Haskell Pass, Montana [May 2002]

In the winter of 1891, Charles Haskell set out to locate a route for the Great Northern Railway between Kalispell and the Kootenai River. Ranging as far north as the Canadian Border, the Haskell Party eventually returned to Kalispell in early spring, having crossed a low notch in the Salish Mountains on the return trip. Haskell delivered his report to James Hill, and the following year, construction was begun on what was to be the first of three Great Northern lines through the Salish. Completed in 1892, the Haskell Pass line ran from Kalispell to Marion, then alongside Little Bitterroot lake, looping up on a high trestle over Herrig Creek, then through a 1425 foot long tunnel, emerging high on the mountains above Pleasant Valley. Gently descending to the valley floor, the line then turned north along Island Creek, then west down Wolf Creek, to the Fisher River, and then north to the Kootenai River Valley.

Just ten years later, however, this line was abandoned in favor of a line which bypassed Kalispell and was 20 miles longer, a decision which still invokes a high degree of controversy. Eventually, however, this line would also perish under the Libby Dam reservoir in 1970, with the third and final rerouting constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, including the 7 mile long Flathead Tunnel. Inronically, the present day route through the Salish uses the same Wolf Creek - Fisher River route as the original!

In late 2001 I started a project to relocate what was left of the orignial line. Railroads which have been abandoned a century ago present a particular challenge, since records are inexact (if they exist at all) and a century of exposure to the harsh Montana weather will usually wipe out any mere creation of man. However, with a bunch of clues and a decent GPS receiver (Garmin eTrex Vista), I set out over Memorial Day 2002 to find what was left of the Haskell Pass Line.

This is the barely recognizeable eastern approach to the Herrig Creek Trestle. Note the size of the Tamaracks growing out of the roadbed. The grade itself is just barely visible, but is confirmed by the fragments of ties still buried there, as well as some of the pilings which still stand on the western edge.
The line then passed through this meadow on the way up to the pass tunnel.
Haskell Pass Tunnel, western portal. As the portal was never "faced" with concrete, the shale rock above the tunnel has been gradually falling off into a pile in front of the tunnel.
Inside the western entrance of the tunnel, the timber lining still stands, more than a century after its construction.
Walking along the grade westward from the tunnel, one passes through several rock cuts before this view of Pleasant Valley emerges.
Turning north along Island Creek, the line eventually crossed the creek at this location just south of Island Lake.
Proceeding west along Wolf Creek, we rejoin the GN/BN/BNSF line near Tamarack Siding, which is close to the former location of Sterling, a siding on the original line. A westbound BNSF manifest comes screaming down the grade towards the Fisher River.
The manifest roars by, and through a long rock cut.
In the hole at Fisher Siding for the manifest was this eastbound.
The eastbound gets the high green, and thunders out of the sinding uphill.
The Fisher River joins the Kootenai at Jennings, MT, just below Libby Dam and what's now known as Lake Koocanusa. Amazingly, there's still a little stub of the second -- and most long-lived -- GN mainline through the Salish. On the east side of the river, the long rusty rails round a rock cut.
The Vanquished. The bridge across the Fisher River, built in 1903 as part of the effort to abandon Haskell Pass, still stands, just barely. Looking like something on the Northwest Pacific line, it's hard to believe that the Empire Builder passed over this bridge.

[May 2002][October 2002]