Chasing the Windstorm
Three Forks, MT
With the headwaters of the Missouri behind, the Milwaukee mainline finds aptly named Three Forks, MT ahead. For the Milwaukee Road, Three Forks was a gateway to Yellowstone Park. The more grand Gallatin Gateway Inn was constructed by 1927, however, which moved the formal Yellowstone destination down the branchline that departed the main here at Three Forks.
Three Forks is also the location where the NP rejoins the Milwaukee with their own line over the Rockies. This NP line itself is of note. The line exists today, departing from the preferred mainline over Mullen Pass and rolls through Three Forks on its way to many of the same small towns the Milwaukee mainline touched. The Montana Rail Link operates the line out to a local gravel pit, and formally to Spire Rock, MT. From there, the line is mothballed and owned by BNSF for the remainder of the journey up and over the Great Divide at Homestake to Butte . This was once the path of Amtrak's North Coast Hiawatha, and has not seen trains since that Hiawatha's departure in 1979.
The Milwaukee main itself is the grass field pictured above, looking back towards the Midwestern cities and all of those places between. Not far beyond the old depot, I-90 crosses over the main just as it did when the railroad left town and the scrappers followed. I-90 will follow the NP line over Homestake pass on its way to Butte, but will be a close companion for much of the journey further west to the coast itself.
Tracing the Milwaukee Road through Three Forks itself is a tour of haunts and memories. The forces that have moved here seem too big to understand, like chasing a windstorm and surveying the damage that is left behind. The depot stands as a heavily modified restaurant with white building additions and large blower fans now mounted where passengers met. Hugs of returning loved ones, tearful departures of others are now a distant memory, and the last bus for Yellowstone departed decades prior. The Milwaukee owned Sacajawea Inn sits nearby, a companion to the old railroad and its travelers since 1910. Along the flat plane once occupied by steel rails and overhead catenary are grain elevators and other local industry still standing. Even an old ribside caboose welcomes visitors from I-90 as the town's formal Welcome Center, should you want to chase the wind yourself.
1) Welsh, D. "Northern Transcontinental Railroad Mountain Passes" Trains Magazine, available online: