Lost along the rails: Small communities, now gone, once dotted the state's train lines
Lost along the rails: Small communities, now gone, once dotted the state's train lines

Nothing much happened in Bonita last week, except the Schwann's man came by.

A couple of horses ambled loose down a riverside lane. The roan nibbled at the back door of a slow-moving car.

Oh, and there was the fire that charred the mountain across Interstate 90.

As a town, Bonita is pretty much a memory. A scattering of homes and ranches stretch along the gravel road to the west of Beavertail Hill, 24 miles east of Missoula. The road ends in someone's driveway near the Clark Fork River. The river itself putts along in anticipation of becoming pacific.

The school, the depot, the store, the saloons have all disappeared - ghosts from a time in the late 1800s and early 1900s when lumber and railroads propped up Bonita.

"The man who deals out names to the various stations on the Northern Pacific is playing havoc with time-honored localities," lamented the Weekly Missoulian on Aug. 31, 1883. "Cramer's on Beavertail Hill has a station called Bonita."

It would be hard to understate the impact trains had on western Montana for the succeeding seven decades. A glance of a Polk's Missoula County Directory from, say, 1934 hints why.

In those days of the Great Depression, before four-lane freeways and 18-wheelers, people could and frequently did dodge the bull in the Missoula rail yard, hop a boxcar, and within minutes skim past such deliciously named sidings as Nagos and Schley, Gaspard and Soudan, McQuarrie and Iris and Thelma.

Some were on the NP line, others along the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific that came to be called the Milwaukee. Most have followed Bonita into pages of history blown closed by speeding automobiles.

The two rail lines ran virtually side by side through western Montana. Sometimes they were on opposing sides of the river, as in downtown Missoula; sometimes a mere handful of yards apart on the same bank.

Railroad sidings were essential, for freights to let the passenger trains by, for storing cars and engines, for taking on loads and riders.

"You had to have them every six or seven miles or so," said Ralph Christ of Alberton, a retired telegraph operator for the Milwaukee. "It's not double track, it's single track, and they've got to meet these trains. The train dispatcher has to keep track of things, and they keep changing the orders all the time."

"In the earlier days they had operators everywhere, virtually," added Christ. "But that's all gone now."

Montana Rail Link travel is dispatched out of Missoula. Burlington Northern-Santa Fe trains are directed by satellite from Texas.

Identifiable sidings were important in the complex choreography of freight and passenger rail travel.

"The names were spelled out in train orders, where the meeting points were," Christ explained. "Of course, in a lot of places there was hardly anybody living there, maybe a section crew and in some cases the agent or telegraph operator."

Not even old timers remember Inch. "A station on the NPRy, 1 1/2 miles south of Missoula …" informs the '34 Polk directory.

Later, on a page of P's, is Post, the station at Fort Missoula on the NP's Bitterroot line. It was four miles south of Missoula.

Inch, then, was a station somewhere between 14th and South Avenue in Missoula, perhaps in the neighborhood of the Forest Service compound on Catlin. The compound was the city's electric streetcar barn until 1932.

Three Englishmen, one named John Inch, developed suburban orchard tracts south of Missoula in the 1890s. They gave surrounding streets such names as Queen and Thames and Sussex.

Up the track from Bonita, past the haunted-looking Milwaukee substation at Ravenna, was Nimrod.

Google "Nimrod, Montana" and one of your first hits is a photo of East Nimrod.

"I wish there was a town or just a Post Office here so I could move there and say, 'I'm from Nimrod, Montana,' " wrote Paul Birkholz of Mountain West Rail alongside the picture.

In fact, Nimrod, a former NP and Milwaukee station, did have a post office until 1952, not to mention a swimming resort along the lines of Lolo Hot Springs. The latter was just east of a popular highway-side swimming hole today. It was abandoned by the time I-90 came through in the 1960s, taking out all vestiges of town.

As goofy as the name sounds, Nimrod was a Biblical figure with reputation as a great hunter. Supposedly, the name came to denote an outdoorsman with a fishing bent. The Northern Pacific thought it would attract tourists and so scrapped its original handle for the station, Carlan.

The railroads honored their own with station names (Lothrop, Turah, Alberton). An apple-growing family named McClain sold right-of-way to the Northern Pacific four miles south of Lolo. They got a siding from which to ship their produce. It was called McClain.

To the dismay of the Weekly Missoulian, Bonita was dubbed Bonita because that was the opinion Mexican section hands in the 1880s held of the area. Bonita, in Spanish, means "pretty" or "beautiful."

The Milwaukee line is gone, closed by bankruptcy and sold off to private interests in the past 30 years. Trains still run along Northern Pacific tracks that, after mergers and sales, belong to Montana Rail Link.

Every day they go rolling down the line, past Martina and Plateau; Lusk and Rivulet; Nagos, Primrose, Neal and Willis, without so much as a toot.

Photo No. 77-104, K. Ross Toole Archives/Mansfield Library, University of Montana
The Northern Pacific station and Western Union telegraph office were life bloods of Bonita in eastern Missoula County around the turn of the 20th century. Today little remains of a town that once included a school, two stores and two saloons, the train station, section house and ice house, and a post office that closed in 1942.
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