The River’s Edge Trail extends northeasterly out of Great Falls running along the Missouri River the entire way. This recreational corridor is composed of former sections of the Milwaukee Road and Great Northern, two of the West’s most notable transcontinental systems and that reached Seattle. While each route was built as a long feeder branch, providing the railroads with online freight traffic (notably agriculture), the Milwaukee’s extended northward from its main line at Harlowton, while the GN’s ran south from northern Montana. The Milwaukee Road would succumb to poor management after World War II and ultimately pull out of the West altogether in 1980, leading to the abandonment of much of its line to Great Falls. GN successor Burlington Northern (BN) abandoned a section of its line during the early 1980s.
Much of today’s trail is located near the active rail corridor originally built by a Great Northern predecessor as part of its original main line working west from St. Paul, Minnesota. The GN was the visionary of James J. Hill, the noted railroad tycoon who is best remembered by his nickname the “Empire Builder.” In 1878, he and a group of investors acquired the bankrupt St. Paul & Pacific (running between its namesake city and St. Vincent, Minnesota, along the Canadian border). They renamed it the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway (StPM&M) a year later in 1879. According to Mike Schafer’s book “Classic American Railroads,” interestingly this move was Hill’s first foray into the industry following many years in the steamboat business. At first, his new railroad established itself as the dominant transporter of agriculture in the upper Midwest. However, Hill soon realized his system needed to extend across the West to secure its long-term future.
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The StPM&M headed northwesterly out of the Twin Cities and across North Dakota and Montana, where it reached Great Falls on October 16, 1887, connecting there with the Montana Central Railway. By then, Hill and his associates already held a controlling interest in the latter system, which would open to Butte in November 1888 via Helena. In 1889, Hill formed the new Great Northern Railway, which would continue a route toward Puget Sound. They also acquired the assets of the StPM&M. It began just west of Havre, Montana, at a location known as Pacific Junction where the Great Falls line split to the southwest and headed through northern Idaho and eastern Washington before reaching Seattle in 1893. It was the second transcontinental road into the region (the first was the Northern Pacific in the 1883). The GN would eventually boast a system of more than 8,200 miles by 1950, stretching from the Twin Cities and Duluth/Superior to points throughout Washington and Oregon. It also opened other lines into Montana, including an extension to Billings. James Hill died in 1916, but the company he created remained an important transportation artery long after his passing.
The Great Northern was always a well-managed company that benefited from good leadership. It fielded a collection of named passenger trains but none more famous than the “Empire Builder,” first launched in 1929 between Seattle and Chicago. It is still in service under Amtrak today. During early 1970, Great Northern; Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; Northern Pacific; and Spokane, Portland & Seattle merged to form the Burlington Northern, a system Hill himself had long sought in creating. While the GN, NP, and SP&S all provided routes to or within the Pacific Northwest, the CB&Q served the Midwest. Running out of Chicago, it reached the Twin Cities, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, Dallas–Fort Worth, and Galveston, among other notable locations. The GN’s former route to Great Falls remained largely in use under BN. However, in 1983, a section was abandoned between Fort Benton and Big Sandy while the rest of the line remains intact today. In late 1995, BN merged with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe to form Burlington Northern Santa Fe, what is today better known as the BNSF Railway. The River’s Edge Trail also follows a short section of the Milwaukee Road’s former line to Great Falls.
At the turn of the 20th century, the-then Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul (a.k.a., Milwaukee Road) took the bold step of constructing its own transcontinental route, believing similarly as Hill that such an extension was needed for the company’s long-term financial future. In 1906, work began west from MoBridge, South Dakota, and was completed during spring 1909 with a Golden Spike ceremony held in Garrison, Montana, on May 19th. While much of the route was constructed new, the section from Harlowton to Lombard had been built by the Montana Railroad, which the CM&StP acquired in 1908. This system was chartered by Richard Harlow during the mid-1890s and would open a route from Lombard to Lewiston, via Harlowton, in 1903.
The Harlowton-Lewiston line became part of the Milwaukee Road’s Northern Montana Lines or Northern Montana Division. During July 1912, the company began construction of a new 137-mile route to Great Falls that was completed during spring 1914. It featured six tunnels, the longest of which was 2,063 feet, as well as five impressive bridges (the Judith River Viaduct, Sage Creek Viaduct, Indian Creek Viaduct, Red Coulee Viaduct and Belt Creek Viaduct). The Milwaukee Road continued extending beyond Great Falls, reaching Agawam, via Choteau, by the summer of 1916. At around the same time, the railroad also completed northern and eastern extensions out of Lewiston, reaching Winnett, Winifred, and Roy. Altogether, its Northern Montana Division spanned 390 miles and roughly formed a “T,” with traffic consisting predominantly of agriculture from the numerous online grain elevators near the tracks.
Between 1972 and 1977, the Milwaukee Road began pulling up sections of these branches, including most of the route to Winnett and the northern extension to Roy. It was the company’s bankruptcy in 1977, due to glaringly poor and shortsighted management, that resulted in the abandonment of nearly all its property west of Miles City, Montana, in 1980, which included most secondary lines. Some segments of the former Northern Montana Lines survived and were purchased by various entities. The tracks through Great Falls did not survive. The largest segment still in use is operated by short line Central Montana Rail, Inc., running between Spring Creek Junction (a few miles west of Lewistown) and Geraldine.
Railroad attractions in Montana include the Alder Gulch Short Line in Virginia City; Charlie Russell Chew-Choo Dinner Train in Lewistown (operated by Central Montana Rail); Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, in Missoula; and the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex (located inside a former Great Northern hotel).