Big Sky Blues
The Milwaukee Road plotted two mainlines across Montana. The first, the main through Harlowton, Three Forks and Butte. This would be the east-west transcon where the Little Joes roamed. There was a second mainline considered by the Milwaukee as well, a northern route through Lewistown and Great Falls. The line between those two cities was built and operated throughout the life of the Milwaukee Road as a critical feeder to the main artery at Harlowton. The full vision of this second main was never realized, although the line was surveyed out across the Rocky Mountains. Two large stations were built on this secondary main that symbolized the importance of the line, although in some sense, an importance not realized in the original sense. Today the two large stations stand at Great Falls and Lewistown. The depot at Great Falls is one of Montana's iconic stations with a beautiful tower similar to those at Butte or Missoula.
Although never realized as a true second main, these "Northern Montana Lines" were connected to the real mainline by a north-south run that originated at Harlowton and ended at Lewistown. On its way north, it found one of the Milwaukee's competitors in the form of the GN at Judith Gap. While the Milwaukee's mainline through Montana was never far from the Northern Pacific, it seems its Northern Montana Lines were never far from the GN. Today, the Milwaukee's lines to the Golden Triangle wheat country continue to fade - but the GN is in place and used by BNSF to haul unit grain trains from this lush wheat country. The lack of competition following the Milwaukee's exit has been a story of politics. Montana has repeatedly lamented the high shipping rates charged by BNSF for the grain that is taken from this country, and arbitration of these seems ongoing (source: progressiverailroading.com).
Evidence of the lasting BNSF monopoly is clear near Judith Gap where the GN flyover is still in place. Beneath the bridge is the old Milwaukee feeder line, connecting the abandoned transcontinental line with the old Northern Montana Lines that fanned out into the wheat country. Federal Yellow hoppers roamed here once, kept company by the Milwaukee's fleet of aged ribside boxcars and unique locomotive power. Today, the BNSF runs overhead beneath the big skies and deep blues and remains the final player in the vast wheat country of the Golden Triangle. Here, as in other places across the West, the loss of the Milwaukee Road is deep and lasting.