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Almost a Railroad - the Lolo Cutoff 1909

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The Almost Lolo Railroad

Northern Pacific Missoula – Kooskia Division

1909 - Seattle, Wash – The Northern Pacific Ry., W. L. Darling, St. Paul, Minn., Chief Engineer, is to let contracts at once for the construction of the Missoula – Kooskia Division, known as the Lolo Pass cutoff. The estimated cost of the new work is $5,000,000.


1909 – Bids Are Opened. – Tenders for the construction of the Missoula-Kooskia Division of the Northern Pacific, known as the Lolo Pass Cut-Off, have been opened by the Northern Pacific officials at Missoula. No awards have yet been made. The total cost of the new line will aggregate $5,000,000.

From Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen’s Magazine September, 1909

Excerpt of article in The Spokane Press Sept. 18, 1905


. . . “It makes little difference to Hill whether the trade goes through Seattle or Portland; what he wants is to get it all. He has now practical control of both the Great Northern and Northern Pacific.

“Take down you map of the country from western Montana to the Pacific ports.

“Look to the east side of Bitter Root mountains.

“See there the stub road of James J. Hill which has as its southwesterly terminus, Ravalli.

“Look again and see where Missoula now sits.

“Do you see the little road running from Missoula to Lolo, on the maps known as Loulou?

“Look at the ruggedness of the country between Lolo and the western side of the Bitter Roots.

“Do you see anything which might not be scaled by the engineering science of railroad building grown up since the original Northern Pacific was constructed.

“Look further along the map to the west.

“See Lewiston, right at the Snake river country where the Northern Pacific is now operating, and its possibilities along the Snake.

“Look back and see Ravalli and Missoula, not so far removed from each other, the Great Northern reaching down from the north to the one, the other having the Lolo outlet. Put them together and you see a Hill road cutting off hundreds of miles between Montana and the Pacific ports. . . “

“Look you: Crossing the Bitter Roots at Lolo is today no more significant in railroad building than coming via the lake of Pend d’Oreille was in the days a quarter of a century ago when the Northern Pacific was constructed.

“Look for a new Adrian cut-off – the greater one to Pasco. Keep your eye on Pasco, but watch Wallula.

“Several hundred miles of coal saving, of time saving, of help saving and of breakage saving will be accomplished by the Lolo cut-off, through Lewiston, via the Snake and to the north-of-the-Columbia route to the Columbia opening into the Pacific.”

A little more background on this topic can be gleaned from an article in THE RAILWAY AGE on Nov. 25, 1898:

“The apparent determination of the Northern Pacific to build a cut-off about 300 miles long from Missoula, Mont., to Pasco or Ainsworth, Wash., threatens to produce serious friction between that company on the one hand and the Oregon Railroad & Navigation company, Union Pacific and Great Northern on the other, and promises also to result in some parallel railroad building in the far northwest. The Northern Pacific’s present line to the coast by way of Spokane would be shortened by about 100 miles by building the proposed cut-off, and the Clearwater Short Line was recently incorporated for this purpose. The Oregon Railroad & Navigation company, however, claim that the new line would constitute an invasion of their territory, in violation of the agreement heretofore existing between the two companies. The projected line would run from Missoula southwest through the Lolo Pass of the Bitter Root range, at the border line between Montana and Idaho, and thence along the valley of the Clearwater river to Lewiston, Idaho, from which point it would follow the Snake river to Pasco or Ainsworth, Wash. In addition to effecting a great saving in distance, it its claimed that the country to be tapped would in itself justify the construction of the road. Representatives of the interested roads were in conference in New York last week, but failed to come to an understanding, and the directors of the Northern Pacific on Friday authorized the immediate construction of 75 miles of road from Lewiston, Idaho, east toward Missoula. In retaliation, the Oregon company now proposes to build a line from Wallula Junction, Wash., along the Snake river to Lewiston, 140 miles, and press dispatches state that the contract has been let and that work has already been commenced both east and west from Riparia, Wash. The Union Pacific and Great Northern are both interested by reason of their interest in the Oregon Railroad & Navigation company, but the Great Northern may also be assumed to be still more concerned, because the cut-off, if built, will give the Northern Pacific a line from St. Paul to the coast almost as short as that of the Great Northern. At present the Great Northern line from St. Paul to Seattle is 1,827 miles long, while the distance between the same points via the Northern Pacific is 1,932 miles. To Portland the distance is 1,909 miles via the Great Northern, against 2,056 miles via the Northern Pacific.

Another view of the Lolo cutoff was presented by Ralph Space – Clearwater Forester and Historian:

The 1908-09 Survey

The Northern Pacific and Union Pacific each decided to survey a railroad through the Lochsa and Middle Fork canyons. A railroad on this location would provide a shorter route from Portland to Missoula. Apparently each conceived the idea at about the same time; each started surveys in the spring of 1908.

A race developed to see which could complete the survey first and thus acquire the key points on the right-of-way. This was wild inaccessible country with almost no trails and some very bad rocky canyons. To make a quick survey required almost an army of men. Accordingly, the Lochsa canyon and trails heading to it were filled with laborers, packers, packstrings, surveyors and all the personnel, equipment and supplies necessary to make a survey. Haste was the order of the day. Money was spent like water. Where possible, trails were built along the river. Where too rocky, supplies were brought in either over the Lolo or Coolwater Ridge trails and down branch trails to the river.

A graded trail was built from the Lolo Trail to the mouth of Weir Creek. Another ran from Sherman Peak to Boulder Flat. A branch of the Coolwater Trail ran past Maude and Lottie Lakes to Boulder Creek.

An effort was made to run supplies down the Lochsa River from Powell by raft, but it capsized. All supplies and equipment were lost, but luckily no one drowned. Boats were used on the Middle Fork and up the Lochsa as far as Hellgate Rapid. This was the end of navigation. Hellgate Creek took its name from the rapids.

The survey work continued through 1908 and 1909. The Northern Pacific started to build a railroad out of Lolo, Montana. Then, all at once, all work stopped. The two companies agreed that neither would build a railroad here. The trails were taken over by the Forest Service. Some sections were improved, but for the most part, the old trail along the river remained the same until the highway was built.

When I traveled over the old trail in 1924, sections of survey lines and stations could still be found. Today it is hard to find even an occasional blaze. Up to 1959 there was still a survey stake setting in a mound in Colgate Warm Spring, but it fell over in 1960. Apparently the hot water has preserving properties. There is a toppled cedar tree near the spring with a benchmark.

Just why the idea of a railroad on this location was abandoned no one seems to know. Cost may have been the deciding factor; but it was likely a change in railroad plans and policy. Governor Dixon of Montana, in a talk before the Missoula Chamber of Commerce in 1922, stated that had Jim Hill lived 90 days longer the railroad would have been built. Jim Hill was president of the Northern Pacific. Out of this survey the idea for a road through the Lochsa to Missoula originated.

In 1913 the Northern Pacific surveyed another railroad location. This time it was from near Superior, Montana up Fish Creek with a proposed tunnel under the crest of the Bitterroots and then down Kelly Creek and the North Fork of the Clearwater to Ahsahka. They hoped this would be cheaper and shorter than the Lochsa route. It would be closer to the timber holdings of the Weyerhaeusers who were talking of a railroad to their holdings. It turned out to be a great disappointment; it was both longer and costlier than the Lochsa route. A separate railroad was built to the Weyerhaeuser timber holdings around Headquarters in 1925.


Northern Pacific Railroad survey crew rafting down the Lochsa River in 1909. Shortly after the photo was taken the raft was upset and all the supplies were lost.