Yellowstone Genealogy Forum


Burlington Railroad – Pryor Gap

[Burlington & Missouri River Railroad[1]]

Revised Sunday, October 05, 2003


In late 1892 the Burlington Railroad procured the franchise of Big Horn Southern Railway, and had the purchase validated by Congress and the Montana State Legislature. Mr. Castor, right-of-way specialist for the railroad, enlisted the exclusive services of Paul McCormick to get permission to cross the Crow Reservation. Paul was given sole rights to conduct negotiations as needed to gain permission. Paul had about 200 separate negotiations to perform in achieving the right-of-way. Both sides were well satisfied with the negotiations. In April 1893 the railroad authorized the construction of the line from Sheridan to Billings, but work was not to start until Paul had completed all negotiations. It was said “that where Mr. McCormick fails in dealing with the Indians, there is no use of anybody else trying.”

It was planned that the construction would be expedited, and completed soon as practical. Steel rail orders were placed and the sections are being cut for delivery. When completed Billings will have the only competing railroad lines in the state, and the town is expected to double in size[2].

In early June, 1893, Price & Company of Oregon, subcontract to Kilpatrick, unloaded 160 head of horses and mules, along with corresponding wagons, scrapers and other equipment, at the Custer Station. The Burlington extension of the main line leading through to Billings was being rushed, and should be completed next month[3].

After gaining permission to cross the reservation, the company completed the Wyoming grade to the Pryor Mountain pass through the Sage Creek area bordering the Crow Reservation before years end. On 28 April, 1894 Mr. Holdridge, General Manager of the railroad, arrived in Sheridan and announced that construction through the reservation was to begin at once. Kilpatrick Brothers & Collins were given the contract. They sublet additional portions to: Dunley & McShane, McDonald Brothers, Mike Elmore, JL Bean, and others. Twenty-five miles of the road through Pryor Gap was scheduled to start by May 15th. Railroad ties were already stockpiled at the mouth of Five Mile Creek on the Tongue River, and the steel is enroute to the site. The contractors to complete an effort for connection to the Northern Pacific Railway have placed the Directors of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad under pressure. Previously, there were no plans for connection to NPR. It was well believed that by connecting with NPR the economic conditions of the area would be greatly improved. Additionally large investments would be required to accomplish this act, and the contractors agreed to share the cost by accepting less money for their efforts[4].

        Contractors offered $1.25 per day for common labor, $140.00 per day for wheel scraper holders, and $16.00 per month and board for teamsters. Free transportation to the reservation site was provided. Between 2,000 and 3,000 men would be needed. All work was to be completed by 15 October 1894.

        NPR and B&M agreed to traffic arrangements, and after the 15th, all cross country traffic will come to Billings, the redistribution point. This enabled the Burlington to provide service west to the NPR points on the Pacific, as well as Great Falls and other locations. The B&M line distance from Omaha to Billings was 875 miles, the NPR 892 miles. Burlington was to use the NPR tracks from Huntley into Billings (13 miles), and out westward until they reached Fromberg, 37 miles distant[5].

        NPR would control all Burlington traffic movement into, through and out of Billings to designated points where they again tied into their own rail system. To support the additional activity inside of Billings itself, an additional rail system had to be constructed that would allow adequate movement of their freight trains.

1.      Passenger trains would use the existing NPR station facilities on Montana Avenue.

2.      Freight trains would require additional track and support facilities including warehousing and docks.

3.      Freight agents would use the NPR facilities on Montana Avenue.

        The additional track needed was laid by Big Horn Southern Railway (and probably NPR for the switches connecting with their track) to divert the freight trains across 21st Street and onto the 5th Street line. The 5th Street line ran from mid-33rd Street northeast to about one mile past the city limits. At the time of the construction there appears to have been only two residents owning land in the vicinity of the track, Adam Rupert and John Schock. Henry Rowley, as director of the Minnesota & Montana and Land Investment Company who had title to the Billings town site, provided access to the other parcels of land within the city and Foster’s Addition. Yellowstone County provided the balance of land that was located northeast of Billings[6]. According to early photographs, taken by photographer Hayes in 1894, the track route was established before the land transfer actions were filed. There were virtually no streets or alleys in the vicinity, excepting for access to North Park’s fairground facility.

The Big Horn Southern Railway also constructed maintenance support facilities, essentially identical to those of NPR, near the northeast end of their line, including their own roundhouse. These facilities were placed in the triangular piece of land where the 21st Street crossover links and the 5th Avenue freight line intersected [between 3rd and 5th Avenues.]  In 1894 the extension [which preceded the I-90 route] from Alger, Wyoming, to Billings, Montana, was completed and opened for traffic on October 28, 1894 [only 13 days longer than planned.] Distance between the two points was 122 miles[7]. [Note: Alger is about seven miles west of Sheridan, Wyoming.]

In 1899 another line, connecting Toluca with Cody, Wyoming was started. This was a very difficult route to build and maintain. On April 11, 1911 the Toluca line was abandoned without notice, and by the 13th, all steel was removed. Buildings, water tanks and even the stationmasters were left abandoned without notice[8]. The 128-mile route was over a very steep grade, and only could average about 20 miles per hour. It was often referred to as “Squaw Train”, or the “Toluca-Cody” run. In the Pryor Gap, a tunnel was 300 yards long, was cut through the hillside. The roadbed rose 66 feet a mile, and had several sharp curves. It took over 7-1/2 hours to travel across the route[9].

Traffic into and out of Billings became so congested within a few years that it took days to switch engines and load or unload freight. Land costs in the Billings area were too great, so NPR quietly took title to 100 acres in Laurel, and built their switching facility there. In 1914 they were running daily 20 passenger trains, two freight trains and a new line from the Billings & Central Railroad constructed in 1913 that operated an additional two trains daily.

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[1] For discussion about the actual negotiations see: “The Crow Indians Dupe the Railroad, by Phil Gulick” [Note: Paul McCormick’s first name was intentionally changed to Charlie.]

[2] The Weekly Times, May 13, 1893, “The B&M is Coming”

[3] The Weekly Times, June 17, 1893, “The Burlington”

[4] The Weekly Times, May 3, 1894, “The Burlington”

[5] Refer to Page #7, Billings During Territorial Days, Edgar Camp, Journal published in the Gazette, 1914 Special Edition.

[6] Receipt of land transaction (Decrees, Warrants, etc.) started on April 5, 1894 and continued through March 25, 1895. Six entries were found in the title transfer books at Yellowstone County Courthouse.

[7] Chapter XXXIII, History of Railroad Construction – Final Indian Hostilities – from: THE SUPREME COURT OF NEBRASKA.

[8] Refer to Trails-Tales for in-depth details about this segment.

[9] Billings Gazette, November 24, 1940, “Local Man Recounts Many Difficulties of Toluca-Cody Train”