A trip out West, Part 3: Union Pacific’s Yellowstone connection

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Thursday, August 20, 2015

WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. – The last place you’d ever think to find the big tonnage Union Pacific is in the tourist mecca at the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park. We’re miles away from the heavy steel and big trains railroad that we all know. But UP has a big presence here in a historic depot, water tank, other buildings, and even an office car.

For years, seasonal passenger traffic to the national park must have been good business for the UP, toting vacationers off to see the geysers, mountains, and wildlife. According to the Historic Yellowstone Center, people came on the train by the thousands in the early part of the 20th century on a branch out of Idaho that was only open for a few months in the spring and summer each year. Snow closed the line every winter from its start in 1908 until the demise of passenger service in 1960. Amazingly, sporadic freight service continued as late as 1979. The rails came up in 1981, and apparently a goodly portion of the line is a rail trail.

That is what once was. What is there today is an amazing collection of former UP buildings: A spacious stone depot that houses exhibits and describes the UP’s role in developing the park; a baggage building; a dining hall that is used for special events; and a water tower. There is still a single track in front of the depot – the last one from a substantial yard that once existed. Amazingly, last passenger car on this track is an exhibit car from the Montana Centennial train, a former B&O baggage car that had first been made into a display car in 1963 for the West Virginia centennial exhibit train.

But that’s not the only passenger car town. You’ll find it in an amazing location – inside The Branch Restaurant and Bar at the Holiday Inn, just down the street from the depot. The car, Oregon Short Line No. 1903 (numbered for the year of its construction) is displayed (sans trucks) in the lobby of the hotel restaurant. It has been beautifully restored, and best of all, you can walk through it.

So, if you decide to visit Yellowstone, as I did earlier this summer, you’ll find plenty of railroad history at the edge of the land of glaciers, bears, and bison. I’d allow 2 to three hours at least to see the depot and wander down to inspect the office car.

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