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Montana Union Railway

Index For This Page

By Don Strack

The page was last updated on July 26, 2014.

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The Montana Union Railway was a company jointly owned by Northern Pacific and Union Pacific. It was organized on June 28, 1886, and took over the operation (not ownership) of the former Utah & Northern line between Butte and Garrison, Montana on August 1, 1886. It was a joint company from 1886 until 1898, when the company was sold to Northern Pacific. Although Montana Union Railway became a Northern Pacific subsidiary, Union Pacific retained ownership of the former U&N trackage between Butte and Garrison, and the line was leased to NP for 999 years.

Today, Union Pacific still owns the former Montana Union trackage, and leases it to BNSF Railway.


The Utah & Northern Railway reached Silver Bow, Montana in October 1881. Construction continued to the west and north, reaching Garrison in late August 1883. Utah & Northern, a direct Union Pacific subsidiary, planned on building its own line east from Garrison to Helena, allowing U&N access to the Montana capital city to participate in the growing traffic from the many newly discovered gold and silver mines in the region. But other projects diverted the company's attention.

Northern Pacific Railway completed its transcontinental line between St. Paul, Minnesota and Wallula, Washington in early September 1883. The route crossed the continental divide by way of Mullan Pass. Its last spike ceremony was on September 8, 1883 at Goldcreek, Montana just 8.25 miles west of Garrison, originally known as Little Blackfoot. Garrison was named for Villard's wife, Helen Frances "Fanny" Garrison, the only daughter of William Lloyd Garrison, Sr., the nation's best known anti-slavery abolitionist. Villard resigned from the Northern Pacific in January 1884, following the collapse of his financial empire.

(Read the Wikipedia article about Henry Villard)

A year later, in late 1884, Union Pacific's Oregon Short Line subsidiary connected with Oregon Railway & Navigation at Huntington, Oregon, giving Union Pacific direct access to Portland. UP's president Charles Adams was in favor of cooperation and harmony, completely opposite of his predecessor Jay Gould who wanted to pursue raw competition at every opportunity. Gould had sold most of his interest in Union Pacific in 1881 and turned his attention to fight in other locations.

Gould's rival for rail traffic in the Pacific Northwest, Henry Villard, controlled both the Oregon Railway & Navigation and Northern Pacific. But by 1883 he had developed his own set of financial woes and sold his NP interests in December 1883. With Adams as UP president, and with both Villard and Gould out of the picture, UP and NP agreed to cooperate in moving the Butte mining traffic.

In July 1886 U&N converted its three-foot narrow gauge line between Butte and Garrison (51 miles) to standard gauge, and Montana Union Railway was organized as a joint company to operate the newly converted line in the joint interest of UP and NP. The two roads were also cooperating west from Wallula, Washington along the Columbia River to Portland. Utah & Northern never did get its line to Helena.

The Stuart Line - Stuart To Anaconda

A separate company known as the Montana Railway was organized on December 17, 1881 as a subsidiary of Jay Gould's Union Pacific Railway to serve as its vehicle to control the Montana mining traffic, and keep that same traffic out of the hands of Henry Villard's Northern Pacific. It's stated goal was to build a line between Butte and Helena. Instead, Utah & Northern itself built the line to Garrison as narrow gauge. The Union Pacific line east from Garrison to Helena was not completed.

Montana Railway was held by Union Pacific without trackage or equipment for a year, until late 1882, at which time it was activated to build a new rail line to the new Anaconda smelter and reduction works being built west of the U&N line between Butte and Garrison. The new railroad line, almost nine miles long, opened for business on October 1, 1884. The connection with Montana Union was at Stuart, 35 miles south of Garrison, and 16 miles west of Butte. (Anaconda, by Isaac Marcosson, pages 51-53; Union Pacific Railway and Auxiliary Companies, 1886, page 74; Google Books)

The smelter site was first known as Copperopolis, but was changed to Anaconda by its first postmaster. Construction on Anaconda's new smelter began in late 1882 and full production began in September 1884. The smelter and reduction works was built by Marcus Daly and his associates to process the ores from their mines in Butte, the largest of which was the Anaconda Mine. To further consolidate their interests, they organized the Anaconda Mining Company in January 1891. The Anaconda Reduction Works at the new town of Anaconda, Montana Territory, went into operation to reduce and concentrate the silver ore and copper ore being mined at the Anaconda claim in Butte. The copper ore was extremely rich at eight to ten percent copper. (Anaconda, by Isaac Marcosson, pages 52-53)

On February 15, 1887, as part of its annual report for the year ending November 30, 1886 to the Auditor of the Territory of Montana, Montana Railway gave its route as being nine miles in length, with no double track. The entire length was three-rail track, being both standard gauge and three-foot narrow gauge. The company reported that it owned no locomotives or rolling stock; "The equipment of Utah and Northern Ry. used on this road." The company also reported that it carried 21,152 passengers, no through freight, 221,930 tons of local freight and 202,772 tons of freight that consisted on ore, cattle or grain. "This road was operated by the Montana Union Ry. Co. subsequent to July 31, 1886." (Montana Railway "Railroad Report" to the Auditor of the Territory of Montana, dated February 15, 1887, photocopy furnished by Thorton Waite)

On June 30, 1897 the Montana Railway was sold to the Northern Pacific Railway, as part of the reorganization of Union Pacific in the 1893-1898 time period. The Stuart line was owned and operated by NP after 1897, as part of NP's operation of its lease of Montana Union, giving NP direct access to the mills and smelters in the vicinity of Anaconda. After the Butte, Anaconda & Pacific began operations in 1894, very little traffic to the smelter went by way of NP's Stuart line. Anaconda Copper built the Anaconda Street Railway for the benefit of its employees living in the town of Opportunity, seven miles to the east of Anaconda on NP's Stuart line. On May 1, 1898, Anaconda Copper's railroad subsidiary, Butte, Anaconda & Pacific, leased the entire Stuart line from Northern Pacific. Later, NP sold the line to BA&P.

The Anaconda smelter was shut down in 1981 and by 1983 only the smelter stack remained as the site's only structure. In 1983 the smelter site was placed on the federal Environmental Protection Agency's National Priorities List (also known as Superfund). Soil reclamation and cleanup of the smelter site was begun in 1992 and was completed by 1997. Surface runoff and ground water studies and mitigation have continued since 1997. The Butte, Anaconda & Pacific still serves loading sites in the reclamation area.

(Read more about the reclamation of the Anaconda smelter site at Montana State University at Bozeman)

(Read more about the reclamation of the Anaconda smelter site at EPA.gov)

Montana Union Railway Operations

The Montana Union Railway was organized on June 28, 1886 as a joint company of Northern Pacific and Union Pacific. The company leased from Utah & Northern Railway 44.64 miles between Silver Bow and Garrison, and the 13.09 miles between Silver Bow and Butte, along with 9.8 miles between Stuart and Anaconda from Montana Railway. (Union Pacific Railway and Auxiliary Companies, 1886, page 86; Google Books)

Montana Union Railway operations started between Butte and Garrison, Montana on August 1, 1886, when the Montana Union lease of the U&N between Butte and Garrison went into effect. The joint line consisted of the 51 miles of standard gauge trackage (newly converted from three-foot narrow gauge) between Butte and Silver Bow on the south end and between Silver Bow and Garrison on the north end. Silver Bow was where MURy connected with the still-narrow-gauge Utah & Northern, and Garrison was where a connection was made with Northern Pacific's transcontinental line. Utah & Northern converted its line between Silver Bow and Pocatello, Idaho from three-foot narrow gauge to standard gauge on July 24, 1887.

Montana Union Railway was jointly owned and operated by Union Pacific and Northern Pacific Railway, with each road taking its turn at operations in alternating years. Montana Union continued as a joint company for another 12 years until March 1898 when the assets of Montana Union were divided between UP and NP as part of Union Pacific's reorganization. Union Pacific took ownership of the tracks, but gave Northern Pacific a 999-year lease, with the lease fee being based on traffic being carried. As part of the settlement, in October 1898 three Montana Union 2-8-0s were transferred to Union Pacific ownership. A year earlier, OSL had purchased two Montana Union 0-6-0 switchers and moved them to Pocatello and Salt Lake City for service.

The following comes from the "Report on the Internal Commerce of the United States By United States Dept. of the Treasury, Bureau of Statistics, 1889":

On March 9, 1880 the Utah & Northern crossed the Idaho line into Montana and the first rail was laid on Montana soil. The Utah & Northern was completed to Garrison in Deer Lodge County and there connected with the Northern Pacific Railroad and over its main line ran its trains to Helena. From Ogden to Garrison is 453 miles and from Garrison to Helena 51 miles. Utah & Northern had two short branches in Montana, one from Silver Bow to Butte City a distance of seven miles and another branch from Stuart to the Anaconda Copper Smelting Works a distance of nine miles. The 44 miles of the road between Silver Bow and Garrison is called the Montana Union Railway and is operated jointly by the Union Pacific and the Northern Pacific companies for the convenience of local traffic for both roads between Helena, Garrison, Anaconda and Butte.

The Utah and Northern has been the most profitable branch of the Union Pacific system. Its freights have been enormous and very profitable. It brought all the salt required by the numerous silver mills roasters and smelters of Montana used in chloridizing silver ores. Also all the coal and coke of Wyoming used at Butte and Anaconda. The railroad company owned and monopolized the most of these supplies and charged for them and for freights all that the mill men and smelters could stand. The exports of crude ore, and of silver and copper matte for working and refining them in the East have amounted to hundreds of thousands of tons per annum. Although respectfully requested these roads have failed to give any information as to the amount or value of their business into or out from Montana for the year past.

The first annual report of the railways of the United States, dated January 1, 1889, showed that Union Pacific Railway owned 57.99 miles of tracks that were operated by Montana Union Railway. (First Annual Report of the Statistics of Railways in the United States to the Interstate Commerce Commission for the Year Ending June 30, 1888; Google Books)

(Additional reading: Maury Klein presents an excellent summary of Montana Union difficulties between Union Pacific, Northern Pacific, the Butte mines, and the Anaconda smelter in Union Pacific, The Birth Of A Railroad, 1862-1893, pages 555-559)


March 9, 1880
Utah & Northern rails reached the Montana territorial line. ("Utah & Northern, the Narrow Gauge That Opened a Frontier" by Mallory Hope Ferrell, in Colorado Rail Annual No. 15, Golden, Colorado, 1981, page 45)

October 1880
Utah & Northern reached Dillion, Montana. Construction ceased until Spring 1881. ("Utah & Northern, the Narrow Gauge That Opened a Frontier" by Mallory Hope Ferrell, in Colorado Rail Annual No. 15, Golden, Colorado, 1981, page 45)

October 1881
Utah & Northern reached Silver Bow, Montana. ("Utah & Northern, the Narrow Gauge That Opened a Frontier" by Mallory Hope Ferrell, in Colorado Rail Annual No. 15, Golden, Colorado, 1981, page 45)

December 26, 1881
Utah & Northern reached Butte, Montana, seven miles east of Silver Bow. ("Utah & Northern, the Narrow Gauge That Opened a Frontier" by Mallory Hope Ferrell, in Colorado Rail Annual No. 15, Golden, Colorado, 1981, page 47)

October 3, 1882
Utah & Northern reached Deer Lodge, Montana, 33 miles west and north of Silver Bow, and 40 miles from Butte. (The New North West, Deer Lodge, 6 October 1882)

Late August 1883
U&N connected with NP at Little Blackfoot (later Garrison) in late August 1883. (Salt Lake Daily Herald, 2 September 1883, "last week")

September 8, 1883
Northern Pacific completed its transcontinental line between St. Paul, Minnesota and Wallula, Washington, driving its last spike at Goldcreek, Montana just 8.25 miles west of Garrison.

Mid April 1886
"The Utah & Northern will lay a steel rail between Anaconda and Stuart, a distance of nine miles, as soon as the rails arrive, which have been ordered." (Butte Daily Miner, April 15, 1886)

Mid May 1886
Steel for the third rail between Stuart and Silver Bow was being distributed, and standard gauge ties were being put in between the two points, every other tie being replaced with a new one. 120 men were put to work on Wednesday the 12th, and 50 more men were wanted. (Butte Daily Miner, May 14, 1886)

Mid June 1886
"The Third Rail" had been completed between Stuart and Silver Bow, and was expected to be completed to Butte in a few days. (Butte Daily Miner, June 11, 1886) Stuart was 26 miles from Silver Bow, and 33 miles from Butte.

June 14, 1886
Montana Union Railway was incorporated. "The company was incorporated June 14, 1886 and leased the property above described in its present shape on the first day of August 1886." (Montana Union Railway "Railroad Report" to the Auditor of the Territory of Montana, dated December 29, 1886, photocopy furnished by Thorton Waite)

July 23-24, 1886
The change of gauge of the 36 miles of railroad between Stuart and Garrison was completed on Friday July 24, 1886. Work to complete the change of gauge began as soon as the last narrow-gauge train left Butte for Garrison after 8:30 o'clock on the morning of July 22nd. The first broad-gauge train, a scheduled passenger train, left Garrison at 7 p.m. on Friday the 24th, arriving in Butte about midnight. Freight began moving between Stuart and Garrison on the morning of Saturday July 25th. There was no interruption of freight service between Butte and Stuart, and on to Anaconda because that line had previously been converted to three-rail, dual gauge in mid June. (part from Butte Daily Miner, July 21, 1886)

The first standard gauge train south from Garrison, a Northern Pacific train pulled by locomotive 313, arrived at Deer Lodge at 9:15 p.m. on July 22, 1886. The newspaper account referred to it as the first Montana Union train. (Butte Daily Miner, July 23, 1886)

"At 4:30 o'clock yesterday afternoon (July 23, 1886) the work of widening the track between Deer Lodge and Stuart was completed and at 7:10 o'clock last evening (July 23, 1886) the first broad-gauge arrived in Butte. This train left Garrison at 4:30 p.m., in charge of Conductor West. It consisted of Northern Pacific locomotive No. 350, a first class passenger car, a second-class passenger car and an express car. The engine was manned by Northern Pacific employees, but the remainder of the train was in charge of Utah & Northern men. Commencing this morning, standard-gauge trains will run regularly between Butte and Garrison, but the traffic between Butte and Anaconda will continue on the narrow-gauge track until further notice." (Butte Daily Miner, July 24, 1886)

"The Utah & Northern narrow gauge between Garrison and Butte has been changed to ordinary broad gauge. It was concluded in sections and altogether but one train was laid off. The first broad gauge train arrived in Butte on the 23rd. Traffic between Butte and Anaconda will be on the narrow gauge for the present." (Salt Lake Daily Tribune, July 27, 1886)

"The first broad gauge train ever in Butte pulled in at 7:15 Friday evening (July 23, 1886), and pulled out again at 8:50 [the next] morning. The train was drawn by locomotive No. 350, George Neffs, engineer. The train consisted of three coaches and one baggage car, and was run by Conductor West and crew." (Salt Lake Daily Herald, July 28, 1886)

August 1, 1886
Montana Union Railway leased 51.3 miles of main track constructed by Utah & Northern Railway and Montana Railway, along with 8.3 miles of single-track branch and 11.9 miles of sidings and other tracks. "The company was incorporated June 14, 1886 and leased the property above described in its present shape on the first day of August 1886." "Rolling stock is all borrowed and belongs to Union Pacific and Northern Pacific companies." During the year ending November 30, 1886, Montana Union Railway carried 21,735 passengers, along with 48,254 tons of through freight, 25,079 tons of local freight, and 21,110 tons of freight consisting of ore, cattle, or grain. (Montana Union Railway "Railroad Report" to the Auditor of the Territory of Montana, dated December 29, 1886, photocopy furnished by Thorton Waite)

A notice to the effect that Utah & Northern employees between Butte and Garrison will, on and after 1 August 1886, be working for the Montana Union Railway Company. Also, "In a few days there will be erected at Silver Bow Junction an apparatus for the transfer of cars from narrow to standard gauge trucks, and vice-versa." (Butte Daily Miner, July 27, 1886)

Other Railroads

Milwaukee Road completed its transcontinental line between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest with a last spike ceremony at Garrison, Montana on May 19, 1909. Milwaukee Road ended its operations in Montana in December 1979, with the last eastbound train leaving Tacoma in March 1980. The last Milwaukee Road train left Tarkio, Montana, just west of Missoula, on March 18, 1980. The remaining Milwaukee Road trackage in the vicinity of Butte was abandoned and removed. (Guide to The Milwaukee Road in Montana, by Steve McCarter, Montana Historical Society Press, 1992, ISBN 0-917298-27-6)

Great Northern (as the Montana Central Railway) completed its line (65.5 miles) between Great Falls and Butte in 1889, allowing Marcus Daly's Anaconda Copper Company to ship its copper ores to either the Anaconda smelter, or to the Black Eagle smelter near Great Falls. (Anaconda, by Isaac Marcosson, page 53)

The Great Northern line from Great Falls to Butte was abandoned and removed in 1972, following the March 1970 merger of Great Northern and Northern Pacific. After the merger, BN no longer needed access to Butte via the former GN line because of NP's line into Butte from the east by way of Homestake Pass, and the Montana Union (owned by UP and leased to NP) west from Butte to Garrison.

In 1894, Butte Anaconda & Pacific Railway began operations between the Butte mines and the smelters at Anaconda. Butte, Anaconda & Pacific was controlled by the Anaconda Copper Company, its majority shipper. Butte Anaconda & Pacific Railway was organized in September 1892, and began operations on January 1, 1894. (Anaconda, by Isaac Marcosson, page 53)

The BA&P was electrified in May 1913, with electric operations continuing until 1967 when diesel locomotives took over from the unique boxcab electric locomotives. (For an excellent history of BA&P, see "Wired For Success" by Charles V. Mutschler, Washington State University, 2002)

The original Butte Anaconda & Pacific Railroad property was transferred by the former Anaconda interests to the State of Montana in 1985. A group of local investors organized the Rarus Railway and leased the former BA&P from the State of Montana for operation on May 1, 1985.

(Rarus Railway was named for the well-known Rarus Mine in the Butte mining district.)

According to information on file with the Railroad Retirement Board, a company by the name of BGM Equipment Company was formed on December 23, 1986, and leased equipment, locomotives, truck, track equipment, and land to its affiliated carriers, Montana Western Railway, and Rarus Railway. BGM Equipment was formally merged with Rarus Railway on October 1, 2007.

Rarus Railway purchased the former BA&P from the State of Montana.

May 1, 2007
Rarus Railway was sold to Patriot Rail. (Patriot Rail press release dated May 1, 2007)

July 19, 2007
Patriot Rail renamed Rarus Railway back to its historic Butte Anaconda & Pacific name. (Patriot Rail press release dated July 19, 2007, "today")

(Read more about Patriot Rail's Butte Anaconda & Pacific; official web site)

Montana Union Today

The Montana Union trackage between the towns of Butte, Silver Bow, Stuart, Deer Lodge and Garrison, while still owned by UP, was leased in 1898 to Northern Pacific Railway for a period of 999 years. The lease passed to Burlington Northern Railroad on March 1, 1970, and to Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway on December 31, 1996 (name changed to BNSF Railway on January 24, 2005).

At Butte, Montana Union Railway (leased to Northern Pacific) connected with Northern Pacific's line over Homestake Pass to the east. Started in June 1888 and completed in January 1889, Northern Pacific built its Homestake Pass line between Butte and Logan, Montana to the east to connect back to its Helena main line. This line, from Logan to Butte by way of Homestake Pass, and from Butte to Garrison by way of the Montana Union, was used by local freights and passenger trains such as NP's premier North Coast Limited, and Amtrak's North Coast Hiawatha until it was discontinued in 1979. The majority of NP freight went over the easier route through Helena. The line over Homestake Pass is paralleled by today's I-90.

Northern Pacific was part of the BN merger in 1970. In 1983, BN shut down the Homestake Pass line and embargoed the 26 miles of the former NP line between Whitehall and Butte. After 1983, BN's only access to Butte was by way of its leased Montana Union line from Garrison.

In October 1987, BN leased the former Northern Pacific main line through Helena between Huntley, Montana and Sandpoint, Idaho (587 miles) to Montana Rail Link on a long term lease. MRL also took over the operation of a portion of the former NP Homestake Pass line between Logan and Whitehall (38 miles), with BN retaining the portion between Whitehall and Butte (26 miles), keeping the embargo of the Homestake Pass line in place. Montana Rail Link continues to operate the Logan to Whitehall line.

Union Pacific's Montana Division ends in the north at Silver Bow Junction. UP trains interchange at Silver Bow with BNSF and with Patriot Rails' Butte, Anaconda & Pacific. Union Pacific does not operate east to Butte (7 miles), or west and north to Garrison (44 miles).

In September 1986, BN sold the lease operation of UP-owned former Montana Union to a new company called Montana Western Railway, organized for the purpose. The 999-year lease from UP to NP (BN) remained in place.

The Montana Western Railway was organized in 1986 by the same group of investors who had organized the Rarus Railway the previous year, 1985, to lease and operate the former Butte, Anaconda & Pacific from the state of Montana.

On July 23, 2003, BNSF, as the successor to BN, bought back Montana Western's rights and interest in the lease, and today the old Montana Union is operated by BNSF as their Copper City Subdivision. Rumors are that BNSF retains its operation of this isolated segment to keep UP away from a direct connection with Montana Rail Link at Garrison. After BNSF took the line back, the Montana Western locomotives were sold to Rarus Railway, which became Patriot Rails' Butte Anaconda & Pacific in 2007.

(Read the STB decision dated June 23, 2003)

(View a map showing BNSF's isolated Copper City Sub)

(Montana Western Railway locomotive roster)

(All of this summary of current operations, i.e. owned by UP, leased to BNSF, lease retained by BNSF to prevent MRL from connecting with UP, was confirmed during a brief conversation in late July 2014 with Bill Wimmer, retired UP Vice President-Engineering.)


Montana Union Railway -- A Google Map of the Montana Union Railway, owned by UP and leased to BNSF.


Montana Union Locomotives -- A roster listing of the locomotives used by Montana Union Railway.

More Information

Maury Klein presents an excellent summary of Montana Union difficulties between Union Pacific, Northern Pacific, the Butte mines, and the Anaconda smelter in Union Pacific, The Birth Of A Railroad, 1862-1893, pages 555-559)

For an excellent history of BA&P, see Wired For Success by Charles V. Mutschler, Washington State University, 2002