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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Trains long gone, people once again roll down new Tarkio trail

Bert Lindler, board member of Mineral County Rails to Trails, and Pika enjoy a cruise along a newly opened section of trail on state land near Tarkio, Montana, on June 2. The trail is part of a larger rails-to-trails initiative in Montana and across the U.S., and by summer’s end should include a loop onto former Milwaukee Road railroad bed along the Clark Fork River.  (Joshua Murdock/The Missoulian)
By Joshua Murdock Missoulian

TARKIO, Mont. – For the first time in almost 50 years, people will soon be able to roll along the Milwaukee Road railroad grade along the Clark Fork River from Cyr to Superior. But this time they’ll be on bikes, rather than in storied passenger trains like the Olympian or North Coast Hiawatha.

A century ago, what’s now a forest of tall pines and riverfront homes routinely roared alive as locomotives from the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad – commonly known as the Milwaukee Road – ferried passengers and freight across the state and between Chicago and Puget Sound. That’s also about when part of the route from Harlowton, Montana, to Avery, Idaho, was electrified, making it the world’s longest continuously electrified mainline for decades to come.

Electrification allowed the railroad to add open-air passenger cars in summer months: The clean, soot-free electric locomotives meant passengers could feel the wind in their faces as they took in 360-degree panoramas of Montana. The lines above the tracks stopped buzzing 50 years ago this month, on June 15, 1974. Amtrak, which provided service on the route starting in 1971 as the Milwaukee Road died, ended service entirely in 1979.

But now a yearslong effort from Mineral County Rails to Trails organization – plus public, nonprofit and private foundation grants – has allowed people to once again feel the wind in their faces as they glide along the path, still soot free.

Traffic on Interstate 90 was a whisper in the distance as arrowleaf balsamroot and lupine swayed gently in the wind on a plot of state land almost a quarter-mile south of the highway on June 2. A banner emblazoned with “United we trail,” courtesy of the Rails to Trails Conservancy, flapped next to a table crowded with a vase of lilacs, cold drinks and a custom cake. About 40 people gathered as Mineral County Rails to Trails and its partners announced the opening of a roughly 2-mile non-motorized path between Crystal Springs (exit 65) and Tarkio (exit 61).

The path, according to organization president Diane Magone, was the last missing link that would allow hikers and cyclists to travel between Cyr and Superior without having to jump on the interstate, braving 80-mph traffic and narrow shoulders over bridges. The path is a winding double-track trail across land managed by the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The Crystal Springs end sits at the western terminus of Old Highway 10; the Tarkio end hits River Gorge Road on the southwest side of the interstate exit. There’s a wheelchair-accessible portable toilet at the Crystal Springs end, and the trail will be made accessible for people with impaired mobility.

Technically the path that opened last weekend is not on the old railroad grade – that sits directly along the river more than a half-mile south and down a steep cut bank. This path roughly parallels I-90. But, once a brood of eagles nesting near the old railroad grade fledges, probably in late July or early August, a couple weeks of construction can commence to open the railroad bed to public bike and foot access. Then visitors can complete a loop around the DNRC-land trail, down to the old railroad bed along the river, and back up to the state land.

“This is phase one,” said Liz Gupton, a former U.S. Forest Service engineer who volunteered to design trails across the steep cut bank that will connect the upper double-track to the lower railroad bed. “We are not going down to the river, and we hope people respect that, because there’s an eagle nest down there with eaglets.”

Once crews can go down there, Magone said, it should only take a couple weeks for crews to improve an existing road down to the railroad bed at the Crystal Springs end and construct a new trail at the Tarkio end. Haskins Excavating, Gupton said, is performing the work on the trail loop, including the stretch that opened June 2.

Use of the railroad bed by the river was made possible by Dana and Doug Austin, who in the 1990s purchased the long, narrow property that formerly held railroad tracks. When the Milwaukee Road folded, it sold off its property in pieces, rather than keeping whole the narrow right-of-way that made the rail line. But even three decades ago, the Austins thought that bit of former railroad had potential.

“We thought it’d make a great bike trail,” Doug said to the crowd. The couple donated an easement on about 1 mile of the old grade to the Rails to Trails organization to facilitate the “scenic bypass” loop from the DNRC trail above. “Come and ride,” Dana encouraged.

Magone noted that Dana’s family’s Woodhouse Family Foundation helped fund the project; the loop will be called the Austin-Woodhouse Scenic Loop.

“Without Doug and Dana,” she said, “this project wouldn’t have happened.”

Regional, national connection

The trail saw local use immediately upon its opening. As some munched cake and enjoyed non-alcoholic Athletic Brewing Co. beer sent by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, others threw legs over bikes or cinched shoelaces to head north on the trail toward Tarkio.

But the section is more than just a local trail. It’s also part of a five-county initiative to complete a continuous trail from just outside Butte on the east to the Montana-Idaho state line past St. Regis on the west. In February, Butte-Silver Bow, Powell, Granite, Missoula and Mineral counties, and the city of Missoula, applied together for a $6.3 million federal grant to help make the path a reality. Some parts already exist, like Mineral County’s Route of the Olympian near St. Regis, but about 157 miles of gaps remain, according to the Montana Standard.

And that project is part of an even grander idea: a coast-to-coast bike and walking path from Washington, D.C., to Washington state. Dubbed the Great American Rail-Trail by the organization that’s proposed it – the Rails to Trails Conservancy – the path would mostly follow the old Milwaukee Road in Montana when possible. The new Tarkio trail is part of it.

“This is a piece of a much bigger project and it forms on all levels – local, regional and national,” said Thomas Lang, of the Montana Trails Coalition. “I think it’s a great thing to be a part of.”

Headwaters Economics determined that the nation-spanning Great American Rail-Trail, if completed, would bring an estimated $16 million in annual visitor spending, $800,000 in annual tax revenue and 210 new jobs to Montana with its 427 miles through the state, the Standard reported.

Even before its formal opening, the route between the two exits was visible in satellite imagery and had been discovered by at least a few long-distance cyclists. Magone said she and Gupton were putting up “bike route” signs at each end two weeks ago when they met a man and a woman cycling the path aboard fully laden touring bikes. The pair were riding from Tacoma, Washington, to Toronto for a wedding. And the Missoula-based Adventure Cycling Association, which devises, maps and curates long-distance cycling routes around the U.S., is ready to add the section to its inventory, Magone said.

Recreational pot for recreational trails

A major boost for the Tarkio trail was a $40,000 grant in 2023 from the state Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Trails Stewardship Program. The program was created in 2019 by Senate Bill 24 and funded by opt-in fees for light motor-vehicle registrations and recreational marijuana taxes. Vehicle fees brought in about $950,000 a year; marijuana netted $1.1 million a year, Lang said. The program began giving grants in 2021, he said, and has awarded grants to 140 projects for a total of $6.2 million over four annual cycles so far.

Lang would know: Up until three weeks ago, he worked for FWP and helped administer the program. Last month he took a new job as operations director for the Montana Trails Coalition, the group that sponsored Senate Bill 24 to create the program. The coalition, formed in 2017 to spur the creation of a state-level trails grant program, received a $10,000 grant from the Rails to Trails Conservancy, Lang said, and is eyeing a transition to secure, foundational funding. He’s their first paid employee.

Other partners on the project include the Mineral County Recreation Club, American Hiking Society, Heather Berman and Amy Helena, the DNRC’s Missoula area manager.

“Trail building work is hard work and so funding that is important,” Lang said, but the often less-visible administrative work to secure funding is just as arduous. He credited Magone and others associated with the project for their perseverance in navigating the bureaucracy associated with securing land and money for the trail.

Brooke Lincoln, a Mineral County Rails to Tails board member and owner of the 50,000 Silver Dollar in Haugan, commended Magone specifically for her dedication to the project.

“This is our workhorse,” she said, as she walked up to embrace Magone. “This is our workhorse behind the project right here.”

As the crowd filtered down the trail or to nearby cars and the cake was mostly gone, Lincoln turned to Magone with a smile.

“So,” she asked, “what do we do next?”