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Mid-June 1883

There are big doings on the NP line this week as railroad construction crews from east and west near their long-sought meeting in Montana. Nearly 20 years ago, President Lincoln signed the act of Congress creating the Northern Pacific Railroad Co.

June 12

Late in the morning, on a warm and sunny day, the westbound construction train arrives in Helena to cheers and welcomes. The engine has to go back half a mile for more rails, and a Helena Herald reporter aboard gets the first ride into the territorial capital via railroad.

The event unites the capitals of Dakota Territory (Bismarck) and Montana Territory by rail. Over the past year and a half, the Northern Pacific line has progressed up the Yellowstone Valley through the new towns of Billings and Livingston, through the Bozeman Tunnel into the Gallatin Valley and down the Missouri River from Three Forks to Helena. Its route is through the heart of what just a few years ago had been a land of buffalo, sustenance for dozens of Plains and mountain tribes now relegated to reservations.

Rails have been laid at a clip of three miles a day, though now the divide of the Rocky Mountains and Mullan Tunnel confront workers. The nearly mile-long tunnel, on which construction began a year earlier, won't be completed until Nov. 1, nearly two months after the rest of the railroad is finished.

Crews advancing from the West Coast are making good progress near Missoula. Roughly 140 miles separate the lines. They'll meet in a last-day, rail-laying race on Aug. 23, and completion of the NP will be celebrated with a grand Last Spike ceremony at Gold Creek on Sept. 8.

June 15

At 3 p.m., the last coach of the Gilmer and Salisbury mail line on the Bozeman route gets to Helena. It's driven by John T. Bingham "of 30 years service," and decorated with evergreens and red, white and blue bunting, with a flag on each horse. Besides the mail, it delivers two or three passengers from Bedford, near present-day Townsend.

The encroaching railroads spell the end of an era for stage companies. Jack Gilmer and Monroe Salisbury purchased the Idaho and Montana branches of the Wells, Fargo and Co. stage line, among others, in the 1870s and built their enterprise into one of the West's most powerful by 1880. Gilmer and Salisbury ran coaches from Canada to southern Utah. Helena has been a hub for the company, as it soon will be for the railroads.

Meanwhile, northwest of Missoula, a train crosses Marent Trestle in Evaro Canyon for the first time. The trestle, at 226 feet high and 668 feet long, is the highest wooden railroad bridge in the world. Construction required more than a million board feet of lumber. Its completion assures the railroad will be completed by the end of August. In the winter of 1884-85 the Marent Trestle will be replaced by a steel structure.

The first through train from St. Paul, Minn., arrives in Helena at 8 p.m. Among its passengers is T.G. Merrill, who in 1863 was aboard the first bull train from St. Paul to the Prickly Pear Valley - the year before gold was discovered at Last Chance Gulch. It took Merrill's bull train 2 1/2 months to get here. The 1,100-mile train ride took 2 1/2 days.

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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