Just after 5 p.m. on Dec. 27, a long freight train rolled across U.S. Highway 93, briefly tangling rush-hour traffic in the heart of downtown Kalispell. For most people waiting in their cars, it was a brief inconvenience, one that has unfolded many times over the last century.
But little did the people in their cars know, they were also witnessing history.
On Dec. 27, just four days shy of the 128th anniversary of the Great Northern Railway’s arrival, the Mission Mountain Railroad ran its last freight train out of downtown Kalispell. The final train was the result of years of work to move the railroad out of downtown and redevelop Kalispell’s long-underused industrial core. Officials expect the two miles of track to be ripped up next year to make way for a new trail connecting Woodland Park with Meridian Road.
Among the people who came out to watch the last train roll out of town was Tom Jentz, Kalispell’s recently retired planning director and a longtime proponent of removing the tracks and redeveloping the area. As he ran around taking photos, he reflected on the historic nature of the event.
“When the railroad came to Kalispell in 1892, it was the beginning of a new era,” Jentz said. “Now, as the railroad leaves 128 years later, another era is set to begin.”
The first Great Northern train steamed into Kalispell on Jan. 1, 1892. At the time, railroad builder James J. Hill was constructing a transcontinental route to connect the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest. After crossing the continental divide at Marias Pass, the Flathead Valley was the next logical stop for the railroad. The first train to Kalispell was greeted with a grand celebration, including a parade and banquet.
“The citizens are justly enthusiastic over the advent of the Great Northern,” the Salt Lake Tribune reported the following morning. “Bands played upon the streets all afternoon, repeatedly serenading the railroad (officials) and their sturdy crews. Tonight the city is ablaze with bonfires and colored lights that can be seen at every quarter of the city … This is the ‘red letter’ day for the metropolis of the Flathead Valley, one long to be remembered by everyone who witnessed the demonstration.”
A decade later, the Great Northern decided to re-route its main line through Whitefish. The tracks from Columbia Falls to Kalispell became a lightly used secondary route.
In the 1980s, part of the former Great Northern railroad yard was replaced with the Kalispell Center Mall. At the turn of the 21st century, only a few industries were relying on the tracks into downtown, including CHS Kalispell and Northwest Drywall. In 2005, Burlington Northern successor BNSF Railway leased the tracks from Columbia Falls to Kalispell to Watco Companies, which began using the tracks under the name Mission Mountain.
In 2015, Kalispell received a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to build the Glacier Rail Park in Evergreen. The rail-served industrial park has become the new home for CHS Kalispell and Northwest Drywall, enabling the removal of the tracks through town. About a week before Christmas, Northwest Drywall received its last rail shipment to its warehouse on Eighth Avenue WN.
On Dec. 27, the Mission Mountain came into downtown Kalispell one final time to pick up some empty tank cars that had been stored on the west side of Meridian Road. Aboard the last train into town was Mission Mountain General Manager Kyle Jeschke.
“It’s sad and exciting at the same time,” Jeschke said. “Coming into downtown Kalispell has been a part of our daily life, but the (opportunities at the new rail park) are really exciting.”
Before hooking up to the stored freight cars near Meridian Road, the crew parked the locomotive — painted blue and white in honor of the Columbia Falls Wildcats — in front of the old CHS grain elevator for a few photos with Montana West Economic Development, the organization that helped spearhead the construction of the rail park.
As dusk drew near, the Mission Mountain locomotive coupled up to the stored freight cars and slowly rolled past the grain elevator, behind the mall and over U.S. Highway 93 one last time.
“Wow,” Jentz said, as the last car rumbled by.