Railroads of Montana
and the Pacific Northwest
Photography by Dale Jones

CLICK HERE Dale Jones Photographs of Marias Pass - 1985







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Lewistown, MT Newspaper Index
Marias Pass
Online Marias Pass Railfan's Guide
Marias Pass Photos
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The Montana Almanac 1957

GN Montana Station Names - 1937
Compiled Montana Place Names
Great Northern Mileposts

Great Northern Advertisements for the Empire Builder and Western Star from the 1950's Highlighting Marias Pass               

  Marias Pass

Here are links to other Marias Pass information on this website:

Click below for the -
Adobe Acrobat® Version Marias Pass  GN/BNSF Milepost List

Here is a link to  the complete text of Grace Flandrau's -
Great Northern Railway's authorized 1925 "Story of Marias Pass"

Here is a link to the
Online Version of Marias Pass from Essential Railfan's Guide to Marias Pass

More Historic Marias Pass Photographs

More Historic Great Northern Railway Photographs

Marias Pass – the long lost “mysterious” crossing of the Continental Divide located in northwestern Montana near Kalispell and Glacier National Park. The following pages of this website, will explore the myths surrounding Marias Pass and its discovery along with the railroads that operated through the pass including the Great Northern Railway, Burlington Northern and Burlington Northern
Santa Fe Railroads. In discussing Marias Pass, we will be covering basically the approximately
 95 miles of track between Whitefish and Browning, Montana.

In the almost 100 miles of trackage in Marias Pass, the rails snake through narrow canyons, cross the swift Middle Fork of the Flathead River, twisting through numerous snowsheds and tunnels on its way to the summit at 5,213 feet above sea level. As Rocky Mountain railroad passes go, Marias Pass is one of the lowest crossings in actual elevation of any of the major railroad passes in North America.

James Jerome Hill - "Jim Hill"

The Great Northern was founded by James J. Hill, "The Empire Builder." In 1912, upon retiring,
he said:
"Most men who have really lived have had, in some shape, their great adventure.
This railway is mine."

The search for a railroad route through the Rocky Mountains of the north western United States had been pursued since 1853 with the formation of the “Stevens Survey.” This railroad line expedition was led by Isaac Stevens [no relation to John F. Stevens of Marias Pass fame]
governor of the Washington Territory on March 17, 1853. Stevens also lobbied for the job of organizing and leading a government survey party to explore a northern route for a transcontinental railroad. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis appointed Stevens superintendent of the survey in March 1853. Stevens spent the next three months organizing the expedition, which set out from
St. Paul in June. The party traveled west through the Dakotas, Montana, and Idaho and arrived at Ft. Vancouver on November 19, 1853. The survey identified the first rail route from St. Paul to the Puget Sound and gathered information about the region’s topography, geography, flora, and fauna, identifying several previously unknown species. The survey report was published in 1859.  

In 1889 James J. Hill, the power behind the Great Northern Railway, had pushed his line into Central Montana, and it was time to decide how to complete the routing on to the Pacific. At that point in time, the Northern Pacific had a line to the Coast, but it used a tunnel with a track elevation of 5,563 feet.

Jim Hill and his chief engineer wanted to know if there was a way to route a railway through the mountains and across the Continental Divide. In November of 1889, E.H. Beckler, chief engineer
for the Great Northern, summoned John F. Stevens to Helena, Montana, and sought his aid in determining if there was such a route through the mountains. If a direct route could be located, it would shorten the railway’s distance to the Pacific by more than 100 miles. That difference in distance had serious economic consequences for the Great Northern Railway.    

Here is the account of the Marias Pass “discovery” as written in a 1959 Great Northern Railway Publicity Release:  

His [John Stevens] small party consisting of a mule team, a driver and a saddle horse proceeded for a distance when members refused to continue. Colonel Stevens induced a Flathead Indian to accompany him from that point.  They fashioned snowshoes from frames and cowhide for easier movement through the deep snow. Shortly after, the Indian dropped out and made camp, a few miles from the true summit.
Colonel Stevens later reported he finally walked directly into what now is known as Marias Pass after a few futile attempts. In order to determine if the pass was the lowest passage between the mountains and the top of the Divide, he continued West until he discovered a creek draining West into the Pacific watershed.

   Quoting from a letter Colonel Stevens wrote years later:

"The short days of winter made a rapid move necessary, and after a terrifically hard and exhausting struggle, I managed to get back to the summit where I remained all night…It was almost impossible to build and keep a fire going, so I tramped a track about 100 yards in length and walked it back and forth until enough daylight broke to make it safe for travel."  

Constant motion prevented him from sleeping and freezing to death. One advantage of the extreme cold on the summit, Colonel Stevens said, was "that the mosquitoes didn't bother me"

Upon returning to the sleeping Indian, he found him half frozen. They made it back to their party and learned the temperature there was 40 degrees below zero [actually the thermometer reading
was -36º]

From an aneroid reading he took while in the pass, Stevens knew he had crossed the Continental Divide at the lowest point north of Lordsburg, New Mexico. The Great Northern as finally constructed crossed through Marias Pass without a tunnel at an elevation 350 feet lower than
the Northern Pacific route.

In 1925 a statue was erected at the site to commemorate his achievement. On the occasion, and in his usual calm manner, Stevens remarked, “I regarded it at the time as only another engineering experience.”  

John Stevens Marias Pass Dedication July 1925        1960 John F. Stevens GN Ad                 John F. Stevens Statue July 2012

Construction of the Pacific Coast extension of the Great Northern Railway westward at aptly named Pacific Junction near Havre, Montana had began in 1890. The final spike was driven near Scenic, Washington, on January 6, 1893, completing the transcontinental project.

That in a nutshell is the abbreviated story of how the Great Northern Railway came
to cross Marias Pass.

Today the trains of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Amtrak still twist and grind up the grades and curves that were “discovered” more than a century ago.

Scenes of the Great Northern Railway in Marias Pass

1960's "Big Sky Blue" Empire Builder Publicity Photo at Twin Bridges

1950's Empire Builder Photo at Twin Bridges [taken near the above photo]

                       Two Images of Steam Trains in the Fielding [Blacktail] "Horseshoe Curve" near old McCarthyville

   1950's Empire Builder in Two Locations Now Changed by Relocation - Left is at Nyack and Right is at Rising Wolf/ Bison

Click below for the -
Adobe Acrobat® Version Marias Pass  GN/BNSF Milepost List

Here is a link to  the complete text of Grace Flandrau's -
Great Northern Railway's authorized 1925 "Story of Marias Pass"

Here is a link to the
Online Version of Marias Pass from Essential Railfan's Guide to Marias Pass


If you are interested in Montana railroad history
Click HERE to order book The Great Northern Railway in Marias Pass
and The Milwaukee Road Connection from Spokane to Butte

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All material and photos that does not list specific sources are copyrighted by Dale Jones

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