Reprinted from Sandpoint Magazine.


By Marianne Love

Trains are ever-present in Sandpoint — and for good reason. We’re the ‘Funnel’ for trains throughout the northern tier states, with a railroading history that goes back to our town’s very beginnings

For almost 48 years, I’ve lived within a mile of a railroad. Anytime I gaze through picture windows on the west side of our ranch house, the view of a hayfield across Great Northern Road is slightly obstructed by the Boyer switch tracks where freight trains rumble past about 40 times daily.

Occasionally, when their late-night schedule has been delayed, west or eastbound Amtraks sounding their distinctive whistles glide through the early morning daylight. Catching a glimpse as they pass by our small farm, I think about travelers from across the country snoozing away in their sleeping compartments.

I’ve often cussed the trains that frequently block the Gooby and Mountain View crossings. Having to travel almost 10 miles out of the way to get to my home a few hundred feet from the blocked crossing does not make my day.

On other occasions, the Burlington Northern grade across our field has lured me on leisurely (but illegal) strolls for a breath of fresh air and moments of solitude. Balancing one foot over the other on the shiny steel rails, I fantasize a lifelong notion to someday hop a freight and end up far away in parts un­known. Scavenger replaces vagabond as I load my pockets with handfuls of oats or corn dribbled from the grain cars.

Horrid events have kept me off those same tracks for years at a time. A few years back a man pushing a wheel barrow met head-on with a freight train just north of my driveway. Two family pets have also died on the tracks. An ever-present danger lurks for anyone or anything that fails to respect the power of tons of heavy metal pushing down the tracks at 40 to 50 miles per hour.

As much as I’ve lived around trains, I’ve long taken them for granted. This story assignment, however, has enlightened and inspired me to look at the huge engines pulling their mile-long loads through different eyes. Now, when I sit at a crossing waiting for the trains to pass, I no longer see a nuisance. I see history and commerce, and a long line of people with railroading in their blood.

More than most towns, Sandpoint owes its beginnings to the railroad.

Although the town’s history dates back to 1880, when merchant Robert Weeks opened a general store and dealt in furs, it was the Northern Pacific Railroad survey that same year that emboldened others to settle here. The Northern Pacific line was completed in 1883.

A second major railway, the Great Northern Railroad, was completed in 1892, and it brought L.D. and Ella Farmin to Sandpoint to serve as agents. Not long after their arrival, L.D. laid out the town of Sandpoint (formerly known as Pend d’Oreille) in its present location on the west side of Sand Creek.

“From our first arrival at the Great Northern Station, we had been impressed with the possiblilities of the location of the city some future day,” Ella Farmin wrote in her memoirs. “Two transcontinental railways, and the beautiful lake would prove an inducement for industry and pleasure as well.”

Sandpoint’s situation along the transcontinental lines inspired a logging industry throughout the early 20th Century that saw millions of board feet of logs and poles transported from the surrounding woods to the mills and later to all parts of the country. Logs and lumber left by rail. People came by rail, and the town grew.

Nowadays, the brisk lumber industry of the early century is being replaced by an active tourist industry at the end of the century, but railroads continue to play a key role in the economy. In fact, with developments underfoot, the rails may turn the page for a whole new chapter in the town’s history.

Even with 40 or more trains a day traveling through town, the railroad is for many people a seamless, little-noticed part of Sandpoint. During his 40-year career as a railroad man, Sandpoint’s Burlington Northern depot agent Lowell Spletoser has encountered numerous people with little clue of the railroad’s influence. “People just don’t realize what impact the trains have on their lives,” Spletoser said recently while ending his work day at the depot just east of the Cedar Street Bridge.

Spletoser has seen a lot of changes in the railroad since he first signed on as a telegrapher between Spokane and Havre, Mont. During his career, air travel has all but stamped out the once-common bustle of the daily passenger trains coming though Sandpoint to drop or pick up travelers at the Great Northern depot on Main Street or the former Northern Pacific depot where he now works.

A Link to the Nation

For years, going to the depot to watch the trains come in provided local citizenry with simple entertainment. Retired English teacher Joy Anna O’Donnell remembers coming into town on Sundays during the 1940s when she was a farm kid from Wrenco.

“We’d head for town right after dinner,” O’Donnell recalled. “We’d go down, park the car facing the track, and we’d see who got on and who got off.

“The conductor would be standing on the steps hanging on to the handle. He’d always hold ladies’ hands to see they didn’t trip,” she continued. “While this was going on, there’d be guys lugging baggage and freight onto great big rail carts. They’d push it through the big double doors.

“There’d also be people sitting in Pullman cars. They’d be staring at us while we were staring at them,” she added. “When it was time to do chores, we’d go home.”

During both world wars, trains transported thousands of soldiers through Sandpoint. In fact, during World War I, a group of ladies formed the War Canteen, which resembled a branch of the Red Cross.

“They met every troop train that came through — and they’d meet them all hours of the day and night,” Bonner County Historical Society Museum curator Ann Ferguson explained. “Their job was to make the troops comfortable by providing them sack lunches, gum and socks. They’d get them set up for the next leg of the trip.”

 Of Presidents and Queens

Besides politicians like Teddy Roosevelt — who came through on a whistlestop tour during his Bull Moose campaign for the presidency — and President Harry Truman during his campaign for re-election, the queen of Romania passed though Sandpoint. According to a November 1926 Sandpoint High School Cedar Post article, half the high school came out to greet Queen Marie.

“The special was due at five o’clock and an immense crowd awaited its arrival with impatience,” the paper reported. “At last the huge train arrived. The crowd cheered. The train merely paused and then went on its way.

“Everybody focused their eyes on the coaches of the royal group. Glimpses of people were gotten and many exclamations of ‘There she is,’ were heard.

“Just who did see the queen is doubtful,” the article continued. “Some say she was sitting near a window surrounded by flowers. Others say she was reading a book. If anyone did see a royal personage, no one will take his word for it.”

One Sandpoint individual, however, did get a full view of the queen and her children Prince Nicholas and Princess Ileana. Former Sandpoint Mayor Les Brown, now deceased, was 12 years old at the time.

“While many people were content to remain back from the rails, Lester caught the handles at one of the coach doors and climbed aboard, probably thinking the train would stop,” the Cedar Post explained. “Instead, it picked up speed and soon was traveling too rapidly to permit him to safely alight.”

Brown hung on until a crew member discovered him tearfully looking through the window and helped him aboard. The experience netted Brown some national publicity, a chance to play beanbag with the prince, and several autographed gifts from the royal family. Upon reaching Spokane, Brown was brought back to Sandpoint by the Northern Pacific.

Nowadays, just two Amtraks pass east and west through Sandpoint in the middle of the night four days a week. The depot is open for passengers, but unmanned; tickets must be purchased through travel agents.

 A ‘Funnel’ for Trains

During Spletoser’s 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, while filling car orders for local trains, he often fields questions about the area from a breed of depot visitors who can spout off technical details about the diesel engines and cars that make up virtually every freight passing through town. Spletoser’s inquisitors are the rail buffs who have discovered Sandpoint . “I get railroad buffs in here from all over the world,” Spletoser said. “Some of them even come and spend up to a week sleeping in their cars in the parking lot out here,” he added. “One guy from Australia came and took 45 rolls of film.”

Sandpoint has earned its fame among rail fans due to its distinction in the railroad community as the “Funnel” — the site where the east-west railways in the northern states converge.

In the later 1960s the Northern Pacific and former Great Northern mainlines merged to become the Burlington Northern Railroad. Meanwhile, in 1988 the eastern line of the old NP from Sandpoint to Huntley, just east of Billings, Mont., sold to Montana Rail Link.

Today Burlington Northern trains travel north of Sandpoint through Bonners Ferry and then head east along the Kootenai River to Whitefish, Mont. The Montana Rail Link system follows the old Northern Pacific route east along the shores of Lake Pend Oreille and the Clark Fork River.

There’s also track belonging to the Union Pacific railroad, which before the mid 1950s was known as the Spokane International. Daniel Chase “D.C.” Corbin, builder of many railroads linking the North Idaho mines to Spokane, developed the Spokane International as his last major project. The line, connecting with a new branch built by the Canadian Pacific, opened for business in November 1906.

Part of the Union Pacific line now bisects the Sandpoint community along Fifth Avenue and Highway 2. The tracks are scheduled to be removed and those trains rerouted later this summer. The Union Pacific’s new route will run on Burlington Northern tracks north of town through the yards of the McFarland-Cascade Pole Company, and then west to Dover where it eventually crosses the Pend Oreille River on its route to Spokane.

Besides the draw of the Funnel, Spletoser said the Burlington Northern also has three locals serving the lumber, pulp and grain industries. They run daily to Bonners Ferry, Newport and Athol. “We’re handling 70 to 100 cars a day in the Sandpoint area,” he explained. All orders are fed into the computer with a mainframe originating in Overland Park, Kan.

During his day, Spletoser keeps track of the locals and mainline trains called hotshots. “They’re designated to a certain destination like Chicago,” he explained. “Locals ding around the area.” A local picks up five to10 cars of grain, goes to a main terminal such as Spokane and make up a destination train of nothing but grain cars.

“Hotshots only stop to change crews,” Spletoser said. “That will be for just 10 to 15 minutes at the terminals, which are 300 miles apart.”

 The Railfans Cometh

With that much action and its breathtaking scenery, Sandpoint provides a natural draw for the railroad fans who show up at the Burlington Northern depot. And the town’s attraction as the Funnel is getting some help from a savvy marketing campaign hatched by the Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce and local train buff Dick Hutter.

A 56-year-old New York native, Hutter has been involved with trains literally since the day he was born. “My dad was a rail buff,” Hutter said. “When I was born, he had assembled a wind-up train for me and built two metal buildings to go with it. I still have the buildings.”

Throughout his life, Hutter has amassed an assortment of railroad memorabilia which fills display cases and decorates walls at the Sandpoint Realty office in Ponderay where he works. His collection includes 200 hardbound railway books, 1,000 train magazines and several paintings of locomotives.

A glass case behind his desk features switch locks and keys, a Portland Rose bridge score sheet, decks of railroad playing cards and a Great Northern seat reservation sign.

“Most of these are gifts,” he says. “People just keep giving me stuff.”

In 1993, Hutter convinced the Chamber to look at the rail fan promotion idea.

“I know it sounds like a bunch of crazies — grown men running around chasing trains,” Hutter said. “Unless you’re in it, it’s hard to be serious about it.”

With a nudge from Idaho Travel Council chairman and former local hotelier Lorraine Bowman, and after gathering demographic data from Trains magazine, the Chamber got serious about Hutter’s suggestion. Tourism officials learned that typical rail buffs are in their mid 50s, have high incomes and are well-educated. They have families, and they’re history buffs. Their goal in train watching usually includes lots of photography. “They tend to be skilled professionals seeking a ‘concentration-style’ hobby that blocks out the stress of their day,” Hutter explained.

In early 1994, the Chamber printed a rail fan’s guide to Sandpoint and bought advertising in Trains magazine. “Phenomenal” is how Chamber tourism manager Carol Novak characterizes the response the small ad elicited.

Since the ad appeared last year, the Chamber has received more than 2,000 inquiries from rail fans across the nation. This year they expanded their advertising to Model Trains magazine.

“We’re the only community to actually go after the rail fans,” Novak said. “After our ad appeared, we got lots of calls from other communities who wondered if they should advertise.”

Riding Back Through History

Besides the rail action around town, there’s plenty of rich history available, including that of the Burlington Northern depot alongside Sand Creek. Termed “palatial” when it opened in November 1916 without its “elaborate” furnishings (lost in transit), the depot was constructed with a fine grade of building brick, capped with a green tile roof — itself costing more than $5,000, according to the Pend Oreille Review. The total construction bill for E.J. Rounds Co. amounted to $22,780.08. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

This summer the Bonner County Historical Museum is devoting a room for a model train exhibit depicting historical Bonner County railroad routes.

Model hobbyists in the Bonner County Railroad Club are builidng the display, according to museum board member and train buff Vern Eskridge. Besides representations of the railway lines, structures will include the NP Depot, the GN Depot at Laclede, the grain elevator on Fifth Avenue, the railroad trestle across the lake and the NP roundhouse that once operated in Kootenai. The 33-member group, ranging in age from 13 to 80, started the display about a year ago.

“Everyone has a different interest,” Eskridge explained. “Some lay track; some like to build scenery and others enjoy constructing cars. The project never really gets done,” he added, “but the permanent display will be rigged so that somebody just needs to flip a switch and it’ll go.”

Yet another rail project is banking on the local railroads’ scenery and history. Pack River Management and Rail Views, Ltd., this summer will launch a series of luxury train tours out of Sandpoint. With six two-day tours starting in late July and ending in early October, Montana Daylight Tours will run trains over the Montana Rail Link system from Sandpoint to Billings. Six subsequent westbound trips from Billings to Sandpoint will also be offered.

On each eastbound tour, travelers will leave Sandpoint in mid-morning, follow the shores of Lake Pend Oreille and Clark Fork River along the old Northern Pacific route and end up in Missoula, where they stay at the Missoula Hotel. The next day’s tour takes them past the “Golden Spike” marker, showing the site of the completion of the Northern Pacific — the first northern transcontinental railway — in 1883. Paralleling the Missouri River, the Daylight train crosses the Gallatin River Valley and proceeds to Livingston, then follows the Yellowstone River to Billings, where passengers will stay at the Radison Northern Hotel.

According to Rail Views general manager David Duncan, the restored seven-car train holds 242 passengers. Three cars have domes, picture windows, glasstops and table seating. Fares range from $399 to $549 per person.

“Sandpoint’s a natural gateway,” he said. “Anyone who rides either way has to transfer to other transportation at Sandpoint. It creates an opportunity for extended stays.”

The possibility that Sandpoint will again be bustling with passenger trains brings smiles to Chamber officials.

“It’s going to help put Sandpoint on the map,” Carol Novak said. “It’s for people who like to travel, and we have a beautiful and safe place to look at — it’s not the train yards of Chicago.”

Lifelong Sandpointer Marianne Love teaches at Sandpoint High and last year authored “Pocket Girdles and Other Confessions of a Northwest Farm Girl,” available at finer Sandpoint bookstores.

Go to Sandpoint Magazine contents

Go to Sandpoint Online

COPYRIGHT by Keokee Co. Publishing, Inc., of Sandpoint, Idaho. Reprinted from the Winter 1996 edition of Sandpoint Magazine. Sandpoint Magazine is published twice a year, in Winter and Summer editions, by Keokee Co. Publishing, Inc. Call 1-800-880-3573 to subscribe.