N.P. Ry.

Park Branch Operations

By Craig Reese
Originally Published in The Mainstreeter
The quarterly publication of the Northern Pacific Railway Historical Association





In 1887, a Yellowstone Park tourist wrote that his Park Branch train was stopped for a time while the engineer, pistol in hand, pursued two prairie chickens he had seen from the cab. One chicken was bagged, and the train stubbornly proceeded to its destination. More than a century later, long-time NP conductor Warren McGee recalls his nickname for the Park Branch way freight: the Northern Pacific's biweekly game survey.
There was much more to the Park Branch and the valley it served than wildlife, and operations had their busy moments, particularly at the height of tourist season. But the memories of people who worked and traveled on the line paint a picture that was, in a word, relaxed.
Almost all of us would have worked on it for nothing, McGee says. Bill Snyder spent seven summers as a boy on his grandfather's ranch north of Yellowstone Park, beginning in 1927. In a written memoir, he remembers getting off the train from North Dakota in Livingston early in the morning:
Although the big rail shops were busy, the town was rather quiet. I had to kill the time between getting off No. 3 and boarding the park train to Gardiner, 54 miles to the south through Paradise Valley. I did it in the grand Livingston depot, the beanery when it opened and/or the hotel across the street. in those early hours the depot quickly became quiet when No. 3 departed for the West. I still remember the incessant clickity-clack of the telegraph instruments, which was about the only sign of activity in the depot.
In early June I was usually the only passenger waiting for the southbound park train, so I had the depot all to myself most of the time. I always walked out on the lawn court on the track side of the depot and studied the Yellowstone horse-drawn tallyho.
The Northern Pacific advertising in those early depression days promoted the idea of a 'dude ranch vacation,' so pictures in the depot showed dudes on a horseback pack trip winding through the picturesque Montana mountains, camping above the timber line, and a nice shot of the many saddles in a dude ranch tack room. In addition, the famous Haynes photo of a mama bear nursing twin cubs was also prominently displayed along with the backlit photo of Old Faithful erupting steam and water into the sky.

Livingston's grand depot, with its distinctive Italian-style colonnades, was built in 1901 and 1902 for $75,000, and was designed by Reed & Stem, the architectural firm that designed New York's Grand Central Terminal and Tacoma's domed Union Station, among others. The depot is now community owned and serves as a historical museum operated in partnership with the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. The train Snyder awaited was Number 217, scheduled to leave Livingston at 9:15 a.m. daily, according to a timetable dated June 14, 1931 the traditional park season was from mid-June to mid-September. Number 217 was scheduled into Gardiner, the end of the branch 54.1 miles south, at 11:30 a.m. and returned as Number 218 the same day, leaving Gardiner at 5:45 p.m. and arriving at Livingston at 7:45 p.m. That two-hour, 25 mile per hour schedule was essentially unchanged for much of the life of the branch. McGee remembers operating it as late as 1947, and as early as 1888 trains were scheduled to leave Livingston at 8:30 a.m. and arrive at Cinnabar, then the end of the branch, at 11 a.m.
In the 1920s, the second section of the westbound North Coast Limited and the eastbound Alaskan were renamed the Yellowstone Comet during the tourist season, with direct Pullman service available from Chicago and Seattle to Gardiner. The service outlasted the Comet name.
The 1931 timetable also lists way freights, Numbers 823 and 824, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
By 1954, an employee timetable listed second-class train Number 233 departing Livingston on Monday and Thursday at 6:30 a.m., and arriving at Gardiner by 8:40 a.m. The same train returned as Number 234, leaving Gardiner at 9:40 a.m., and arriving at Livingston at 12:30 p.m. In earlier decades, Number 233 and 234 operated evenings as a passenger train during tourist season and as a mixed train with an arch-windowed baggage-coach combine in the winter.
Snyder's train might have been pulled by an oil-burning Mikado, brought in seasonally from Tacoma. McGee says one reason the oil burners were used was to reduce the fire hazard from cheat grass along the line. The effectiveness of this strategy must have been limited, though. They were often used in tandem with coal burners, pulling trains of up to 16 cars during tourist season.
In the late 1920s, oil burners Numbers 1548 and 1648, 63-inch-drivered 2-8-2s, were assigned to the Park Branch. From 1937 to 1941, Class W Number 1529 was used. In 1938, Class Q-6 Number 2265 was also used, while in 1939 and 1940, Class W Number1648 returned.
The other reason for using the oil burners,the only ones on the Rocky Mountain Division, was to reduce the smoke and cinders reaching passengers traveling in two unique open-air rubberneck cars. Built by Pullman as tourist sleepers 822 and 823 in 1884, and renumbered as Numbers 471 and 472 in 1886,they were converted into observation cars Nos. 1598 and 1599 at the Como shops in St. Paul in 1913. The cars seated 72 each, and were painted dark green. The chairs in the car were wooden kitchen-type structures, and they were heavily layered with paint because of the weathering they had been subjected to over the years, Snyder writes.
The cars were renumbered once more, as Numbers 1796 and 1797. They were rebuilt as service cars in 1943, and McGee says he last caught sight of them at Reedpoint, Montana. The route south to Gardiner paralleled the Yellowstone River between the Absaroka Range to the east and the Gallatin Range to the west. Elevation rose from 4,494 feet at Livingston to 5,260 feet at Gardiner, 54.1 miles south. The rail was 72-pound-per-yard steel, except for the last 10 miles, which was 90 pounds per yard.
Three miles south of Livingston, the track passed through a narrow portal cut between the two mountain ranges by the river, referred to in early accounts as the Little Gate of the Mountains, because of its resemblance to the Gate of the Mountains on the Missouri River. Just inside the portal stood a lime kiln that processed lime rock for use at the Anaconda Copper Co. smelter at Anaconda and the ASARCO smelter at East Helena. Erected in 1883, it was the first lime kiln west of Duluth on the Northern Pacific. The siding that served the kiln was originally known as Limespur, then as Tie Spur, then as Allen Spur, becoming the namesake for the proposed Allenspur Dam, which stirred much local controversy in the early 1970s and was never built.
A livestock siding at Brisbin, 10.1 miles south of Livingston, was also the site of the branch's first section house. Another five-car siding served the town of Pray, at 16.6 miles, and another section house and siding were located at Chicory, 20.6 miles south of Livingston.
Emigrant, at 23 miles, was the center of activity between Livingston and Gardiner. As of 1940, it was the only station between the two operated by a Northern Pacific agent. Passengers detrained at Emigrant for dude ranches in the area and for Chico Hot Springs, about three miles east of the station at the base of 10,960-foot-high Emigrant Peak. Now a popular resort, the hot springs in the 1920s established a strong medical reputation, with a 24-bed hospital and a noted resident doctor, George A. Townsend. In 1920, nearly 2,400 patients were treated at Chico. Don Angle, the station agent's son who later became an engineer, remembers patients who went in on stretchers and came out walking to catch the train back home.
The small Emigrant depot was located just a few steps away from a pioneer watering hole. The Old Saloon still survives; the depot site is a parking lot. The depot offered Railway Express Agency service. Cattle pens, scales and water for both stock and locomotives were also available at Emigrant.
In 1942, 23 carloads of parts for a 2,000-ton gold dredge were unloaded at Emigrant and barged across the Yellowstone River. The dredge was assembled up Emigrant Gulch, almost on the site of Yellowstone City, an early settlement. The dredge operated for five years, and was torn down in 1947.
McGee recalls leaving freight cars at Emigrant --- often with a running drop --- from the southbound train, and picking them up on the return with the northbound. Due to the direction of the Emigrant spur, cars would be pushed two and a half miles north to Chicory or pulled two and half miles south to Merriman where passing tracks could be used for a runaround.
About three miles south of Emigrant was the NP's Merriman rock quarry, used for riprap on rivers from Mandan, N.D., to Sandpoint, Idaho. A self-propelled Bucyrus-Erie shovel was used, and as a teen-ager Angle worked in the pit, bringing the track up from behind the shovel and putting it in front of it so it could move forward.
Dailey, 30.7 miles south of Livingston, was the site of a siding and the branch's third section house. Nicknamed Slab Town, Dailey was once home to the extensive sawmill operations of E.V. Kenniston, who supplied lumber to the Northern Pacific, the Burlington and the Montana, Wyoming and Southern railroads.
Point of Rocks, at 33.6 miles, marks the beginning of the end of Paradise Valley. The valley narrows here, and the rock formation has always posed a barrier to travel; the rapid construction of the branch line slowed here for blasting.
Carbella was located at the mouth of Tom Miner Basin, just north of Yankee Jim Canyon, and had a 10-car siding that served the cattle ranches in the basin. Sphinx, the site of a passing track and the branch's final section house, was a mile north of Yankee Jim's original cabin.
Corwin Springs, 46.4 miles south of Livingston, was another important tourist stop in the early part of the century. The Corwin Hot Springs resort opened to much fanfare in 1909, and dudes also detrained here for the OTO ranch, one of the oldest and most famous dude ranches in Montana. The resort never quite lived up to the hopes of its developers, however, and the grand hotel built there burned down in 1916.
The hot springs are now part of the property of the Church Universal and Triumphant, a New Age religious group that is one of the largest landowners in the area. CUT's plans to tap the hot springs for geothermal development in the 1980s sparked fears for the geysers in Yellowstone Park, and were shelved.
Two and half miles south of Corwin Springs, the town of Electric served as a coal center from the 1880s to 1915. Originally known as Horr, the town produced 23,000 tons of coking coal from up to 225 ovens in 1889. By 1904, when it was renamed Electric, it was only a processing and shipping center for coal produced at Aldridge, two miles away. A tram carried coal for the ovens over the ridge from Aldridge to Electric. Production and labor troubles caused the collapse of the Montana Coal and Coke Co., and Electric's post office was discontinued April 30, 1915.
Farther south, beyond the original terminus of the Park Branch at the former town of Cinnabar, was a passing siding for park passenger trains that Angle says held up to 18 cars. Angle remembers as many as six passenger extras on the line at times at the height of tourist seasons.
The Gardiner depot, at 54.1 miles, was a rustic beauty, designed by Robert Reamer, the brilliant Seattle architect responsible for the Old Faithful Inn, among other notable buildings. The depot and its long curving platform alongside the Gardiner loop were demolished in 1954, and replaced by a more mundane building that today serves as a public library and sheriff's office.
Gardiner offered freight and Railway Express Agency services, and gold from the mine at Jardine, just up the hill, was shipped out of Gardiner by rail well into the 1940s. At Gardiner, McGee recalls, arriving train crews had some work to do. The tender would be filled from a fire hydrant, and sleeping cars would be switched so that drawing rooms were on the north side, out of the sun.
But crews then had time to kill, and they did it the way so many people do along the Yellowstone River: They went fishing.
Resourceful train crews, McGee said, would hang a gunnysack over the locomotive pilot at Livingston. Between Livingston and Gardiner, dozens of grasshoppers would get stuck in the sack. In Gardiner, trainmen would take this bag of fresh bait, walk for two hours, fish for two hours, walk for two hours and be ready for the evening return to Livingston.
Regularly scheduled rail passenger service on the Park Branch ended after World War II; a 1946 timetable lists bus service, daily except Sunday, and buses continued to meet trains at Livingston until Amtrak discontinued the North Coast Hiawatha in 1979. Passenger service outlived the branch, but just barely; the track was taken up by Burlington Northern in 1976.
With tourist train service restored to Grand Canyon National Park in recent years, and with an excursion train stopping at Livingston last summer so that passengers could tour Yellowstone, some Livingston residents point to what could have been done with the Park Branch had it not been taken up.
But foresight about the branch was in short supply in the 1970s. McGee and John Sullivan, publisher of the Livingston Enterprise, both tell the same story about its final days. In 1978, Burlington Northern needed ballast, and used the Merriman quarry one last time to get it. With most of the branch line gone, BN had to truck ballast from Merriman to Brisbin, where it was loaded on trains. For weeks, big trucks roared down U.S. 89 --- parallel to the abandoned right of way of the Northern Pacific's biweekly game survey.


Author: Craig D. Reese. Title: Park Branch Operations. URL: www.netcom.com/~whstlpnk/parko.html.

© March 20, 2002

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