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Northern Pacific Railroad

When construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad (NP) began in Montana in 1881, communities awaited its arrival with great anticipation. By the late 1880s NP promotions were bringing hundreds of optimistic settlers to Montana and other western states. The railroad would eventually go from Wisconsin to Washington’s Puget Sound, and although citizens would benefit from the railroads, the timber interests initially had the most to gain.

Northern Pacific Railroad map, circa 1900.Northern Pacific Railroad map, circa 1900.

In 1864 Congress had granted 40 alternate sections of public land to the NP along its right-of-way in the territories of Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington as well as 20 alternate sections in the states of Oregon and Minnesota, for a total of some 14 million acres. Particularly in western Montana, these lands were heavily timbered.

It is not surprising that the mercantile interests in Missoula quickly allied themselves with the railroad; there were huge profits to be made. In 1881, the NP awarded a contract to Andrew Hammond’s company, Eddy, Hammond & Co., to provide the NP with everything necessary (from lumber for railroad ties to food for the construction workers) to complete 175 miles of track from the Little Blackfoot River to the Thompson River. This lucrative arrangement began a long-term intertwined relationship between the railroad and the lumber interests. Eddy, Hammond & Co. responded quickly and built lumber mills at Wallace (Clinton) and Bonita.

Hammond, and partners further expanded on this opportunity in August of 1882. They formed a partnership with Marcus Daly, who was established as Butte’s “Copper King,” and Washington Dunn, incorporating the Montana Improvement Company (MIC). This corporation could conduct business in Montana, Washington, and Idaho and was poised to take advantage of lumber opportunities the incorporators envisioned would accompany the completion of the NP’s transcontinental railroad, which was marked with a gold spike in 1883 at Gold Creek, 60 miles up the Clark Fork River.

Lumber for the mine shafts and smelters was the primary use for the lumber but soon lumber for building was in demand as well. The Northern Pacific provided over half of the $2 million capital for MIC. Then the NP granted MIC a 20-year contract to supply lumber, cordwood, and wood products along 925 miles of their track from Miles City, Montana, to Walla Walla, Washington, at half the rate they charged others. By 1886, Hammond had opened a “permanent” lumber mill at Bonner, which was initially called the Big Blackfoot Milling Company.

The approach of the railroad in the Bonner area meant additional construction jobs. Initially, John McCormick leased his land to workers, who could build homes on the leased lots. Most lots were taken by mill workers, as those jobs were more permanent than railroad construction jobs. One boarding house was identified as home for Japanese railway workers, but there were people of other nationalities who worked on the railroad as well. Until recently, lands in the railroad right-of-way continued to be owned and leased by the railroad (and its successor, Montana Rail Link). After construction, only a few workers were needed to oversee business. In 1905, NP employed only two section foremen, one telephone operator, and one NP Express and Railway Company agent.

The Northern Pacific Depot in Bonner.The Northern Pacific Depot in Bonner.The Northern Pacific moved track locations in West Riverside in 1908 so that it could have a double track. NP had to build several new bridges across the Clark Fork to accommodate its new (and current) location. Grading was done with equipment pulled by horses, and a number of temporary horse barns were built. As with the initial railroad construction, many of the new construction workers lived in Milltown. The NP station, Bonner Depot, was located just east of Bonner. Mail arrived by train daily, and once a month the mill payroll was delivered by NP’s Express Company.

William A. Clark also relied heavily on the Northern Pacific. In 1910-11, he transported his sawmill by NP rail from Lothrup, west of Missoula, to Milltown. The new Western Lumber Company was electric, powered by Clark’s dam, but the presence of Northern Pacific was vital for the operation of both the mill and his street car line. When NP moved tracks, Clark quickly obtained the old track, which he used for the street car. He also built a spur line from the NP track to the Western Mill so logs could be offloaded into the river and floated to the mill; for this he used a small “dinkey” engine. The Western originally used the streetcar bridge, but it proved too dangerous.