From elegance to atrophy, a Northern Pacific Railroad landmark disappears

A wooden passenger rail car once carried passengers across the U.S in an marketing effort, now it marks its decay in to the prairie.

A wooden passenger rail car once carried passengers across the U.S in a marketing effort for the rail company to promote tourism, now it marks its decay in to the prairie.

Once again, headed down Highway 2, we eyeballed the rail car in the middle of the gravel pit.  It was so out-of-place that we mentally marked its location between Minot and Williston.  Each time our curiosity grew.  We apparently were not the only ones.

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After we posted an image on our Facebook page we got an overwhelming response from people wanting to know more.  A few chipped in what they knew of the steel-wheel reminder of another era.  Our search yielded very little, not much on-line.

At one time, the wooden rail car may have been similar to this.

At one time, the wooden rail car may have been similar to this.

“Wait a minute,” I said, “I know a guy.” One or two lifetimes ago I had met Fred back when I was a local weekly newspaper editor.  So, I called him, and he knew exactly what I was talking about.  He gave me a name and that’s where the search started.  From that name I got another name, and from that name a third name, name after name, I finally got to the owner, Robert.  He seemed like a nice enough guy talking to him on the phone, so I asked to meet with him to get more information on the car.  “Yeah, I’ll meetcha on Monday.  I’ll bring my briefcase.”

Briefcase?  What had we gotten in to?  Were we about to go head to head with some high-powered negotiator who kept his life in his briefcase?

We knew where we were going, we just didn’t know how to get there.  We followed his directions and the snow tracks in to the farm-yard, past the house to where a pickup truck was parked outside a large metal farm shop.  That was about as good a sign as any that the man with the briefcase was nearby.

The shop door was locked.  I called him on the phone and after a couple of minutes, he unlocked the door from inside.   Were we about to meet the high-powered negotiator with a briefcase?  No. Robert was anything but; in his late 60’s, smiling, charming, a bit of a silver pony tail under his cowboy hat.

Robert met us with a warm casual greeting.  “Hi there! C’mon in!”  He held the door open, we made introductions and he ushered us through a large shop building that most farmers would be glad to have. Equipment parked neatly in the dark room on the dirt floor.   “Go on back,” he said and we threaded our way to another door on the back wall.  We had just been in the foyer. We got back in to his brightly lit, clean and colorful domain. LQ-1-4Here, an extra-large shop housed a wooden cook wagon for a cattle drive, an old John Deere, and old Ford tractor and an endless selection of well-organized memorabilia extending as far as the eye could see in his shop – and a couple of recliners next to a table.  This was Robert’s “office.”

He opened the brief case, and out came the goods.  He had it all.  “Here’s a letter to the railroad history group,” he started.  “Here are stories, and here is a diagram.”

The original layout and design of the wooden rail car.

The original layout and design of the wooden rail car.

Robert told us how the spur started up a slope to the north and the rail company could let cars roll back in to the gravel pit then load them before being pulled out by an engine.  He said that was how the fancy wooden passenger car got in to the gravel pit.  Then later, a crane lifted it off the tracks, set it on the ground to become a bunk house and office — from 1st class passenger car to gravel pit bunk house. He said, “The Mountrail County Historical Association wanted to move it to Flickertail Village in Stanley.”

The drawings and illustrations showed the car at one time was quite ornate.  “Yeah, it had stained glass windows and a lot of fancy work on it, but vandals got in there and broke all the glass and pretty well tore it up,” he said.

The long windows n top and the arched windows in the side were stained glass.

The long windows n top and the arched windows in the side were stained glass.

“Senseless,” we shook our heads.  “Why do people destroy things like that?”

The interior bears the marks of vandals and weather.

The interior bears the marks of vandals and weather.

Robert is a good conversationalist, good to talk to. He took us back in time to show us his restored antiques and rare collectibles, including brass hinges and door knobs.  He’s a collector and a wealth of regional history – a wealth to uncover with patience and time.

However, we were on our way to Williston and couldn’t spend much time with him, so we made a disappointing departure – our disappointment because Robert is a rare life-long fixture of the prairies.  We told him, we’d like to come back and he said that would be good.

He had given us a start. From the newspaper stories of years ago, the drawings and letters, we learned enough about the rail car to hunt for more information on-line.  Just as Robert had said, Barney and Smith Company of Dayton, Ohio built the car in 1906.  The company started 70 years earlier, before the Civil War by two men who met at a local Baptist Church in the 1840’s.   barneysmith_ad1They built rail cars and eventually inner-city trolleys.

This rail car, parked along Highway 2 in Mountrail County, North Dakota had been all over the upper Midwest pulled by the Northern Pacific rail company before selling it to the Great Northern Railway.

A similar car carried Teddy Roosevelt through Fargo in 1912

A similar car carried Teddy Roosevelt through Fargo in 1912

The N.P. built the line through southern North Dakota and Montana, from Fargo, Bismarck and on to Billings and west.  It invested heavily in a new idea called “Yellowstone Park” and helped pay for the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone.  N.P recovered it’s investment by promoting tourist trains from the east, across the prairies to the Rockies and to Yellowstone National Park.  Tourists paid to travel by N.P. rail for a day or two to get to near Billings, and then take an N.P. spur to Yellowstone. The gravel pit rail car was likely one of the cars the N.P. used to carry passengers.

The Northern Pacific built the rail line through southern ND and MT, built and promoted Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone, then attracted tourists to ride the line to near Billings and then to Yellowstone.

The Northern Pacific built the rail line through southern ND and MT, built and promoted Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone, then attracted tourists to ride the line to near Billings and then to Yellowstone.

In 1941, The Northern Pacific sold the rail car to the Great Northern Railroiad, the company that ran the northern line across North Dakota and Montana.  The Great Northern. used the rail car as a bunker car for workers at the gravel pit.  Between 25 and 50 workers, earning $1.80/hour lived in nearby Blaisdell or at the pit, some turned the rail car in to a temporary home and office for the gravel pit.  The G.N.. used the gravel for rail beds until it became apparent that the gravel in the pit was too smooth and round; a sharper-edged granite was needed.  The G.N.. abandoned the site in 1958, pulled up the tracks, but left the rail car.  The Mountrail County Historical Society floated the idea of moving the car to the Flickertail Village in Stanley, but when the group learned the car had no wheels, it abandoned the plans, and the car was left to rot.

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Robert gave us permission to check out the rail car when we got the chance. Vandals and thieves have stripped the car of most of its detail, unless you look very closely.

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We found it wasn’t hard to imagine the stately high-end decor of the car.   It has a spirit about it, a feel that causes a visitor to slip in to a romantic nostalgia of another era.

rail car porch vignette signtre

It’s an impressive structure, about 70-feet long, but I don’t think I’d trust the floor or the walls.  Weather has done its thing for the last half century. It wasn’t difficult to imagine standing on the back deck and watch the woodlands of Minnesota turn in to prairies of eastern North Dakota, and then the ruggedness of the Badlands and finally the kingly Rocky Mountains.

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Our few minutes with the old rail car would have been longer if it were not so cold and windy.  We shot around the car from different angles.  It’s a horizontal monolith of the prairie.  It’s a reminder that today’s industry in the Badlands of North Dakota, the Bakken is not a new phenomena, that the region has been home to different industrial enterprises for decades.  Wooden rail cars dot the prairie as farmers converted them to shops and storage space.  We’d like to find more, are there any near you?  What can you tell us about the abandoned rail cars in your part of North Dakota?

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June 23

They must be travelers pausing on their way through little old Wilton. The sides of those rail cars, like passports, bear the stamps of far away places where they’ve stopped and been marked. The artistry renders the language in to a cryptic cipher.  I struggle to read them, but to someone I’m sure they mean something, perhaps a branding of a network, a neighborhood, a gang, or  just an expressive person.Eventually, they end up parked at Wilton near the grain elevator waiting to get loaded so they can go back to the home turf of the artist who branded these cars.

I imagine the patient work that goes in to rendering the straight lines, the shadows, the depth.  I imagine cardboard used as edging and a whole lotta shaking of the cans as the artists rough out what it is they’re trying to say.
Around here, graffiti artists just aren’t that creative. They grab a can of spray paint and spray their graduating year, and that’s it.

May 13

Do you s’pose it’s haunted?  Wilton’s old Soo Line Railroad Depot was moved from its position next to the railroad when it was determined that its unique architecture was significant enough to preserve the building.   There was a time, back in the early 1920’s when passengers boarded or stepped off  trains twice a day in Wilton.  Passenger service dried up along with the little towns the rail line served, towns such as Arnold and Chapin. Now the depot houses some old railroad artifacts, and maybe a few ghosts, do you s’pose?  It would be interesting to find out. That pagoda upstairs houses sleeping quarters. Imagine what it could do for the town’s reputation and income if that loft were to be rented out as a kind of bed and breakfast.

Of course if some nifty photographer didn’t desaturate the image, it will always look good as a postcard image.

March 1

North Dakota, like many western states, lives and dies with its railroads.  It was the railroad building after the Civil War in the late 1860’s that brought the 7th Cavalry here to protect the railroad workers.  Towns sprung up along the rail lines and some of those towns today are gone because the rail lines were abandoned.

Mandan is a railroad town. The Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railroad operates out of Mandan as it has for more than a century.  On a cold snowy evening, the switchyard is lit up with a golden glow and provides a photo op from the nearby hill.

Knowing the intimate historical connection between railroads, North Dakota and Mandan, I often imagine in my mind’s eye what it used to look like.  Perhaps something like this:

February 18

ND Veterans Cemetery

Somber. That’s the only word I can think of that universally applies to every visit I have made to the North Dakota Veteran’s Cemetery.  Somber.  A sense of quiet pervades, even when we roll in on our motorcycles on a funeral escort detail.  So, in February, somber, the 12-month sense is even more pronounced when the tombstones are barely visible above the snow;  a bouquet of flowers on the grave site of a veteran barely makes a difference in the cold arrangement of the dead.

On this day, I wanted to not only snap the photo, but also give it a post-processing treatment to represent the somberness of the cemetery.

Down the road, south of Mandan is the abandoned Mandan to Mott rail line.  The trains are gone, the tracks are gone, but the wooden trestles remain.  Through the last couple of centuries, even before the two Dakotas were established and there was only a singular Dakota Territory, a fair amount of traffic connected Bismarck to the Black Hills of South Dakota.  This line followed that connection made by Sioux Indians, followed by General Custer, and followed even more frequently by stagecoaches.  Then came the trains, but they are gone too.

I like this old wooden trestles. If you get close enough to them on a summer day, you can smell the wood and the creosote.  In the winter, there’s not much smell, but you can still sense the presence of an old steam locomotive that once crossed these trestles to get across the mouths of streams emptying in to the Missouri River.