The Homestead Era

Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad – Toluca-Cody Line

David Harvey, 1974

The life span of the CB & Q (Chicago, Burlington & Quincy) Railroad from Toluca, Montana, to Cody, Wyoming, was from 1901-1911. Actually, it was the B&M (Burlington & Missouri) Railroad that built the line. “Originally, there were two Burlington Railroads. The CB & Q was based in Illinois, and the B&M was based in Iowa. They merged in July of 1880, but the B&M name still stuck in Wyoming, although not in Montana.” (1)»

The railroad was surveyed during the spring of 1899. Work started the following spring, in 1900. The first train arrived in Cody on November 11, 1901. The line started in Toluca, Montana (along the old Hardin Road), then proceeded west to Coburn, then south towards the Pryors and the Big Horn Basin, making stops at Morin, Keiser, Pryor, Chicopee, Oswald, Crockett, Bowler, Scribner, Frannie, Mantua, Garland, Powell, Ralston, McCormick, Corbett, and Cody. The grade through the Pryor Gap was the toughest, especially around the tunnel in the north end of the Gap. “Completion of this line was a boon to the basin area, for it saved up to 60 to 100 miles in the hauling of freight to the basin.” (2)» Passengers from Billings usually took a coach to Coburn to catch the train going south.

The Toluca-Cody line was called the “Squaw Train,” because a sizeable number of the train’s patrons were Indians. C. J. Merritt, former conductor on the line, recalled how costly it was to keep up the line. There was a lack of business in the Indian country. The train was hardly ever on time. One of the reasons was because of the steep grades. “The weather frequently disrupted the schedule that often slowed the train to 25-30 m.p.h. by the washing out of track and bridges.” (3)»

The train would get “lost” in the Pryors. The only stations with telegraph connections were Coburn, Pryor, Frannie and Garland. Therefore, if a train was stalled or broken down in between these stations, no one knew where the train was, except the crew and its passengers. (4)» Other delays were caused by the heavy growth of weeds along the track, especially along the grade near Crockett. An accident occurred there one time when the train brakes failed due to the slickness of the tracks, caused by the crushed weeds. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured,

Exciting moments on the Pryor Mountain line included a baby being born in the baggage car. There was not a doctor until Cody, but the expectant mother could not wait. When the railroad was completed in November, 1901, there was a big celebration in Cody, with “Buffalo Bill” picking up the entire tab! Sometime between 1906-1908, sparks from a train’s engine caused sporadic fires in the middle of Pryor Gap. Before the fires ended, 10,000 acres of timber had been destroyed. Supposedly, fire lines can still be seen along the limestone rims of the Gap. Jesse Godfrey recalls that when she was a child living in Scribner (near Warren), she used to notice those sparks up in the Gap.

The Mormons built the railroad bed from the tunnel in Pryor Gap to Scribner. Jesse Godfrey’s father (Mortensen) was involved in the operation. He helped dig the Pryor Gap tunnel in 1900. The whole family camped out in the Gap. Mrs. Godfrey and her sister Laura caught typhoid during that time. This might be related to the epidemic that reportedly hit that area around that time. Eight to ten railroad laborers supposedly died of smallpox while building the tunnel. Others claim that a tunnel cave-in killed the men. Anyhow, the cemetery for these men lies a little north of the tunnel and the Gap.

Jesse Godrey’s father was also involved in the building of the railroad spur from Warren to Fromberg in 1910. The whole family camped at Scribner during that time. The railroad company of Crosby, Willis, and Welch sub-contracted the building of the spur to Jesse’s father and her husband’s father. While at Scribner, Mrs. Godfrey’s mother worked as the cook in the commissary which was run by a Mr. Ketchum.

Scribner was a stop on the railroad near Warren. “Ma” Brown had an overnight place there. According to Dick Nelson, former conductor on the CB & Q, a water tank and a section house were also there/ Both structures were later moved when the new line from Warren to Fromberg was put into operation (1911), connecting with the Northern Pacific tracks from Billings. (5)»

Frank Clift was a former mail clerk on the Toluca-Cody line during 1906-1907. The mail clerk handled all the mail at each stop. Mr. Clift recalled that Scribner was actually “old” Warren. He said Scribner was nothing more than a “side-track,” tracks running parallel to the main tracks where freight and wood for woodburning engines were loaded aboard. Oswald and Chickapee in the Pryor Gap were also just “wide-tracks.” Mr. Clift did say there was a “dugout” at Scribner, a building hollowed out in the side of a ground bank. It was used as a saloon, operated by Mr. McFarland.

According to Mr. Clift, the section houses at Pryor, Coburn, Crockett, and Frannie were where work crews lived in order to be nearby to keep up the track. “A lot of Japanese track men in those days,” Mr. Clift recalled. He remembers seeing Bill Cody on the train a number of times. Mr. Clift remembers that “Buffalo Bill” was not too popular with the “old-timers.” Either the “old-timers” were jealous of Bill, or resented his hard drinking, and the half-a-dozen hanger-ons that formed his entourage. “Probably the reason Bill Cody was always broke,” Frank Clift contended.

The section house-boarding house at Crockett, located at the south end of the Gap, or in “Section House Draw,” was run by a Mr. and Mrs. Charles Reynolds. Their daughter, Harriet Clemens, lives today in Wellington, Colorado. She told me that her parents ran the section house during 1905-1906. Her father was the section foreman. Her mother ran the boarding house. Railroad work crews and travelers stayed at the boarding house, along with the Reynolds family. Foundations of the old water tower are evident alongside the railroad bed, about one-half a mile north of the Pryor Creek – Sage Creek Road intersection. The foundations consist of four elongated cemented blocks. The section house was on the other side of the railroad across from the water tower. Water for the tower was piped from Sage Creek. Mrs. Clemens said there is still evidence of broken pipe along the creek bed today. Behind the water tower there was once an old railroad box car, where migrants and hobos used to stay. The ridge above the water tower used to be spotted with elevated Indian graves.

Although only six or seven at the time, Mrs. Clemens remembers the Fourth of July celebrations in Pryor Gap. The Crows used to set up tepees and have dance ceremonies throughout the night. Mrs. Clemens accompanied her parents to these festivities, being the only whites in attendance. She also remembers her parents visiting Plenty Coups up in Pryor.

Jim Donley of Cowley told me that as the train made its usual slow way up the grade near Crockett, “every kid used to jump on the coal cars during the winter months to optain fuel for their homes!”

According to Homer Wilhelm of Pryor, one can still find nuts, bolts, and spikes along the old railroad grade through the Gap. One can also still walk through the railroad tunnel at the north end of the Gap. After the railroad ceased operations in 1911, people swarmed in and took whatever they could get their hands on! A lot of the wood from railroad bridges and ties were used as lumber for houses built in Pryor and in Billings.

The railroad needed soft water for the use in their locomotives, and at the stations and section houses. The water they were using had a high mineral content. It was unhealthy for human consumption, and had a corrosive effect on the engine’s boilers. So, Jack (who previously won a water rights case on Sage Creek) sold his water rights on Piney Creek to the railroad for $20,000. He demanded payment in straight cash! Secrecy prevailed over the transactions. A couple of agents for the railroad delivered Morris the money by renting a private railroad car under the guise of going to Wyoming to do some bird hunting. They left their private car on the siding at Scribner and proceeded to the Morris ranch and gave him twenty, one-thousand dollar bills! Although Morris had demanded cash, I guess he had no idea the railroad would give it to him in one lump sum on his ranch. He refused the money, saying he could get killed if anybody found out that he had such money on his ranch. So, arrangements were made to make the transfer of payment at Yegen Brothers Bank in Billings.” (6)»

The steep grade in Pryor Gap; the slowness of the trains; the convenience of making connections at Billings, rather than at Coburn; and a more productive and profitable route through the Clarks Fork Valley, were all cited as reasons for the abandonment of the Pryor Mountain line. Actually, it was the stretch from Toluca to Warren that was affected. In early April of 1911, the thirty miles of track built between Fromberg and Warren were completed. They connected up with the Northern Pacific track from Billings to Fromberg. This improved the situation, not only for the railroad in eliminating the expense and slowness of the Pryor Mountain route, but also for the whole basin area. According to author David Wasden, the re-routing of the CB & Q was “more than any other factor, largely responsible for economical growth and development of the basin.” (7)»

Art Graham told me that another reason for the termination of the railroad through the Pryors was because a lot of Indian cattle were injured, and fields of grain burnt, caused by passing locomotives. The compensations paid to the Indians became too expensive for the railroad.

“The decision to re-route may not have been so sudden to the line’s officers, but it came as surprise news to the employees.” (8)» Conductor C. J. Merritt did not know until a couple hours before his daily run! On the morning of April 13,1911, Merritt received a call at 3 a.m. telling him that the train would be taken over the Northern Pacific tracks at 5 a.m. Speed was a necessity in abandoning the line. The Crows were attempting to get an injunction, but it was Sunday, so a federal judge was not available. Work began late Saturday night by the railroad in removing tracks. They finished early Monday morning. All the station buildings, water tanks and equipment houses were left behind. With some of the employees kept in the dark about the transfer until almost the last minute, “many station agents were stranded at their posts. Wagons were sent out to haul them in.” (9)»

So, the train line through the Pryors came to an end. Today, only autos follow the old railroad bed from Pryor Gap to Warren.

The above is excerpted with permission from: Harvey, David. A General Historical Survey of the Pryor Mountains. Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, Boulder, Colorado. 1974.

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1. Wasden, David J., From Beaver to Oil, Cheyenne, Wyoming: Pioneer Printing and Stationery Company, 1973, p. 233.
2. Wasden, David J., From Beaver to Oil, Cheyenne, Wyoming: Pioneer Printing and Stationery Company, 1973, p. 236.
3. Wasden, David J., From Beaver to Oil, Cheyenne, Wyoming: Pioneer Printing and Stationery Company, 1973, p. 235.
4. “Local Man Recounts Many Difficulties of Toluca-Cody Train,” Billings Gazette, November 24, 1940.
5. Dick Nelson, “Letter to Mr. and Mrs. Paul Weaver” (October, 1966), p. 1.
6. Wasden, David J., From Beaver to Oil, Cheyenne, Wyoming: Pioneer Printing and Stationery Company, 1973, p. 237.
7. Wasden, David J., From Beaver to Oil, Cheyenne, Wyoming: Pioneer Printing and Stationery Company, 1973, p. 239.
8. Cribbs, Lon, “Interviewed by Mrs. Francis Burrell in Lovel, Wyoming,” August 17, 1961, p. 2.
9. “Local Man Recounts Many Difficulties of Toluca-Cody Train,” Billings Gazette, November 24, 1940.