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Fall Colors or Old-Time Steam Engine, Montana Rail Tours is Offering Double the Pleasure

by Gary Puta

The mountains and valleys of the Inland Northwest will once again resound with the romantic “whippoorwill” whistle of the legendary Spokane Portland & Seattle #700 steam locomotive. 

Sandpoint-based Montana Rockies Rail Tours has announced plans to run the famed engine across northern Idaho and western Montana October 11-20. Passage is being booked for both one- and three-day excursions across the Montana Rocky Mountains. This will be the first steam-powered passenger train to travel east of the Inland Northwest, across the route of the second transcontinental railroad, in nearly fifty years.

“Among the lower 48 states, Montana was the last to hear the sound of a steam locomotive. A new era dawned in the early 1880’s when the first rails reached the territory,” says Carlos Schwantes, University of Idaho professor, “Steam, so evocative of Montana’s history has at long last returned to Big Sky Country.”

When the Spokane, Portland & Seattle # 700 was built in 1938 it brought the latest in technology to the Pacific Northwest. Train crews lovingly referred to the engine as “The Lady.” It weighs upwards of 400 tons and is the third largest Steam Locomotive still operating in North America. Recent estimates say 300 steam locomotives are still operational in America and Canada.

“It has been half a century since steam ruled on the nation’s railroads. We are looking forward to hosting Montana Rockies Rail Tours and SP&S #700 for their special excursion,” says Montana Rail Link President Dan Watts.

The locomotive was originally ordered by the Northern Pacific Railroad but was transferred to SP&S ownership. After showing the #700 off to communities along the line, the oil-burning engine was quickly put into service hauling passenger trains between Spokane and Vancouver, WA. Typically, it would pull overnight trains between the two cities. It did not go into Portland until 1943 because the turntable there was not long enough to turn it. Ironically, the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railroad never ran to Seattle.

In 1956 the #700 was spruced up for one last run. The “farewell to steam” trip attracted 1,400 passengers aboard 21 cars through the Columbia Gorge. Destined for a scrap heap, the SP&S offered to donate the engine to the City of Portland. For the next two decades, it sat in a Portland park beside the Southern Pacific’s #4449 Steam Locomotive. 

Interest in Pacific Northwest Steam grew in 1975 when the SP #4449 was restored for operation as the American Freedom Train to commemorate the nation’s bicentennial. A young volunteer on the project, Chris McLarney, was considered too young to go out on the road with the locomotive. Once the #4449 left Portland for its nationwide trip, McLarney busied himself polishing and oiling the #700.

Years of tireless labor paid off when the #700 was made operational in 1990. It has made special trips throughout the Pacific Northwest, thrilling rail fans of all ages ever since. It is still owned by the city of Portland but is maintained by a group of dedicated volunteers.

“This trip has been years in the planning,” says Montana Rockies Rail Tours President Marcia Pilgeram, “and it promises to be an amazing experience for everyone involved.”

Montana Rockies Rail Tours will provide coach, dome, dining, club, private and crew cars for the excursion. Tickets for one-day rides between Sandpoint-Missoula-Bozeman-Billings, in both directions, begin at $200. Return motorcoach bus service is also available. The cost for the full four-day, three-night trip begins at $800, with overnight stays at hotels along the route of the original Northern Pacific Railroad.

More information on the trip is available by calling 800-519-7245 or visiting the Montana Rail Tours website.


Fall Colors- As if the romance of a steam engine is not enough, Montana Rail Tours is once again offering its popular Fall Colors Rail Tour from Sandpoint, Idaho to Plains, Montana and back again to Sandpoint on Saturday, October 5. This is an all-day event along the Clark Fork River and the trip features a stop in Plains for the Fall Food and Crafts Festival. Price is $99 per adult and $59 per child with children under four riding free.

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