Growing up in a railroad town

Railroads a part of life in Montana

By David Reese

From our massive bunker next to the railroad tracks we could feel the trains rumble past, the sand spilling off cool dark walls to our plywood floor.

We had built this foxhole near the train tracks in my hometown of Alberton, once a thriving railroad town on the Milwaukee Railroad line 30 miles west of Missoula.

My colleagues and I, all less than 10 years old, found this summer hideout to be a perfect place to escape the summer heat, and a place where we could collect our coins that we had flattened on the tracks. We also collected half-burnt fusees, which the railroad workers used to signal each other in the switching yard at night.

One time we put several of the bright-red fusees together to watch the sulfur burn, and burn they did; we escaped from the dugout as the flares lit up the hole, and I watched from my bathroom window in my parents’ house as the eery glow burned into the night.

The lights went out on the Milwaukee Railroad in 1979, when it pulled out of western Montana towns like Alberton and Superior. Soon the town’s population began to crumble, too. My family moved to Missoula, but something from those childhood wanderings along the tracks left an indelible mark. Now, living in Whitefish, I’m soothed by the low rumble of diesel engines in the nearby train yard, and the nightly clanking of freight cars being put together. To some the sound may be loud and obnoxious, but to me the train yard is a reminder of childhood times, of simpler days when grit and muscle and sweat got the job done, not keyboards and email.

Across Whitefish Lake the plea of the train whistle echos, the telltale, four-syllable wonk.wonk…..WONK….wonk.

In towns like Whitefish and Laurel, Livingston and Missoula, trains are still a vital link to the rest of the state. While the yards might not be building trains that haul ore from mines around Montana, they’re hauling different kinds of commodities, like natural gas from the refineries in Billings or passengers on the Montana Daylight, a daytime passenger train that runs between Livingston and Sandpoint, Idaho.

I took a ride on the Daylight this summer, joining about 100 other people who wanted to harken back to the days when railroads hauled people around the state. I watched the Montana landscape roll past while the steel wheels clicked away underneath me. I learned a few new words, too, from Bill Taylor, a historian who works on the Daylight; words like “consist,” the order in which a train is made; “jerkwater town,” a phrase coined because in small towns in the 1900s the train workers had to stop the train, climb up the wooden water tower and jerk the handle on the tower to fill their steam engines.

We rode the Daylight out of Missoula up Evaro Hill, that dark canyon on U.S. 93 where the mainline for the Northern Pacific was laid in 1883. The etymological beginnings of Evaro vary; Taylor thought it could have been named after an Indian chief, while others say it was a former train conductor’s wife, Eva Rose, it was named after.

Along Mullan Pass, where the train cuts over the Continental Divide west of Helena, Taylor told be about place names like Tiptop, Skyline, Terrafirma and Weed, places that early conductors coined. “Highball,” I learned from Taylor, was the word used for early railroad signals; old track systems had signals with two balls, and when the top ball was lit, it meant “go.”

“Stabbed” was another word I’d not heard in the context of railroad jargon; but this word defines when a train is put in a siding for long period of time while other trains whistle past.

Montana railroad history is rich and colorful, and the Montana Daylight brings some of that history to light. A museum in Alberton also does a wonderful job of educating the public about Montana’s railroad beginnings. The Mineral County Historical Society museum is housed in the former Mineral County branch library, a one-room building in downtown Alberton where my mother was once librarian. As a kid I’d play around on the train tracks out behind the library after school, setting out coins to be flattened or collecting spikes that had wiggled out of the tracks.

After my train trip on the Montana Daylight I stopped there to poke around. I didn’t get to see if my old dugout fort next to the tracks was still there, but it had probably fallen in on itself just as the Milwaukee Railroad had done 25 years ago. Didn’t matter, really.

Up here in Whitefish, I still get to hear the lonely wail of train horns cutting through the night. When I hear those horns I wonder if there isn’t some kid out there somewhere, playing in a fort by the tracks, burning half-spent fusees and waving at the hobos.
— David Reese is editor of Montana Living. This story appeared in a 2003 issue of Montana Living magazine