Railroad Stories: Lack of Passenger Train Travel in 1970s

Diminishing passenger train travel forces passenger train service to close.

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For several weeks in 1971, the Independent Record, the daily newspaper in Helena, Mont., hinted at the demise of the Burlington Northern Railroad passenger service into and out of the town. The focus of the railroad company's problem stemmed from diminishing passenger train travel.

For years I had conveniently used the rails for round-trip transportation from Billings to Helena and back. I had enjoyed riding the train to visit family and friends. But now I lived in Helena with my husband and our 8-year-old son, and there wasn't a need for me to ride the train.

While reading about the plight of the Burlington Northern one morning over a cup of coffee, it dawned on me that my son had never ridden a train. He'd never experienced the clickety-clackity bumps as the cars swayed almost rhythmically behind the huge, gleaming steam engine as it picked up speed on the flats.

He'd never heard firsthand, the shrill whistle at cross-roads, and he'd never enjoyed the announcement of dinner by the tinkling of a silver bell as the porter walked through the cars.

When the final days of the passenger train became imminent, I took action. After discussing my plan with my husband, we agreed that our son and I would ride the last scheduled passenger train out of Helena. My husband would meet us with the van at a planned destination and take us back to Helena.

April 24, 1971, was a beautiful spring day. I remember the smell of lilacs in the air and the sun shining warmly as we stepped up to the window to purchase our tickets.

"That will be $1.25," said the man behind the window.

My son handed him the money.

The ticket agent stamped a few pieces of paper, then very officially, handed Joey his ticket and said, "Hang on to this one, son. It's a collector's item."

We hurried outside to the platform and found a porter waiting with a metal stepstool for us to use to climb up steep steps and into the waiting car. We had barely found our seats when we heard, "all aboard," and felt the train jerk beneath us. With a long pull on the whistle, the engineer slowly glided out of the station.

Happily, I watched my son point to unexpected surprises outside the window. One surprise was a herd of antelope that grazed alongside the tracks.

I remembered my own happy times spent riding the train home to visit family and friends for Christmas and Easter holidays during the late 1950s and '60s. The flexibility of riding the train had given me peace of mind during uncertain weather, typical of seasons in Big Sky country. And I met interesting people on the road to their own adventures.

Lenore McKelvey Puhek
Helena, Mont.

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.