Kalispell, Montana was a railroad town.
From 1892 until 1904, Kalispell was a division point on the Great Northern Railway’s main line to the Pacific Northwest. Located in the heart of Montana’s Flathead Valley, Kalispell was just north of Flathead Lake — the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River — and the economic heart of the region. But within a few years of arriving in the Flathead Valley, the GNRy grew tired of the challenges of running trains over Haskell Pass, a steep mountain grade west of Kalispell.
In 1904, the GNRy rerouted it’s main line in the Flathead Valley to go through Whitefish, about 15 miles north of Kalispell. The route between Kalispell and Libby (where the new route met back up with the old route) was no longer needed and overnight the eastern section between Columbia Falls and Kalispell became a lightly used branch line. It’s remained that way ever since.
Despite losing the main line, Kalispell did not shrivel up and die like other less fortunate communities. The city continued to prosper, especially as tourism and recreation replaced logging and agriculture as the primary economic drivers of the area. By the 21st Century, the railroad yard near downtown Kalispell had become an eyesore to local leaders who proposed replacing it with a walking trail. In 2015, the city received a $10 million federal grant to help build a new rail served industrial park east of Kalispell. The rail park will allow the two remaining customers in Kalispell — a grain elevator and a drywall distributor — to move into a new facility outside the confines of downtown. Once the two businesses move to the rail park, approximately two miles of track will be ripped up and replaced with a walking trail, green space, and commercial and residential developments.
In 2018, I began documenting the final days of the railroad through downtown Kalispell. I spent a day with the train crew that brings freight cars down from the main line in Columbia Falls. I spent a cold morning with the guys who unload flatcars of drywall. I climbed all over the grain elevator as they loaded grain and wheat into freight cars bound for distant markets. And I watched as city leaders and community members came together to plan how they would rebuild the heart of their city.
Some of these images — along with a detailed history of the railroad in Kalispell — were featured in a story that was published in the Flathead Beacon and Flathead Living in September 2018 (Click the links to see PDFs of each story).
In October 2018, the Glacier Rail Park was completed and construction of a new grain elevator and drywall warehouse were well underway. If everything goes according to plan, those developments will be completed in summer 2019 and the last freight train will rumble through downtown Kalispell soon after.
Some of these images were taken while on assignment for the Flathead Beacon, but many were taken on my own time. “The End of the Line” is very much a work in progress but it is one that I’m excited to continue working on.
The Railroad: The Mission Mountain
Despite being downgraded to a branch line in 1904, the route from Columbia Falls to Kalispell remained an important outlet for the Flathead Valley’s industries. In the early 2000s, GNRy successor BNSF Railway decided to lease the branch line to Watco Companies, a Kansas-based short line operator. Since 2004, the Mission Mountain Railroad has run trains in and out of Kalispell with the help of a small but dedicated group of employees.
The Mission Mountain crew usually starts their day in Columbia Falls where they pick up freight cars from BNSF Railway. The first part of the day is usually spent switching freight cars in Columbia Falls and LaSalle; because the rail yard in Kalispell is so small it is easier for the three-person crew to get their train in order before coming downtown. In Kalispell, the train will drop off cars at the CHS grain elevator and the Northwest Drywall warehouse before returning north to Columbia Falls.
The Industries: CHS Kalispell and Northwest Drywall
There are currently two companies that still use the railroad in downtown Kalispell: CHS Kalispell and Northwest Drywall.
CHS Kalispell was created in 1997 following the merger of two local cooperatives. The concrete silos used by CHS date back to 1909, when the Kalispell Flour Mill Co. was erected on the corner of Railroad Street and Sixth Avenue. CHS loads hopper cars year round, but especially during the fall harvest. The Mission Mountain delivers dozens of empty cars to the Kalispell rail yard and CHS uses a trackmobile — essentially a tractor on rails — to move two cars at a time next to the elevator for loading.
Northwest Drywall was founded in 1988 and has a warehouse on Eighth Avenue in Kalispell. Every few days or weeks, Northwest Drywall receives boxcars or bulkhead flatcars loaded with drywall and other construction materials at its store along the tracks. The freight cars usually arrive in the evening and first thing in the morning, Northwest Drywall employees fire up the forklift to unload the car so that the Mission Mountain can pickup the empty later that day.
The Future: Kalispell and the Glacier Rail Park
In 2018, years of work by city and civic leaders finally started to pay off. The Glacier Rail Park, the rail-served industrial park just east of Kalispell, celebrated its grand opening in October and CHS Kalispell broke ground on a new facility that should open sometime in 2019. Meanwhile, urban planners met with the community to figure out what the downtown area will look like once the rails have been removed. Over the summer, they even organized rides for the public in vintage motorcars. In the fall of 2018, they revealed a blueprint for a trail that would connect the downtown area with nearby parks and proposed residential and commercial developments. Although construction is still a few years off, city leaders say the developments have the potential to “transform” Kalispell like never before seen.
Special thanks to the Mission Mountain Railroad, CHS Kalispell, Northwest Drywall and the Flathead Beacon for their cooperation in this project. -Justin