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Thread: The Long Way to Lombard

  1. #1

    Default The Long Way to Lombard

    The Long Way to Lombard

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    Sometimes how you get there is more important than where you are going. Lombard, Montana would be one of those kinds of places. For those not familiar, Lombard is located in the northern third of the Missouri River Canyon. Largely inaccessible, the canyon runs from Trident, (near Three Forks) to the south, with the northern end at Toston. Lombard is where 16 Mile Creek exits a narrow canyon of its own and joins forces with the Missouri for the trip to the Gulf of Mexico.

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    Surveyors for the Northern Pacific claimed the Missouri Canyon for their own, laying rails along the eastern bank. Years later, the Milwaukee Road built their transcon line on the western banks, crossing the river and the NP main at Lombard for the ascent up 16 Mile. In one of those interesting quirks of railroading, trains of the Northern Pacific and Milwaukee could be running side by side up the Missouri Canyon, but going in opposite directions. NP trains going westbound would be pacing Milwaukee trains going east.

    The “easy way” to Lombard is a dirt road that runs from Toston at the north mouth of the canyon. A few short miles that takes you up to the top of the canyon, then a rough track back down to the river, and you are there. Still, I always wondered, “Could a person get there from the south?” You can, I found out, but it’s the long way to Lombard.

    Logan and the Gallatin

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    The long way to Lombard begins at the old junction town of Logan. In the glory days, the westbound North Coast Limited would rattle across the switches in the yard, past the old water tower and take the “south line” over Homestake Pass. These days, the only trains following the route of the Limited are occasional ballast trains, bound for the pit on the east flank of the pass, and the local out of Helena that services the talc plants at Three Forks and Sappington, with the occasional run up the hill to line’s end at Harrison.

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    These days, beyond the parade of trains rumbling through town, not much happens in Logan. Locals keep the cooks and waitresses busy serving 23 oz porterhouse steak dinners at the Land-O-Magic, while next door, local personality, “Irv the Perv” uses abandoned rail yard property to display his latest “fixer upper.”

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    Where the dirt road from Logan takes a route up over the limestone hills to the north, the railroad follows the Gallatin River to its confluence with the Jefferson and Madison near Trident. Along its banks, trains pass through the cottonwood groves and ranchland where the elephant of Three Forks is rumored to reside.

    Trident and the Narrows

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    In spite of being the depths of the Missouri River Canyon, the concrete towers of the cement and limestone plant at Trident dominate the skyline. Trident is an old company town. A few houses and a paved street still remain as well as the old Northern Pacific depot, appropriately made from concrete.

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    The broad plains of the Gallatin fast falling behind their rear markers, once through Trident, trains enter the first of a series of narrows. While the railroad follows its winding water course north, the road takes a more circuitous route through the dry land pastures and wheat stubble dotting the tops of the surrounding hills.

    Clarkston: It's Not Who You Think

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    200 years ago the Captains and The Corps of Discovery paddled their canoes upriver through this country. That Meriwether Lewis and William Clark will be long remembered in this region goes without saying. There is the Clark Fork River, any number of, towns, lakes, rivers, counties, streets all named to honor the spirit of the two great explorers.

    Dropping down off the high plateau, the road to Lombard meets up with the tracks once again in a broad valley. This is Clarkston, Montana. Named after Captain William? No, as a matter of fact. An eastern entrepreneur who shared the same last name came here late in the 19th century. James Clark established a small town in this valley along the newly built Northern Pacific that included a store, school and grain elevator. Not the bashful sort, he named the town after himself, Clarkston.

    16 Mile

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    To get to Lombard the long way, you have to have faith. Faith that the road is going to take you where you want to go, eventually. While the railroad continues with the current of the Missouri, the road out of the Clarkston Valley takes a far different route. Through barbed wire gates, up a narrow track amongst graving Angus, it is easy to believe you have taken a wrong turn. Have faith.

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    From the top of a final rise, the road plunges downward into 16 Mile Canyon. The Northern Pacific becomes a fleeting thought, for this is the land of the Milwaukee Road. The creek meanders through the narrow gorge past the rotting stock chute that mark the siding at Crane, the Fairbanks Morse scale still ready to weigh out groups of yearling calves.

    End of the Road

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    From the top of 16 Mile to the depths of the Missouri River Canyon, the road finally comes to an end at Lombard. Far off the beaten track, an eerie silence can engulf Lombard, broken only by the passing of a train out on the high iron. Like so many ghost towns across the west, tall grass grows around old building foundations and abandoned cars. Like the road traveled, even the Milwaukee trestle across the river and railroad fly-over comes to an abrupt end.

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    Lombard is a place of winners and losers. The wail of the whistle of an eastbound, blowing for a road crossing in Toston, some 3 miles distant, will actually travel down 16 Mile Canyon and leave you convinced the XL Special, or a Dead Freight West is coming down the Milwaukee grade. It is an impression soon enough lost when an eastbound grain train rolls past. The Burlington Northern won, the Milwaukee lost.

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    The long way to Lombard. It takes us through narrow gorges, broad valleys, company towns and ghost towns. A weathered railroad telegraph pole still stands guard at Lombard. The long way to Lombard, it is less a journey across distance as it is through time.

  2. #2
    ahockley Guest

    Thumbs up

    Looks good to me. I enjoyed the narration explaining how the long way to Lombard isn't an easy route, and the photos supported that very nicely. The abandoned car is a great shot, implying that perhaps some didn't finish the long journey.

    I enjoyed the photos, finding no obvious technical issues.

    Overally my only possible suggestion would be to move the first photo to the end of the essay, as then you have "reached" Lombard and would see the station sign. It provides a good introduction, but I feel it would be a stronger ending. It's not a big deal and I vote for approval as submitted.

  3. #3


    That's a good idea, Aaron about the station sign photo. Just might give that try. I might have to do some looking to come up with a good beginning photo first.

    Martin Burwash

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    I like the tone of this one Martin. Very lonely country that can make you feel lost very quickly. I think that your 'have faith' narrative captures that feeling nicely. Photos and text fit like a glove - I vote to launch.

  5. #5
    greenthumb Guest

    Default Blast Off

    Martin, each of your essays makes me add another location to list of places I'd like to visit. Great word-smithery and fantastic images.

    I vote for launch as well.

    ~ jeff

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    An interesting essay. I've never been in the area when I've had a vehicle that I would want to take into Lombard the traditional way. I've been back in the Clarkston area, but I've learned a long time ago that a lot of Montana ranchers will as soon as shoot you as talk to you if they find that you've accessed their property without prior permission. So when I see a fence in Montana, I stay on the public side!

    That said, it looks like you found some interesting things to photograph and interesting views of the tracks.
    Dan Schwanz
    POSTCARDS FROM THE GORGE Website update 12.26.09

  7. #7


    Ditch your railfan gear, Dan, have at the very least a John Deere or some such baseball cap, stay on the road, close the gates behind you, stay on the road, (the road is a public road), oh and be sure to wave to everyone you meet on the's expected... and you'll do just fine.

    Martin Burwash

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Oct 2005
    durham, sc


    Another great essay. I really enjoyed reading this and viewing the photos, Martin.

    But I gota ask...what the hell is the elephant of Three Forks?
    Freeze this moment a little bit longer
    Make each sensation a little bit stronger

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    Heh, heh - I've the good ole boy routine down pretty well. My current service area includes Hood River, Wasco, Sherman, Wheeler, Gilliam, Morrow and Umatilla Counties in Oregon. That's about as rural as you can get. I've lived and/or worked in the three most northeastern Counties in Washington, and Nez Pearce County in Idaho. Trust me I can 'fit" in. Actually the biggest jerks I've met in Monatana are the wealthy "ranchers" who came from somewhere else.
    Dan Schwanz
    POSTCARDS FROM THE GORGE Website update 12.26.09

  10. #10


    When I was riding the light local power from Logan north to meet the coal train help at Toston, the switchman, Cody Volksford asked the engineer, Randy Jensen if he had seen the elephant that is supposed to live on one of the ranches about midway between Logan and Trident. Since we were riding the yellows of a freight just ahead of us anyway, Randy slowed down while Cody tried to remember between which grove of trees a person might sneak a peak. He said he was on a train where the engineer pointed out the pacaderm (sp?) to him. We never saw a thing, so I asked Cody if what he had seen looked like an elephant. In typical Montana fashion, he just shrugged his shoulders and told me,

    "Well, what I saw kinda looked like an elephant's ear."

    That's all I got out of him. I aksed some of the folks around Logan and Three Forks if they had heard anything about an elephant and got either a flat "No" or, like Cody, a shrug and a look as if they had heard, but just didn't want to admit to spreading the rumor.

    The mystery remains unsolved........

    Martin Burwash
    Last edited by Martin Burwash; 11-09-2006 at 04:14 PM.

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