News & Features

Kalispell Saying Goodbye to Original Downtown Railroad Route

City asking BNSF Railway to abandon tracks through downtown as part of redevelopment plan

Kalispell is bidding farewell to the original railroad route that arrived 125 years ago this month and spurred the valley’s rise.

Marking another step toward redeveloping the core area, the Kalispell City Council on Jan. 17 unanimously approved a resolution to request BNSF Railway begin the abandonment process of 2.41 miles of track that slice through downtown.

City officials are asking the railroad company to close the section of tracks that will be obsolete following the relocation of both businesses using the line. The council also approved an agreement with Northwest Drywall and Roofing that will relocate the last of two rail-served businesses to a new rail park being developed off Whitefish Stage Road.

The abandonment, if approved by BNSF and federal railroad regulators, would allow the city to move forward with a key component of a revitalization project and develop a sprawling trail system and reconnect disjointed streets in the surrounding neighborhoods while creating the new industrial yard. Northwest Drywall and CHS will build new facilities in the 43-acre rail park, which will also provide service and infrastructure to BNSF and its partner Mission Mountain Railroad.

“This is a wonderful time to bask in a potential reality for the benefit of the core of Kalispell,” city councilor Jim Atkinson said.

The historical significance of Tuesday’s vote in City Hall passed without fanfare, especially compared to the original dedication of the same rail line on Jan. 2, 1892.

According to historical newspaper accounts, roughly 3,500 people gathered near the current Depot Park to celebrate the landmark occasion, which made news across the state. “A silver spike made here of silver dollars contributed by ladies was driven at the end of the track by an old pioneer,” the Great Falls Tribune wrote in its Sunday edition the following day.

The arrival of the railroad proved quite pivotal. Charles Conrad, a wealthy businessman who arrived in the Flathead Valley in 1890 and saw great opportunity, had convinced his close friend, James J. Hill, the chief executive of the Great Northern Railway, to build the railroad’s new division point for the region in Kalispell. After Hill agreed, Conrad partnered with a few men from the railroad to form the Kalispell Townsite Company, and the men began platting the new community north of Demersville, which was the largest town in the valley at the time.

By 1891, Kalispell was officially born while more than 200 men worked on constructing the railroad tracks that converged in the heart of the burgeoning town with a two-story freight depot. Once the rail line was completed, Kalispell blossomed along with the entire Flathead Valley. Conrad placed newspaper ads in major newspapers across the West, advertising “The Great Flathead Country” that was ripe with “Agriculture, Mineral, Coal, Oil, Lumber, Stone, Lime, and Natural Gas.”

Conrad’s primary sell to prospective businesses and residents was the railroad.

Yet drama ensued in 1904, when Hill relocated the main line up the road to Whitefish. The tracks remained intact but the primary rail service was diverted, raising concerns that Kalispell would go the way of Demersville, which largely dried up after Kalispell emerged.

Nevertheless, Kalispell survived and evolved into the commercial, professional and governmental hub of Northwest Montana.

And now the city is hoping the removal of the tracks will fuel economic revitalization in much the same way those same tracks breathed life into Kalispell when they arrived 125 years ago.

If you enjoy stories like this one, please consider joining the Flathead Beacon Editor’s Club. For as little as $5 per month, Editor’s Club members support independent local journalism and earn a pipeline to Beacon journalists. Members also gain access to, where they will find exclusive content like deep dives into our biggest stories and a behind-the-scenes look at our newsroom.