Great Northern Historical Trail

Montana

At a Glance

Name: Great Northern Historical Trail
Length: 22 Miles
Trail activites: Bike, Wheelchair Accessible, Horseback Riding, Mountain Biking, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Flathead
Surfaces: Asphalt
State: Montana

A Brief History

The Great Northern Historical Trail is named after the railroad that once operated the right-of-way north of Somers, Montana. The Great Northern (GN) was one of the three major transcontinental systems that stretched from the Midwest to Puget Sound and was the second route completed to Seattle in the early 1890s. The route to Somers, however, was merely a secondary branch put in place at the turn of the 20th century to serve the region’s timber industry. While the line primarily moved lumber products, it also transported large numbers of people during its early years as the area around Flathead Lake grew into a popular tourist attraction. After hardly 50 years of use, the route was abandoned in the late 1950s due to lack of freight. The GN carried on for only another decade until it, too, disappeared into the massive Burlington Northern system created through the merger of four major carriers. Today, trains have not plied the corridor south of Columbia Falls for more than a half-century, although the incredible scenery of northwestern Montana can still be experienced via the Great Northern Historical Trail.

The classic Great Northern Railway owes its existence and growth to one of the most famous and successful area tycoons: James J. Hill, who is also remembered as the Empire Builder. The beginnings of Hill’s transcontinental system date to the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad (StP&P), which was reorganized in 1862 from the bankrupt Minnesota & Pacific. Eventually, the StP&P connected St. Paul with the Canadian border at St. Vincent, Minnesota, and became a fairly profitable bridge route at the time. In 1878, Hill purchased the system and folded it into his newly established St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba a year later. Under this name, Hill pushed his railroad westward, reaching Great Falls, Montana, by 1887 along a main line that ran through northern fringes of the Upper Midwest. In 1889, he formed another new company, the Great Northern Railway, into which he merged all of his properties.

Through this new company Hill hoped to reach the growing port city of Seattle and the Puget Sound, a region already served by then-rival Northern Pacific. Continuing to push west, the GN negotiated the Rocky Mountains via Marias Pass in northwestern Montana along what is now the Glacier National Park, a resort that became a popular tourist destination along the railroad. Rails were then extended through northern Idaho before heading south and linking to Spokane, Washington. From this point the GN passed roughly through central Washington and reached Seattle by 1893. Following the completion of its main line, the railroad focused on upgrading its property by easing grades and straightening curves. One of these locations was through the Cascade Mountains at Scenic, Washington, outside of Seattle. Here, the GN completed the original 2.63-mile Cascade Tunnel in 1900, which eliminated switchbacks and trestles. A secondary tunnel completed nearly 30 years later in 1929 is the one best known today, spanning nearly 8 miles underground, and is still used by BNSF Railway (until the 1950s the tunnel was also electrified).

At its peak, the GN stretched from Duluth and the Twin Cities, across the northern states, and throughout much of Washington State, thanks to subsidiary Spokane, Portland & Seattle (SP&S). Aside from improvement projects, the railroad also looked to add branch and secondary routes as a way of funneling additional freight to its core main lines. Along its Midwestern lines in Minnesota, North Dakota, and eastern Montana, this meant primarily agricultural traffic where numerous grain elevators were located. However, in western Montana, timber was in great supply and the Great Northern already owned some tracts of land here for this very reason. One of these locations was the area around Flathead Lake about which James Hill convinced his friend John O’Brien (a timber man) that it was a good spot for a mill. Hill believed 40 million board feet of lumber could be produced here annually. On September 28, 1900, the John O’Brien Lumber Company was incorporated by the Great Northern.

At the time, the GN already had a branch running from its main line at Columbia Falls south to Kalispell. To reach Somers and the mill, the railroad constructed an additional 10-mile spur from Kalispell, which was opened on December 24, 1900. The mill was opened on August 12, 1901, and the GN also saw passenger traffic surge over the line as the area around Flathead Lake became a popular tourist attraction with hotels and yacht clubs. The branch not only provided the railroad with significant lumber traffic, but also moved various other types of freight, such as dairy, agricultural, and fertilizer. The GN also constructed a tie and pole treatment plant in Somers, known as the Glacier Park Company. As so often was the case, over the years, traffic steadily declined, especially after World War II, and passengers stopped using trains when cars and highways became more reliable and efficient. In November 1948, the mill shut down as timber tracts played out which left little remaining use for the spur to Somers.

During August 1957, the Great Northern petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon the Somers to Kalispell branch (officially then listed as 9.7 miles), a move the agency granted. In March 1970, the GN merged with its three ally roads: the Northern Pacific, Chicago Burlington & Quincy, and SP&S, to form the Burlington Northern. In 1996, the BN merged with the Santa Fe to create today’s massive BNSF Railway, which still uses much of the original Great Northern system.

You’ll find only a few railroad attractions near the Great Northern Historical Trail; the closest is the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula in Missoula, open during the summer and featuring railroad exhibits on display. About an hour away from Kalispell is the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex. The inn sits at the edge of Glacier National Park and was once a Great Northern hotel for employees. It has since been converted into a popular tourist destination that holds on to its railroad roots.

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