Montana Daylight train gives people the rail experience
By DAVID REESE/Montana Living
Abby Rhoads leaned out from the Montana Daylight train and put her face into the wind, while the railroad tracks clicked away below her.
The Montana Daylight train rolls down the Clark Fark River valley near Plains, Montana. David Reese photo/Montana Living
On one side of the railroad tracks the Clark Fork River meandered through a rocky canyon that reached up to the sky, and out the other side of the train, she watched the small Montana town of Plains whiz past the window. A small boy sat on his bicycle at a train crossing, watching the train fly past.
This journey through the heart of Montana was being taken on the Montana Daylight, a railway operated by Montana Rockies Rail Tours that runs between Livingston, Mont., and Sandpoint, Idaho.
The Montana Daylight is a restored 1950s-era train, with several passenger cars and a luxury sleeper car.
The train runs through diverse geography, from rolling foothills near the Continental Divide, to deep valleys along the Clark Fork river. You get a glimpse of this country from the rails that you might never see from an car. The train trip is also a snapshot of Montana railroad history. It was on this same railroad bed that some of Montana’s most noted train companies have run for the last 100 years.
Boarding in Livingston, you begin to see the Montana landscape roll past you. The train winds up through lush green foothills outside of Livingston, past old homesteads that are now deserted. A herd of elk grazes on the hillside, and deer, its antlers still in spring velvet, wanders through the trees.
The train climbs up and over the small divide between Livingston and Bozeman, and the rails click away as the Montana Daylight speeds through the edge of town.
Just east of Bozeman is Three Forks, where the Madison, Gallatin and Jefferson rivers converge to form the Missouri River. It was there that Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery expedition traipsed through, some 200 years ago as they searched for their northwest passage between St. Louis and the Pacific Ocean.
The train followed the expedition’s footsteps, taking the Northern Pacific rail that parallels the Missouri River. We head north along the Missouri, through a river canyon rimmed with white cliffs where hawks float overhead on the morning thermals. Through the glass-domed viewing car we watch as a flock of pelicans swoops in for a landing on the river.
The Montana Daylight rolls through Montana.
Rolling through the Missouri River canyon, we make our way past the small town of Toston, then on to Townsend, where we turn west toward Helena. We crawl slowly through Antelope Flats, then up and over the small pass that separates Helena and Townsend.
In this windy saddle of the mountains, the plaintive cry of the train horn cuts through the big sky but is soon gone, carried away on the prairie wind.
The Missouri River leaves us, turning north through Canyon Ferry Reservoir, as we drop down into the Helena valley.
The train rolls quickly through Helena, and we begin the long ascent up the east side of the Continental Divide.
We make our way up the divide on steep switchbacks, where we can look back and see the train snaking out behind us. We cross tall wooden trestles that span deep gullies, and enter Mullan Tunnel, a 3,200-foot tunnel that snakes under the Continental Divide. Emerging from the tunnel, we finally reach the crest of the Continental Divide and “East Blossburg,” a siding at 5,548 feet above sea level named for a former freight train conductor.
The Montana Daylight train ran through the old Milwaukee Railroad line, seen in this poster from the Mineral County Historical Society in Alberton, Montana.
Started nine years ago, the Montana Daylight is a family company, owned and operated by its employees. The company has found a niche in its summer tours, but this fall it also operated a “Montana by Steam” trip, where the company brought in an antique steam engine that ran between Billings and Sandpoint.
“Trains are addictive. You go through parts of Montana that you only see from a train,” says Ryanne Pilgeram, a fourth-generation Montanan whose mother is president of the company. Pilgeram fulfills a multitude of jobs, from helping seat passengers to helping with the meals. This particular track was built in 1886. “You’re seeing things from the train that people saw 100 years ago.”
The train operates out of the Northern Pacific Railroad Depot in Livingston, which was built in 1902. The depot was at one time a stopping point for Amtrak’s passenger service until 1979, when the service pulled out. In 1995 Montana Rail Tours began hauling passengers.
The train — the longest “daylight” train in the United States — operates from spring through fall, and caters to native Montanans, tourists and “professional rail fans,” the people who live and breathe railroads. Most of the passengers, though, are people in their 50s and 60s who have never been on a train before, Pilgeram said. “People like that nostalgia,” she said, as the train swayed back and forth on the rails between Livingston and Bozeman. “People are looking for something from their youth.”
A two-day train trip on the Montana Daylight starts at $529 and includes lodging at the stopovers along the way. A more luxurious trip is to book a ride on the Rail Ventures luxury car, which is attached to the rear of the Daylight. This car, which features rich wooden accents inside, a private chef and eight sleeping compartments, costs $1,800 for three days.
Once across the divide, the train drops through high mountain meadows, where a small stream, filled to its banks with spring runoff, rushes down the mountain. We watch through the windows as a fisherman examines his tackle box, oblivious to the train. The train rolls through the small town of Drummond, then Garrison Junction and Gold Creek, where Montana’s first gold was discovered.
Montana was formed on the shoulders of industry such as mining. Rail transportation was crucial to these industries, and small towns sprang up along the Milwaukee Railroad, the Burlington Northern and the Northern Pacific. “A lot of these places made it or didn’t depending on the rail service,” says Jan Taylor, who with her husband, Bill, has written several books on Montana railroad history.
A couple plays checkers on the Montana Daylight. David Reese/Montana Living
The rails straighten out along the upper Clark Fork river, and we make good time as we head to our first-day destination of Missoula. We deboard in Missoula and spend the night there, since the train does not have sleeping cars. After an evening of fine dining in Missoula, we retire to the hotel, the sounds of the railroad tracks still clicking in our minds.
The next day we board the Daylight at 8 a.m. and begin the second day of our journey.
The train creeps slowly north out of Missoula, over Evaro Hill. The craggy peaks of the Mission Mountains, their flanks covered in snow, loom majestically out the window as we roll across the Flathead Indian Reservation. The towns of Arlee, Ravalli and Dixon drift past our window as we move into the valley formed by the Flathead River. The bright green water of the river follows us along the tracks, past the town of Plains and Paradise, where the Clark Fork River joins the Flathead.
“It’s been quite an experience for us,” she said. “We loved it, we really enjoyed it.”
— Rosario Cires
Abby Rhoads looks out the window on the Montana Daylight train. David Reese photo/Montana Living
Moving at the speed of the train, you get a rolling view of these small Montana towns, usually of peoples’ back yards. In Plains, a man looks up from his garden to wave at the train, while a woman sips a drink on her deck.
The train is going downhill now, dropping along the lower Clark Fork to its final destination in Sandpoint, Idaho. The train travels through the deep river gorge, while dinner is served in the dining car. Served on white linen, the excellent meals feature regional specialties like elk tenderloin. Dining in the car while the world rushes by you gives you a sense of a different place and time, and the car is filled with the chatter of dinner conversation.
Rosario Cires, from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., was fascinated by Montana — and railroad travel. She and her father, Miguel Cires, a native of Cuba, travelled on the Montana Daylight this summer. Rosario looked out in awe at the surrounding landscape while they played checkers before the train rolled to a stop in Sandpoint.
This was her first train trip, and the first chance to see snow in the mountains.
“It’s been quite an experience for us,” she said. “We loved it, we really enjoyed it.”
On the Web: www.montanarailtours.com.