It's the end of an era in Western Montana, as portions of the old Bitterroot Line are beginning to vanish into history.

But why is Montana Rail Link tearing up the line's railroad crossings, which have been a part of life in the area for well over a century?

It is actually an expected part of the transition, as MRL gets out of the railroad business.

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Part of the sale to BNSF

When MRL and Burlington Northern Santa Fe reached an agreement last year for BNSF to take over the freight business that MRL has handled since the 1980s, it marked the final end for some of the branch lines across Montana.

That included the Bitterroot Branch Line, which was originally constructed from Missoula to Hamilton by Northern Pacific in 1887, and later went all the way to serve the timber mills in Darby. The line from Hamilton to Darby hasn't been used since the 1990s.

Dennis Bragg photo
Dennis Bragg photo

Ravalli County government and business launched an effort to keep the line active in Hamilton about 10 years ago, with an agreement with MRL to maintain service contracts with local businesses. That momentum didn't continue. MRL used the line a few years ago to store extra freight cars between Missoula and Florence, but for the most part, the line has been dormant.

Crossings coming out

Last year, MRL had said it would keep the Bitterroot right-of-way. However, there was no anticipation of any future rail service.

Last month, crews from MRL and the Montana Department of Transportation removed three major crossings between Florence and Hamilton.

Now, MDT, the railroad, and the City of Missoula will be tearing up the crossings on West Broadway, between May and Scott Streets, near Yoke's Fresh Market, and on South Russell between Lawrence and Ronan Streets by Boyce Lumber.

If weather permits, the West Broadway crossing will be removed over two days, starting Sunday, September 17th. Then, crews will move to Russell, working between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. That means both streets will see closures and detours while the rails are removed and new asphalt is laid.

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