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Montana author details historic Carbon County railroad

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Posted at 9:34 PM, Feb 09, 2024

It’s been a long time since trains rolled through Belfry, but if you look closely you can still see some of the vestiges of a time gone.

The old train station in Belfry is one of those relics. The station is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The Yellowstone Park Railroad came through here in 1906 and this station was built in about June of that year,” says Bob Schalla.

Schalla, a retired geologist who splits his time between Billings and Red Lodge, has written a new book called “Black Diamonds from the Treasure State. The Incredible Saga of the Montana, Wyoming & Southern, and Yellowstone Park Railroads” that delves into the efforts to bring rail transport to what was known as the New World Mining District in Carbon County.

“As long as I can remember, railroads have been a fascination for me,” Schalla says.

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He said he got the idea for a book after seeing an old picture in the Bearcreek Saloon of rail cars outside the Smith Mine while attending the pig races in Bearcreek.

“It’s just my interest in railroads and Montana history and my background as a geologist that made me sort of interested in the coal mining operations here. It all just sort of fit together. Once I started digging into the story, I came across so many interesting personalities that were involved,” he said.

One of those personalities that the book spends a lot of time on was a young entrepreneur from named Frank Hall, who came to Montana with big dreams of building a railroad.

“Frank Hall’s goal was to get the line built all the way to Yellowstone. He had big plans for Belfry. He was hoping to haul ore from Cooke City down here. He was envisioning a huge smelting operation. This was going to be another Anaconda if Frank Hall had had his way,” says Schalla.

Hall’s plans to take the line to Yellowstone were stymied by the Northern Pacific, but he did manage to get a spur line built to Bearcreek, which became a flourishing area thanks to coal that was in high demand.

“There was a lot of coal moved out of the Bearcreek area. At one point there were seven major mining operations up in the Beartooth Valley,” Schalla says.

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The railroad would last for nearly a half-century before finally shutting down in 1953 as demand for coal dwindled and the mines closed. The tracks were pulled up two years later, but you can still see the bed where they ran in many places in Carbon County.

It’s just one of the stories that Schalla has researched in this book that looks back at this important but long-forgotten chapter in Montana’s railroad history.

Schalla’s book was published this month by Indiana University Press. For more information, click here. It can also be ordered at any bookstore.