For as long as there have been rails over Marias Pass, Mother Nature has thrown everything she’s got at the railroaders who work along the old Great Northern Railway across northwest Montana.
A BNSF Railway freight train crosses Goat Lick Trestle near Essex, Mont. in 2014. An avalanche that blocked the Middle Fork of the Flathead River a few days earlier can be seen below. Photo by Justin Franz
This week has been no exception, as BNSF Railway employees have been tirelessly trying to reopen that railroad’s critical main line to the Pacific Northwest after a series of avalanches along the southern edge of Glacier National Park. By Wednesday morning, trains were once again rolling through Essex, Blacktail and Summit, but more winter weather is on the way and the battle to keep the pass might not be over yet.
I learned a bit of the history behind that battle while reporting my December 2015 cover story “Railroading in Avalanche Alley,” which looked at BNSF’s avalanche forecast program based in Essex (home to the legendary Izaak Walton Inn).
Flipping through newspaper archives available online and at the local library paints the picture of a drama worthy of the silver screen. Just a year after regular service began over the pass, the railroad was learning just how much work it would take to keep the route open. In the Feb. 9, 1893 edition of The Columbian, it stated that “the work of clearing the Great Northern track of snow is being carried on vigorously, but the mountain division is proving a harder piece of road than any on the system.”
Perhaps one of the most gruesome accounts came from Spokesman-Review in January 1912, when it reported about a rotary snowplow that was hit by a slide at Java. Two locomotive engineers died in the incident. One victim’s body was discovered pinched beneath the rotary. The man’s fingers had been worn off from “clawing in the snow and dirt trying to effect his release.”
Another tale I discovered just this week came from the March 7, 1929 issue of the Flathead Courier. That month, a “gigantic avalanche of snow thundered down the side of mountains in Glacier Park” destroying a mail train in the process. Three railroaders were killed and a number of others narrowly escaped the same fate, as the paper reported. “The train had encountered a small slide across the tracks just a short distance from the tunnel, but managed to proceed after bucking the snow from the tracks. As the train reached the tunnel and the engine and two coaches were safely within, the snow melted by a strong sun and thawing temperature let go its hold up the mountain side and came crashing down on the six coaches that had not gotten inside the bore.”
Today, BNSF employs a team of experts to keep the railroaders and passengers traveling through John F. Stevens Canyon safe. But as this week has proved, the drama of railroading in “Avalanche Alley” is alive and well.