, Dispatcher's and Wire Relay offices, as well as the offices of the Division Engineer, Traveling Auditor, District Claim Agent, Special Agent, Road Foreman of Engines, two Trainmasters, Bridge and Building Supervisor with two Assistant Supervisors, and Division Roadmaster.

††††††††††† At Missoula Yard there was a large roundhouse and a 135-foot turntable, installed specially for the coming of the later Z-classes (3). As late as 1951 the Northern Pacific installed a new, electrically operated 500-ton coal dock (4). The yard was also home to the second-largest stock yard on the system, with a 126-car capacity in 1966 (5). Missoula also became the recipient of one of the Northern Pacificís last major yard improvements. Begun in the middle-1960s and completed a few scant years before merger, an eleven-foot hump was constructed which lead to a compact automatic sorting yard with a layout of nine classification tracks. Just below the crest of the hump was an electronic weigh-in-motion scale, requiring cars to be scale-borne for only one second. With retarders immediately below the scale to control and adjust rolling speed, there were also inert retarders at the lower end of the yard to prevent runouts on the 0.12 percent slope through the yard (6).

††††††††††† Missoula's main strength was not its facilities, but its control of one of the most important links in the Northern Pacific's transcontinental system. It was the nerve center for a nearly one thousand mile division which splayed out over most of western and central Montana like a giant figure-eight knocked askew. The Rocky Mountain Division touched nearly every major city in the state of Montana, usually via double track, and if not, then on what was certainly a parallel line.

††††††††††† What towns did not rate the high iron usually managed to wind up on one of the Rocky Mountain's branches. Perhaps the most famous is the Park Branch, 54 miles from Livingston to Gardiner. But there was also the Camp Creek, from Manhattan, just west of Bozeman, to the stockyards of Anceney, 15 miles away. Then Red Bluff and Pony Branch, 21 miles from Sappington to Pony. The 23 miles from Mission to Wilsall formed the Shields River Branch. The Ruby Valley Branch snaked its way from the eastern foot of the Butte Line at Whitehall, 45 miles southeast to Alder. The Philipsburg, or Pburg Branch came off the main line at Drummond, some fifty-odd miles east of Missoula, and went 25 miles south to its namesake Philipsburg. Moving southeast from Missoula itself was the Bitterroot Branch, wandering 65 miles to Darby. From Dixon, on the Evaro hill line, was the Flathead Valley Branch, usually called the Polson, for its terminus 35 miles away. There was the 57 mile long Coeur d'Alene Branch, more well known as the infamous Wallace Branch, where four percent grades coming and going were the rule, not the exception. Wallace itself was the connection with two smaller runs, the Burke Branch, seven miles to Burke, Idaho, and finally the Sunset, a five mile run to its namesake town (7).

††††††††††† Under the Northern Pacific, the Rocky Mountain Division was a test bed. It had a physical plant that had been specially upgraded in the midst of the Great Depression to receive some of the most powerful steam locomotives on earth, its dispatchers were the first to receive centralized traffic control, with the entire eastern half of the division under centralized traffic control by 1960. Those who worked on the division over the years formed a Who's Who of Northern Pacific officials and employees, not to mention Northern Pacific Railway Historical Association members. Who does not know this was the division of McGee and Nixon?

††††††††††† But if the division was a model of heavy-duty railroading in 1940, then it was certainly a harbinger of things to come less than a decade later. The parallel lines became a testament to nineteenth century engineering and railroad's tendency to overbuild. Even before merger Evaro Hill and the Butte Line were tasked primarily to keeping the Northern Pacificís passenger trains on a fast track, and out of the way of the freight. With the installation of centralized traffic control came physical plant rationalization, as soon as it went in between Missoula and Garrison in 1947, the 1907-vintage double track came up. With dieselization in the 1940s and 1950s came the lay-off of two-thirds of the shop force, a whole generation of craftsmen. System-wide the old division roundhouses were cut back or torn down, while at the same time Livingston rose to prominence as a large, centralized backshop. By 1959, when the Northern Pacific rostered a total of 612 diesels, only two divisions, St. Paul and Tacoma, had more than 100 units assigned, with the Rocky Mountain having but 40. The bulk of the Northern Pacificís units were assigned to run-through duty, with 238 units were serviced at Livingston and free to roam across the Big Sky Country.

From Post-Merger Blues to Rebirth In Blue

After the Burlington Northern merger in 1970 these trends were accelerated. First came consolidation, with Burlington Northernís Rocky Mountain Division reaching all the way into Spokane (and creating, in the process, a run which had been just less than 100 miles, to one which was just under 300). Sloughing off many of its branch and parallel lines, Burlington Northern's rationalization policy slowly began to consume run-around pockets, sidings (nearly 20,000 feet worth between Missoula and Paradise alone!), absolute block signals, and finally Missoula's hump yard. The closings continued; the Paradise tie plant was lost to a fire, Livingston itself was shut down and parted out, then Missoula itself succumbed to progress. In an amazing turn of events Burlington Northern finally sold the entire division.

The Fence Post Interview or "Night Out At Arlee"

In the short time I have known (retired Northern Pacific Dispatcher) Jim Fredrickson I have engaged him in something of a friendly competition, that is to say, I have tried to stump him. I have "gotten" him precisely three times. "How, and more importantly why, do you spell Kanaskat?" "That is a Northern Pacific section house at Olequa." And then he stumps me. "Well, how do you pronounced Olequa?"

††††††††††† On the way back home from the Glendive Convention we took a detour to see Evaro Hill. While trackside in Arlee we noticed an old Northern Pacific section house. Devoted Historical Association members that we are, we wandered over and inquired if anyone was to home, a trick we had learned from Warren McGee. If someone is home in Montana, they will usually invite you in, or come out and chat, ply you with pie and coffee, all the good things in life. Sure enough, after a few rounds of "Hello? Is anybody home?" Warren's trick worked and someone came to the door and got to chatting with us. We pulled up a fence post and talked with the family, son and mother, for half an hour. Eventually, another person appeared, just behind the screen door, a disembodied voice asking if "They're from the Hysterical Association?" punctuated by billowing puffs of smoke. It was James Hagen, a stout countenance with a broad face much worn by the Big Sky Country. A rough and tumble fellow with a pipe always at the ready, Mr. Hagen looked more like a Norwegian fishing boat captain than a Northern Pacific Section Foreman.

††††††††††† He started with that outfit, as many of those still in the area have, in the midst of the Great Depression. One of his first jobs, he told us, was widening the centers. He worked on gangs which moved the track centers just inches farther apart, for the entire sixty-odd route miles between Missoula and Garrison. Why, you may ask. Why for the coming of the 5100s. (There just was not enough clearance for the new Z-6s.) For Mr. Fredrickson, who has been particularly attached to the Northern Pacificís supersteam power since adolescence, this story was an auspicious beginning. With the railway's tendency to move its officers around, Messrs. Hagen and Fredrickson quickly found they knew a lot of the same people. We wound up spending quite a bit of time at those fence posts, 'till well past dusk in fact, as the old Foreman regaled us with stories of his time on the Northern Pacific. He represents a side of railroading seldom remembered to history. Few have related the importance one man with a small crew, a few kegs of track spikes and a speeder could be to the operations of the Northern Pacific. As Phil Dahl says, "I think the track rode better before . . . When they did it all by hand." In his working career Jim Hagen was as much an artisan in earth, ballast and rail as the machinists in Livingston were in brass or the engineers on the Rocky Mountain were with the throttle.

††††††††††† After dark had finally fallen and the nefarious mosquitoes of Montana had taken their pound of flesh, we bade the Hagen's a fond farewell, hoping we would come back this way again. As we headed back to Missoula I began to orate on how smart we were, having found such a storyteller. After a while Jim stopped me and asked "Why didn't you have your tape recorder?" Stumped again!

††††††††††† Smarting from this obvious lapse, I set about to recapture some of the flavor of that fence post interview we conducted near the summit of Evaro. And this time, I did have the good sense to bring my tape recorder. What came about is a series of stories, perhaps the most basic form of history, from a group of individuals with 145 years of seniority on the Northern Pacific, all on Missoula's own Rocky Mountain Division. They cover a cross section of careers on the Northern Pacific, from the ranks of the throttle artists, to representatives from the behind the scenes departments. By anyone's standards they are a talented group; Dave MacInnes and Clarence Hay, the senior men, hired out in the midst of the Great Depression and were promoted by the Northern Pacific, Jim Curran spent a score of years as the representative of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. The youngsters of the group, Tom Bennett and Phil Dahl, were promoted by Burlington Northern, Bennett becoming Foreman in Missoula, Dahl going on to train the next generation of throttle artists.

††††††††††† For quite a while now the Mainstreeter has run Gene Carson's excellent While Waiting in the Hole column. In addition, the Historical Association has hosted a memorable series of veteran's panels at its annual conventions. Part of our duty as authors, historians, veterans and fans, is to tell the stories that would otherwise not be told. The pay-off, as anyone who saw the veteran's panels in Glendive can tell you, is that there is nothing more interesting than a well-told tale. What better way to kindle the flames of memory and warm the heart of involvement?

††††††††††† Today as the smell of turkey and pine boughs approach, as pumpkin pies, gingerbread cookies and eggnog begin to burble into our subconscious and snow has already fallen along the vista-domed route of the North Coast Limited, several members of the Northern Pacific's family have invited the Mainstreetersí interviewers, and by extension, all the members of this Association, into their homes to reminisce about their time with the railway. While this is by no means a formal history, it is the Northern Pacificís history, as this particular group lived it.

††††††††††† So kick back, get out your milk and cookies, warm up the leftovers and perhap some strong black coffee, and dream a little dream about the moan of a Z-6s whistle echoing back and forth off the hills at Evaro, Montana (it does, you know). Its the wee small hours of the morn, you're at the throttle of the 5100 for the first time, or one last time, with a clear track and a green board, going 90 miles an hour with your hair on fire. For the dispatchers and operators among you, just dream in Morse. It is not that far to Paradise.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

In lieu of an interview, I figured it would be best to dedicate this article to Jim Hagen, Northern Pacific Railway, (Retired). Also, given the amount of work he put into it, I figured I had also better share credit for this project with Mr. Fredrickson. So now, after nearly 30 years with the Northern Pacific, and another decade with the Northern Pacific Railway Historical Association, James M. Fredrickson, author, dispatcher, operator and photographer, of course, finally has his byline on a Mainstreeter article. Gotcha!

††††††††††† We interviewed nearly a dozen people for this article, who gave us far more material than could fit into one edition of the Mainstreeter. For those who took time to tell us their stories, but whose stories do not appear herein, thank you.

††††††††††† From Montana Rail Link we are indebted to Bill Brodsky, Marketing Manager Milt Clark, the Engineering Department's Jay Lentzner, as well as engineers Al Burns, Mitch Dahl, and Dave Franz. All of these people volunteered something which in their line of work is their most precious resource, time. We are also indebted to Missoula's Northern Pacific vets, without them this story could not be told. Chief among them is Glenn Hove, who put us in contact with most of the vets in Missoula. Thanks also go to the many who volunteered to help, but whom we did not have time to interview. To Everett Young, whose stories of the Wallace Branch will appear in a future Mainstreeter, and Terry Toppins, Northern Pacific operator turned Montana Rail Link dispatcher, thank you as well.


1. The Third Sub-Division under Burlington Northern and now Montana Rail Link's Tenth.

2. Burlington Northernís Fifth Sub-Division and Montana Rail Linkís Fourth Sub-Division.

3. While Class Z-5 was officially Yellowstones, and Class Z-6 and later Challengers, almost no one used this term when describing the Northern Pacificís later Class Zs. Everything with two sets of drivers, compound or simple were described as a Mallet, and then usually a Big Mallet.

4. Tell Tale, Volume XII, Number Ten, October, 1951 p. 5.

5. Officers, Agents, Stations, . . . Etc. St. Paul [Minn.]: Northern Pacific Railway, Accounting Department, 1966, p. 71.

6. Tell Tale, Volume XXIX, Number 12, December, 1966, pp. 4-5.

7. Officers, Agents, Stations, . . . Etc. St. Paul [Minn.]: Northern Pacific Railway, Accounting Department, 1933, pp. 24-26.

Author: John A. Phillips, III. Title: Tales of the Rocky Mountain Division -- Introduction. URL: www.netcom.com/~whstlpnk/rmintro.html.

© March 20, 2002