ROUTE OF THE HIAWATHA BIKE TRAIL — It's easy to miss the tomb of the unknown gandy dancer.
You and your bike aren’t quite six miles down the 15-mile Hiawatha trail on the Idaho side. Off to your right is yet another panoramic view of a deep, steep and unseasonably green Idaho mountain valley.
The metal cross, embedded in rock and concrete, is to the left below the trail. A nearby interpretive sign, “The Big Blowup,” relates the bones of the cross’s sad tale. It’s from August 1910, when these mountains and the towns within them were consumed by deadly walls of flame.
Old time railroaders tell the story about one man who died when he panicked and leaped off another rescue train. The train continued on to Tunnel 20 and the rest of the passengers survived. After the fire passed over, the other passengers buried him next to the tracks. He is assumed to have been a railroad laborer known as a ‘gandy-dancer.’ His death may be the only fatality from the 1910 fire in the Loop Creek drainage.
"Gandy dancer" is the informal term for a railroad section hand, probably deriving from the hand tool he used to move rails into place and the unified motion he and fellow "dancers" used — often while singing or chanting — to do it.
It’s a quandary for the traveler of any historic road: Do you keep going and enjoy the ride or stop and meet the ghosts? The Hiawatha trail is a temptress for both.
The parking lot at the East Portal was almost full by early afternoon on the last Tuesday of August. It was 110 years and one day after a wet snow fell on the Bitterroots, helping douse the devastating fires that blew up on Aug. 20 and 21. Rescue trains had barged through flames in attempts to save settlers, miners and railroad workers along the same trail hundreds of bicyclists of almost all ages take leisurely rides every day of the summer today.
Bike-toting vehicles with license plates from 15 states had pulled in from the Taft Exit of Interstate 90. Washington, Idaho, Utah and Montana were well-represented in the parking lot, but there were vehicles from Wisconsin, Illinois, Arkansas and Texas as well. Ghosts or no ghosts, the Hiawatha is a draw.
The Hiawatha is administered by Lookout Pass Ski Area in Idaho, five miles above the Taft exit. Lookout Pass general manager Brian Bessel said ridership went up 71% in the four years before this one, culminating in a record of almost 60,000 visitors in 2019. It's on pace to smash that mark this year before the final day on Sept. 20 after a dry and smoke-free summer.
"We're up between 11 and 12% year to date, and it looks good that we'll continue on that pace," Matt Sawyer, Lookout Pass director of marketing, said last week. "We should finish with 67,000 to 68,000 visits, possibly more."
The Tunnel 20 on that “Big Blowup” sign is known these days as Taft Tunnel, or "the big one." It's 1.66 miles of mud and darkness from the East Portal in Montana into Idaho. Roland, the first of four ghost towns on the way, awaits beyond the West Portal. Adair is seven miles below, near where the abandoned rail bed turns you west alongside Loop Creek.
You’ve crossed your last trestle and passed through all but one of the nine tunnels when you get to what’s left (not much) of historic Falcon. Then it’s four miles to Pearson, where a yellow bus awaits to shuttle you back up to Roland.
Or you can turn your handlebars back up. It’s an easier grade to climb than it looks, with more time to stop and ponder. The ghosts are where you find them. They are world leaders and station agents, forest rangers and inebriated bears. They’re harmless, of course, but their stories as related on the panels along the way are inscribed in history and part of what makes the Hiawatha Scenic Bike Trail unique.
High on the trail expect to encounter a soot-faced Johnson. His first name will go unknown, but he was the contractor hired by the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway Co. in 1908 to blast through the rock face next to the Barnes Creek trestle.
“Blasters chiseled out five ‘coyote holes,’ stuffed them with 25,000 pounds of blasting powder, and touched it off,” says a sign 5½ miles down the trail. “In a fraction of a second, a gigantic blast threw tons of rock and car-sized boulders down the slope and onto Excavation Camp #1 below.”
No one was killed or seriously injured, “but most of the camp was smashed,” a local report said. “Across the valley some of those huge boulders can still be seen scattered on the hillside below the tall rock cliff face that quickly became known as ‘Johnson’s Big Cut.’”
Joseph Stalin's apparition could appear anywhere along the trail, crying in his borscht. The Soviet Union's Communist leader, all 5-foot-5 of him, never came to this part of the world, but after World War II he ordered 20 huge electric locomotives from General Electric. They were built in Erie, Pennsylvania, under the supervision of Soviet specialists. As the Cold War heated up, the United States said "nyet" to the deal, and in 1950 the Milwaukee Road snapped up a dozen of them for $1 million for its electrified line through the mountains between Avery, Idaho, and Harlowton.
“They quickly became known as ‘Little Joes,’” a sign along the Hiawatha trail says. “The 5,530 horse-power engines were the most powerful and efficient single unit electric engines used on the Milwaukee Road. In one authority’s opinion, it was ‘the greatest machine any railroad ever coupled onto a train.’"
One Little Joe was saved from the scrap heap when the railroad ended its electric operation in June 1974. Milwaukee E70 is on static display at the Old Prison Museum in Deer Lodge, 200 miles to the east.
You’re not likely to encounter a bear along the busy trail, so bear ghosts will have to do. When a grain train upset near Falcon, the beasts took a liking to the spillage.
A sign titled “Rough Roads and Wrecks” tells the story:
“The ruined grain eventually fermented and the bears, always in search of an easy meal, ate the intoxicating grain and became either a little too friendly when drunk or really cranky the morning after with a ‘bear’ of a hangover."
As you pedal through rainbow-shaped Tunnel 27 in the last five miles of the trail, give a shout-out to engineer Johnnie Mackedon’s ghost. It won’t tell you this, but Johnnie was a hero.
On the night of Aug. 20, 1910, Mackedon, the living flesh version, was returning from a trip to St. Paul Pass. As Mackedon approached the siding at Falcon, flames licking on all sides of his steam locomotive, he found more than 100 terrified people waiting for a train. Most had fled from the doomed town of Grand Forks across the creek.
“He coupled to a flatcar on the adjoining siding and everyone scrambled on board for a harrowing ride to the safety of Tunnel 27” three-quarters of a mile back up the track, the sign at Falcon says.
Said Mackedon: “Why, all that you could see of a bridge was a wall of flame, but we crossed it. I hooked her up, threw her wide open, and then we lay down on the deck to protect ourselves from the heat.”
A total of 168 people spent an agonizing night in the 470 foot-long tunnel while their homes burned, but all came out alive.
Warren Harding nods at you sadly from the Falcon station. The 29th president of the United States was in fine fettle when he came through here from Montana aboard a special train on July 2, 1923, on his so-called Voyage of Understanding.
“President Harding for half an hour or so today came into realization of his boyhood ambition to become a locomotive engineer,” an Associated Press correspondent reported. “It was not one of the steam locomotives, spuming smoke and cinders, that he drove, but an electric engine on the system of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway.”
The presidential train stopped at Falcon. Harding shook hands with engineer Arthur Blundell, who invited the president into the cab.
“Soon the train moved off down the west slope of the Bitter Root Mountains with the hand of the chief executive on the controller,” news reports said. “Around sharp curves, through tunnels and along canyon sides the president guided the heavy twelve-car train until it reached Avery, a total distance of about 15 miles.”
Then it was on to Spokane, to Seattle, and to Alaska, where the 57-year-old president was clearly ailing. By the time he returned to the states and San Francisco, Harding lay on his death bed. One month to the day after he drove the Milwaukee train, Harding became the sixth of eight presidents so far to die in office, probably of congestive heart failure.
Stanley Johnson (1928-2019) was the stepson of a conductor on the Olympian Hiawatha, and the Milwaukee Road was in his blood. Johnson was a psychology professor emeritus in 1997 when his memoir, “The Milwaukee Road Revisited,” came out. It includes this passage:
“Do you hear that?” he asked in a hushed voice. “Listen! It’s the wind from up around Adair blowing down the valley and through the tunnel. You can almost always hear it here, particularly in the summer. Some say it sounds like a dying man’s cry for help, a ghost from the big fire.”
Feeling the hair rise on my head, I held my breath and listened. I could hear it, a soft expressive wavering sound, a sighing sound as low and melancholy as a dirge sung by a monastery choir. It made me uncomfortable.
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