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Trainscapes: BNSF Railway SD70MACs In Montana

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The Copper City Subdivision of BNSF Railway was built between 1881 and 1883 as a narrow-gauge line by the Utah & Northern Railroad, a subsidiary of Jay Gould’s Union Pacific Railway. Aware of Butte’s rich copper deposits, Gould’s company was the first railroad to lay track in Montana, running north from Ogden, Utah through Idaho where it eventually connected with the Northern Pacific’s Transcon at Garrison, a total of 453 miles. At Silver Bow, just over 50 miles southeast of Garrison, the U&N was able to tap into the copper industry by interchanging with the mining railroads out of Butte.

Wanting to access Butte’s rich copper mines directly, Northern Pacific approached UP about forming a joint venture to operate the U&N line from Garrison to Silver Bow. Union Pacific accepted the proposal and in 1886, the Montana Union Railway was created to operate the line. Wanting to have an upper hand, Union Pacific retained ownership of the physical right of way.

Northern Pacific wanted their own line into Butte but would struggle to find a suitable pass over the Continental Divide. In 1888, civil engineer Edwin Harrison McHenry discovered Homestake Pass over the divide and construction began soon thereafter between Logan and Butte. The pass was completed one year later, giving NP direct access to America’s “Copper City” without UP’s control.

Following the Panic of 1893, both Union Pacific Railway and Northern Pacific Railroad experienced financial turmoil that led to eventual bankruptcies. As a result, James Hill, known as “The Empire Builder” of the Great Northern Railroad, was able to control a majority interest in Northern Pacific by the turn of the century. UP’s bankruptcy in 1897 prompted the company to restructure and consolidate and as a result, they sold their ownership in the Montana Union Railway to NP in 1898. Although the Montana Union became an NP subsidiary, UP continued to retain ownership of the physical right-of-way and leased the line to NP for 999 years. The lease is set to expire in March of 2897.

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