Iron Persistence: History of Montana's Jawbone railroad

How one man's  vision brought a railroad to Montana


Old ties and rusting junk are all that remain of the once-necessary railroad.

An occasional decrepit structure with chipped paint and boarded windows hints of the world that once bustled around the Montana Railroad near Harlowton, Montana. A few ranches, families and tiny communities still survive in this rural country, but 110 years lie between the now gravelly trail and the determination, the life, dreams and economy that built the railroad around the once-booming mining culture.

Known as the "Jawbone," the Montana Railroad was built through the motivation, diligence and steadfast persistence of Richard Harlow. In her article Early Railroading in Central Montana, Lee Rostad said the Jawbone derived its nickname from "...the persistent wagging of the jawbone of its promoter, Richard Harlow." Harlow came to Montana in 1886 to practice law and according to the Montana Pay Dirt was, "...a promoter of vision and shrewd business sense."

Lombard  1907  Milwaukee Road

Lombard  1907 Milwaukee Road

After a year as a Helena lawyer, Harlow jumped with both feet into the expanding frontier of Montana real estate. Harlow's business endeavors proved to be successful and he found himself caught in the mining madness that swept the territory. Land ownership presented endless opportunity as mines, towns and communities formed around the Castle Mountains District. They survived on hope and perseverance and were planned for the future without thought of failure. According to the Castle Mountain History from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, about 1,500 claims were located in the Castle Mountains District following the first mining discoveries in the mid-1880s.

At one time, Castle Town was home to 2,000 citizens and had nine stores, one bank, two barber shops, two butcher shops, two livery barns, two hotels, a photo gallery, dancehall, church, a schoolhouse, jail, seven brothels, 14 saloons, a justice of the peace, deputy sheriff and a brass band. Around 1890, Harlow became a financial partner in the Yellowstone Mine near Castle Town.

The Department of Environmental Quality called the Yellowstone "the second most important mine in the Castle Mountains District, ranking just behind the Cumberland." It also stated that the mine produced a minimum of 1,500 tons of ore by the time it permanently closed. Harlow immediately recognized the need for less expensive, more efficient transportation of mining freight and equipment. He believed a railroad was a vital element for the exposure and survival of towns like Castle, and so his jaw began to "wag."

Harlow used his convincing rhetoric and talent of persuasion to obtain a small monetary backing from an eastern friend, as well as pledges from mine owners of nearly $500,000, payable in ore. For years, growing Meagher County had resounded with demands for a railroad with only financial challenges standing in the way. According to Lee Rostad, "Editor R.N. Sutherlin of the Rocky Mountain Husbandman repeatedly called for a railroad through the county."

Rostad quoted Sutherlin who said, 'Our mines of coal, lead, copper and gold and possibly silver will come to the front and an era of prosperity inaugurated never before approached. ...With a railroad to our town (White Sulphur) and a proper bath and hotel accommodations, there is no reason why we should not have a town of 10,000 inhabitants in a few years.' Rostad said, "The residents of Castle were jubilant about the prospects of a railroad...," however, there was dispute over the best route. Castle residents pushed for a road up Sixteen Mile Canyon so the road would reach their town before the mines, and White Sulphur citizens wanted the line to run through their town first, then on to the mines on the north side of the Castle Mountains.

Financial planning decided the issue, and building commenced through Sixteen Mile Canyon in May of 1895. Harlow built the Jawbone section by section. He fought one obstacle after another, progressing on his word, sheer determination and the area's unrelenting demand for a railroad. Construction continued even through the silver panic of 1893 that dealt a near-final blow to the mining industry. According to the Montana Pay Dirt, the output of Castle's most productive mine, the Cumberland, lessened by nearly half in 1892, leading to jittery stockholders who became "suspicious of one another."



After considerable expenditure of funds and further exploration, operations were suspended early in 1893. Montana plummeted into the depression that struck the nation, yet Harlow continued to build. Hope for the mining industry returned briefly for the summer of 1897, but the Castle Mountains District never recovered from the silver panic and Castle Town dwindled from nearly 2,000 people to about 20 families within a few months.

Harlow's Jawbone railroad never reached Castle Town even though the mines kept producing on and off over the next 70 years. In the fall of 1897 the citizens of Castle learned the train would pass through Leadboro, just south of Castle. The Jawbone had arrived as promised, but it was too late to rescue the mining district. Through depression, bad weather, lawsuits, derailment and lack of money, Richard Harlow finished the railroad he originally set out to build in 1890.

When the mining industry failed to recover, Harlow looked into extending the line to the town of Martinsdale, another 24 miles to the east, as well as using the railroad to ship wool and other goods. Harlow again found himself "promoting" the benefits of his railroad and he entered into a new battle with land owners' over rights of way. Harlow won the fight; his new route passed through the head of one rancher's irrigation ditch and cut off the side of another rancher's barn, but the Jawbone made it to Martinsdale and survived off the wool industry. Harlow continued to scrape together enough money to press on to Merino and then Lewistown in 1903 where the line was finally completed.

Merino was originally a stage stop 25 miles east of Martinsdale and in 1900 was renamed Harlowton in honor of Richard Harlow. The thriving days of the mining era in central Montana came to a swift end. The Castle/Leadboro extension of the Jawbone followed the mining era into history in 1904 after three years of inactivity. Towns like Castle never recovered. Collapsing buildings and old mine shafts are all that remain of the mining culture that thrived there for less than 20 years. Richard Harlow's railroad also found its place in Montana history.

The line was eventually purchased from Harlow by the Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad in 1910, and according to the Montana Pay Dirt, after the sale, "Harlow paid all his debts...and redeemed every warrant ... before he died."



Please note, comments must be approved before they are published