LIVINGSTON – Trains don’t rattle and toot through downtown Livingston like they used to.
That doesn't prevent the Murray Hotel from providing its guests a special amenity: Earplugs.
A packaged pair at the head of each bed is labeled for use “if by chance you don’t find train whistles romantic during the night.”
For much of its history, Livingston thrived and set its pocketwatches to those whistles.
The Northern Pacific built the town in 1882, named it after railroad director Crawford Livingston of St. Paul, and quickly opened a branch line to a 10-year-old Yellowstone National Park.
When Theodore Roosevelt became the first president to visit Montana while in office in April 1903, he “signed off” from the back of a special excursion car at the Livingston station.
“For the last 18 months I have taken everything as it came, from coal strikes to trolley cars, and I feel I am entitled to a fortnight to myself,” Roosevelt said before disappearing into the park.
Roosevelt wasn’t exactly alone, but he spent the next two weeks skiing and hiking in the park and studying the wildlife with naturalist John Burroughs. On his way out, he dedicated the stone arch at the park’s entrance at Gardiner.
By then, Livingston was far more than just the gateway to Yellowstone. The NP, the nation’s second transcontinental railroad, had made it the largest division point between Brainerd, Minnesota, and the West Coast and had built the largest machine shop there to boot.
“It is filled,” reported the Livingston Enterprise on Jan. 1, 1900, “with machinery of the latest pattern and design for making and fitting parts necessary to repair disabled engines. … Its present equipment enables it to completely rebuild seven locomotives each month.”
Flash forward to 1975.
Mark Sigler and Ken Brenna, newly graduated from Park County High School across town, were among some 500 employees the railroad – by now Burlington Northern – added just to the Livingston shop.
“BN was in the middle of a big hiring spree,” Sigler recalled. “They’d landed a big coal contract with, I believe, Japan.”
Brenna estimated two-thirds of his classmates went to work for the railroad.
“It was kind of what you did back then,” he said.
They began as laborers but were quickly "set up" with short machinist apprenticeships.
"They needed machinists because they had so many locomotives that BN bought anticipating an increase in traffic in coal," said Sigler. "It was kind of interesting. We didn't know a power assembly from a wheel. Well, we knew it, but we'd never worked on it."
The boom lasted just a few years before the inevitable layoffs and furloughs began.
Brenna and Sigler, high school pals who work at the same shop today for Montana Rail Link, lasted with BN until 1982. Sigler was hired back for a lower-paying train job in 1985. Brenna didn’t return to railroading until after BN suddenly pulled out of town in 1986 and MRL went looking for seasoned machinists when it leased the line the following year.
But the two men, both 59 and each with more than 30 years apiece in the Livingston yard, remember well how these shops hummed in the heyday of the mid- to late 1970s.
More than 1,000 workers showed up at the cavernous brick machine shop and roundhouse each day.
“It was quite the place, one of the busiest and biggest shops in the BN line," Sigler said. "There were so many skilled people there it was incredible.”
“They could build locomotives from the ground up,” said Brenna. “There was no sending them someplace else to get built. There would be a bare frame, and a month later a complete locomotive was running down the line. It was an amazing process, and they did it year after year.”
They don’t build locomotives here these days. Livingston is one of four shops – along with Laurel, Helena and Missoula – on Montana Rail Link’s 900-plus miles of track that stretch from east of Billings to Sandpoint, Idaho. This is where MRL’s 81 “Big Blues” come to be serviced, repaired, tested, stored and spiffed up.
On a recent tour of the shop. the pungent fumes of new paint permeated the “new roundhouse,” the moniker for the 28,000-square foot rectangular building built in 1956.
“Washington Co. and Dennis Washington keep a pretty good eye on that stuff,” mechanical foreman Kyle Ginnaty said. “He likes things clean and neat, so we try and do a pretty good job of keeping them that way.”
At any time during a single shift that runs weekdays from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., there are 30 machinists and electricians on the floor of the roundhouse and a backshop that stretches the length of more than 2 1/2 football fields, with a roof over the back half that stands 70 feet high.
Bill Edwards, the other foreman of machinists, counted another 30 or so workers based in Livingston. They’re section hands on the local B&B (buildings and bridges) crew. A half-dozen or more are in the “helper pool” that hooks up and disconnects the locomotives that push loads up Bozeman Hill, a service the Livingston yard has provided since Day One in 1882. There’s a trainmaster and another small crew for the local that runs to Logan on the other side of Bozeman.
Robert A. White started working for the Northern Pacific at the Livingston shops at age 14. He retired in 1965 after 44 years.
"You know, my dad said the railroad was never going to leave Livingston. He just knew that. So it was a little shocking in ’86 when they said, ‘Tootles, we’re leaving,’ ” Debbie Juhnke said.
Juhnke grew up in that railroad family, graduated from Park High in 1967 and, unlike many of her friends, stayed here.
There’s still uncertainty surrounding the reasons Burlington Northern closed its Livingston shop 30 years ago last month. Some claim the union was getting too strong.
“That’s one of the big issues,” Brenna agreed. “Those things kind of run in a pendulum, and at that time unions were big parts of railroads and Montana Power and big organizations like that. That’s kind of gone away now.”
Livingston lost 300 jobs overnight, the kind of good-paying jobs with benefits that a lot of workers couldn’t afford or didn’t want to give up. BN offered other jobs, but they’d have to relocate to Glendive, Laurel, Havre, Whitefish – or farther.
“They sent you to Burlington, Iowa. They sent you to someplace to Georgia and, I think, Springfield, Massachusetts,” Juhnke said. “A lot of families left here because they had to keep their seniority.”
On the outside of her Main Street insurance office and the adjacent Juhnke’s Montana Junk, Juhnke has mounted a framed photo of her father.
“In honor of my Dad Robert A. White, and all the people who worked the Northern Pacific Railway between 1898-1970, we dedicate this space to acknowledge those who made this town possible,” it reads.
It’s flanked by panels with dozens and dozens of names of NP railroaders, and folks keep coming up with others.
“We’re going to be making more panels to put up there,” Juhnke said. “People come in and thank me, because that’s how they lived too.”
From its earliest days, the Northern Pacific had a tumultuous financial history, and in 1970 the railroad merged with other lines to become Burlington Northern, now Texas-based Burlington Northern Santa Fe.
BN’s pullout in ‘86 rocked Livingston for a time.
“You know, it was scary at first because everybody thought it was going to be way down,” Juhnke said. “Our town just kind of rolled for a couple of years and then it was like, I don’t know, tourism has kind of brought it back.”
Sigler’s last job with BN before he was "permanently" furloughed in 1982 was as a train man in Missoula. There he “dailied” a local to Butte and back and helped tear down the Missoula roundhouse.
He returned, at lower pay, as a brake man on trains in 1985. That was his job after the transition from BN to MRL in 1987.
“I don’t think we had 20 people that were actually train people to start off,” said Sigler, who these days is regional director of Operation Lifesaver, which is dedicated to teaching people of all ages about the dangers of being around trains.
He said he was on one of the first trains out of Livingston when the line changed hands from BN to MRL at midnight on Halloween, 1987. That same night or early morning, saboteurs struck the Livingston yards, sending three unmanned locomotives hurtling up Bozeman Hill at nearly 100 mph before they derailed, causing millions of dollars in damage.
In 1989, MRL reopened the roundhouse and mechanical shop in Livingston, and Sigler said he “wanted to go back to the toolbox.”
He’s been there ever since, working with Brenna and a few other “old timers” from the glory days.
“When I got laid off at BN I didn’t think I’d ever be railroading again,” said Brenna, who worked for more than six years at the local lumber mill before hiring on with MRL as a machinist in 1987. “I thought hard and heavy about going back to the railroad industry. At that time it was just a job, eight hours a day to pay the bills.”
All these years, Brenna looks at it differently.
“This place has taken pretty good care of me," he said. "It’s paid the medical bills, paid for my last child. It’s been a good company.”
"I’m not saying Burlington Northern wasn’t, but it wasn’t nearly as personable. MRL is a lot smaller operation, and you get to know everybody. BN was just a large mass of people.”
For sure, the industry that built Livingston and many other towns in Montana isn’t what it once was.
“I wouldn’t call this a railroad town any more,” said Brenna. “I think that’s pretty much gone.”