AN ELECTRIC HISTORY: ALONG THE OLD MILWAUKEE ROAD As you drive US 12 between Roundup and Harlowton, look carefully and you’ll eventually identify an abandoned grade along the Musselshell River that represents a railroad history unlike any other in Montana. The Chicago, St. Paul, Milwaukee & Pacific Railroad better known as the Milwaukee Road operated trains along this stretch from the late 1800s until the mid-1970s. In the 212 miles between Harlowton and Avery, Idaho, the tracks were electrified beginning in 1914.
HARLOWTON IS THE HUB OF THE MILWAUKEE ROAD HISTORIC DISTRICT AND HOME OF E57B, ONE OF THE LAST TWO ELECTRIC LOCOMOTIVES TO OPERATE ON THE LINE
This history is on display in several parts of Montana, including Harlowton, which is part of the Milwaukee Road Historic District. Prominent downtown in this little agricultural community on the Musselshell is E57B, one of the last two electric locomotives to operate along the line. E57B hauled freight and passengers west through White Sulphur Springs and Ringling and then through mostly roadless Sixteen Mile Creek Canyon to Lombard, on the Missouri River near Townsend. Also worth visiting in Harlowton is the old train depot, which has walls and walls of fascinating Milwaukee Road memorabilia.
Equally enticing for railroad buffs are the active lines coming out of Lewistown, one of which hosts the Charlie Russell Chew Choo dinner train. The 157-mile line from Lewistown to Lombard was called the Jawbone, not because of its rugged features but because of the Montana Railroad’s consistently precarious financial status. The line going northwest out of Lewistown has two extraordinary trestles, over Big Spring Creek and the Judith River.
Best Places to Bunk
Lewistown: If a slice of a community’s history has meaning, you’ll want to choose The Historic Calvert Hotel ($$/$$$, 406-535-5411). Though the two-story brick building doesn’t necessarily meet the eyeball test for historic, in part because new owners spent two years rehabilitating the decaying structure less than a decade ago, The Calvert actually was built in 1912 as a girls’ dormitory. The 28 rooms, including some larger king suites with fireplaces, are tastefully decorated. Lewistown has numerous other lodging options, but standing out among the mom-and-pop motor-court variety is the economical Sunset Motel ($, 406-535-8471). It’s a case of appearances deceiving though it looks ordinary from the outside, the 16 rooms (four with kitchenettes) are updated, spacious, and comfortable.
Grass range: The Elk Creek Lodge ($$, 406-428-2160) is isolated in more ways than one it has no website but the five-room facility offers a nice snapshot of central Montana’s rolling countryside. The lodge, which features a common area and has Wi-Fi, is perched on a sagebrush hill overlooking the tiny community.
Roundup: If you’re looking for a clean, hospitable, and affordable place to lay your head, the Big Sky Motel ($, 406-323-2303) on the main drag is as basic as they come but won’t disappoint. harlowton: Of the two motels in town, the standout is the Country Side Inn ($/$$, 406-632-4119), a cute and clean little motor-court style structure with an older log section and a newer wing with private rooms and log accents.
Alternative Places to Bunk
Lewistown: For a marvelous country experience with some privacy, three Cottonwood Log Cabins ($$, 406-538-8411) are 10 miles outside of town and have eye-pleasing views and access to some excellent hiking where you might stumble upon some gray quartz. All three log cabins have the basics, and one has satellite TV if you absolutely need a fix. All three sleep up to six and there’s a shared hot tub forest service cabins/lookouts: The Crystal Lake Cabin ($25/sleeps four) is about 20 miles south of Lewistown in the pretty Big Snowy Mountains. Don’t expect privacy the cabin is next to the Crystal Lake Campground but you’ve got a roof over your head, you’re close to decent fishing on Crystal Lake, and there are several worthy hiking trails in the area. The Big Snowy and Castle Mountains also have several campgrounds. (Reservations: 877-444-6777/www.recreation.gov.)
Lewistown: The town has the plethora of options you’d expect from a regional agricultural hub. Lewistown lost some fine dining when the Onyx Bar & Grill in The Historic Calvert Hotel closed, but luckily they still have Pourman’s Southwestern Cafe ($/$$, 406-535-4277, B/L) and its spicy breakfasts, Harry’s Place ($/$$, 406-538-9520, B/L/D) with its sandwiches and seafood bisque, and the Mint Bar & Grill ($$, 406-535-9525, D, Tues-Sat.) for steak and potatoes. As of October 2015, the Mint’s grill was closed due to an accident suffered by the owner/chef, but they were still serving on the bar side. Every little town has a popular burger joint, and in Lewistown it’s Ruby’s 100
Percent Montana Burgers ($, 406-535-7450, L/D). Yes, it’s a bit spendy by fast-food standards, but Montana-sourced beef comes at a price and, besides, it’s one of those iconic places where the burgers, fries, and chocolate shakes are too good to pass up.
Roundup: You’ll get a good flavor for the locals and for outstanding homemade pie try the strawberry rhubarb at the Busy Bee Family Dining & Gift Shop ($/$$, 406-323-2204, B/L/D), the favored stop for coal miners and ranchers alike for its friendly vibe and man-sized portions. The cafe has a little more spark since a remodel after the town’s devastating 2014 flood. The place to go for a thick steak, burger, and peanuts is the Grand Bar and Grill ($/$$, 406-323-3104, L/D), which stays open until 2 am.
Ryegate: The Ryegate Bar & Cafe ($/$$, 406-568-2330, B/L/D) is another one of those friendly places that beckons because it provides a flavor of the town’s surroundings. Farmers and ranchers gather here to talk weather, grain prices, and local politics. The food is what you’d expect: burgers, fries, steak, chicken strips, etc., but all made with pride.
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