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Bike Trail Showcases Railroad Construction Wonders

Railroad construction is a challenging endeavor no matter where it occurs. But nowhere can one gain a better appreciation for the wonders of building railroad track than when biking the Route of the Hiawatha Bike Trail.

Located adjacent to I-90 at the Idaho-Montana state line, the Hiawatha Bike Trail is considered the crown jewel of the rail-to-trail mountain bicycle trails. The 15-mile route winds through 10 tunnels and seven high trestles along one of the most breathtaking scenic stretches of railroad in the country.

All along the route bikers are treated to signage highlighting the Hiawatha Olympian route’s rich history and construction challenges that began just after the turn of the century. The Milwaukee Road, a prosperous railroad out of Chicago, began exploring routes to extend its line west to take advance of the expanding West Coast markets and Pacific Rim trade.

After completing extensive engineering surveys, the route selected positioned the line through the rugged Bitterroot Mountains. Construction began in early 1907. Because time was an urgent factor, crews worked year round making the difficult terrain even more forbidding. All in all, nearly 9,000 men worked through 1911 to construct the Pacific extension at a cost of $234 million, more than five times the original estimate.

One of most significant construction challenges was the daunting task of drilling the St. Paul’s Pass Tunnel measuring 23 feet high, 16 feet wide and 1.7 miles long from Montana into Idaho. East and west crews toiled around the clock in wet, miserable conditions, and could tunnel 20 feet a day at best. It took 750 men – 400 tunneling inside and 200 outside removing the dirt and rock, and 150 running the dig’s power plant – two and a half years to complete. This tunnel – along with nine others along the route— is a marvel to bikers on the route.

Freight and passenger service begin in 1909. Only a few years later, the line was electrified to accommodate electric locomotives. This innovation was the first use of electrification over an extended distance. Service continued on the line over the decades that followed. The last passenger train, the Olympian Hiawatha, passed through the Bitterroots in 1961. The electric locomotives where gradually replaced by diesel engines by 1973. The line declared bankruptcy in 1977 and the last train passed through at section of track in 1980. After that the line was abandoned and eventually converted into its current usage as a stunning rail-to-trail route. Today, the Route of the Hiawatha Bike Trail is one of 1,600 preserved pathways and among 15,000 miles of rail-trails throughout the United States.

RailWorks salutes the workers from a century ago who achieved this railroad engineering feat that now lives on for bikers along the Route of the Hiawatha Bike Trail.