Friday, March 4, 2011


Northern Pacific Railroad depot at Noxon, next to the last depot building east of the Montana-Idaho border in 1920. Smeads had only a Boxcar Depot and many other smaller stops were only flag stops with no shelter for waiting passengers. Clark's Fork River and the Noxon ferry crossing are beyond the cottonwood trees in the background. Courtesy George Jamison collection.
 The Northern Pacific Railroad had the section's boarding house at Noxon, and Charlie Knutson, the section man's son said,
"We had a Chinese cook. That was on account of working on the railroad. The locals (trains), from Paradise and Sandpoint, tied up at Noxon overnight. We had to cook for them. Mother had to do for big train crews. "
At that time train crews had three brakemen and a conductor, and engineer and a fireman. They handled all the local freight as all the switching and car loading along the line. Charlie left home and Noxon in 1917, but he returned, going to work for the railroad. He was section foreman and married Donieta Pringle. They lived in a little house right up on top of the hill between town and the school.
"Bridge and Building gang, they were along, well, sometimes I think twice a year," Charlie said. "They did all the repair work on the buildings and also on all the bridges along. And they took care of all the water tanks.. all the water works. Mr. Lapway was the bridge foreman. He worked from Spokane to Paradise. He was the fella that constructed the beautiful NPRR depot building at Sandpoint."*1.
The railroad was a vital part of everyone's existence in the remoteness of Montana. Most generally it harkened to requests of the settlers if at all possible. A number of years ago when the railroad depot at Smeads burned down, settlers still living in the wanted the depot replaced. Great shipments of cedar posts continued to flow out of the valley via the NPRR spur line there. By installing a boxcar depot, NPRR "erected" a new depot at Smeads.*2. It had a stove in it with a waiting room in one end. In the other room milk, cream cans and freight stuff was put, awaiting shipment.*3.

January weather allowed the NPRR Bridge and Building (B&B) gang and section men to begin working in Pilgrim Creek to try to get water for Noxon in 1920. When that was accomplished, they would begin working on a new emergency water tank one mile west of Noxon for the trains.*4.

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Caption: Northern Pacific Railroad train, Engine No. 68, on siding at Furlong, Montana. Circa 1915-1916. Lillian Raynor Evnas, photographer. Courtesy Edna Evans Cummings collection.

Emmett Thomson still homesteaded on Bull river, continuing to work railroad agencies at various stations.*5.

O. C. Matheny, Noxon's station agent for many years, transferred to Hope, Idaho, the middle of April. People stopped in at the depot to wish him good luck in his new location, reminding him to return and visit often.*6.

All across the nation a month-long freight jam has been slowly clenching its grip on the throat of industry, the Sanders County Independent Ledger told its readers on May 13, 1920. The federal government moved to act in 48 hours if something wasn't done quickly. Interstate Commerce Commission granted priority to the shipment for food, fuel and perishables under the emergency power vested in it by the transportation act. The commission also temporarily barred the transportation of all "dead" freight so that necessities of life could be rushed to communities where shortages soon will exist, which hit lumbermen hard.

Mr. Carbury, the signal inspector and Mr. Donnely, the new maintainer arrived at Noxon on No. 42. Mr. Donnelly will take over the maintenance of way work here immediately. Mr. Gittings, who has been doing the work here, drove to Sandpoint Monday in the Ford he recently bought from B. B. Bunn. Gittings took charge of the maintenance work.*7.

On July 1, 1920 E. E. Thomson became station agent for the Northern Pacific Railroad at Noxon following O. C. Matheny who had been agent since 1906.

The agent posted the railroad's Noxon timetable that would soon dominate the valley residents when they journeyed outside of the hamlets.
Effective June 6, 1920
  • No. 1 Due 1:13 p.m.
  • No. 3 Due 3:04 a.m
  • No. 41 Due 12:47 p.m.
  • No. 2 Due 2:50 a.m.
  • No. 4 Due 12:14 p.m.
  • No. 42 Due 12:32 p.m.*8.
Station stops in Sanders County east of Noxon, included Furlong, Tuscor, Larchwood, Trout Creek, Richards, Childs, Whitepine, Talc, Marmot, Belknap, Pinehurst, Thompson Falls, Woodlin, Frost, Eddy, Weeksville, Plains, Paradise, Knowles, Perma, McDonald, Dixon and Ravalli, were listed in the advertising directory kept at the depot.*9.

In addition to the passenger trains, many freight trains came through, dependent upon demand. Every spring, thousands of head of sheep were shipped in on NPRR freight cars, to be herded over the fire-scoured mountainsides until fall when they were rounded up and shipped out again.

Charlie Knutson remembers the sheep shipments that were transported by rail in 1917 or '18,
"We also had them in there above Trout Creek, too. Trout Creek, and at the town, Richards, down on the low line of the railroad. The biggest share of them were loaded there. And at Noxon, too."*10.
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Caption: Derailed Northern Pacific Railroad car, 1916, near Clarks Fork, Idaho. Courtesy Mary Easter Younker collection.

Lottie Finnigan's folks, lived in Clark's Fork only 25-30 miles away. Every couple of weeks she and her children visited them on the weekend. But bridges, ferries and cars played no great part in her visits. Like most of the people, she took the 'Dinky.'
"The engine was one of those little engines with a big smoke stack on the top which used to blow out black rings of smoke," her son, Carmen Moore said. "The Dinky consisted of a little baggage car and a little passenger car with red plush seats and swinging kerosene lamps. It had a big old coal stove in one end of it for the heat. The fare was 35 cents for Mother and 10 cents apiece for my sister and I."*11.
 Charlie Knutson said,
"People went to Sandpoint mostly for the simple reason NPRR had what they call the 'Dinky','Bingville' or 'Galloping Goose'. It stopped at every siding and every farm house along the line. And they could go down every morning to Sandpoint and come back that same day."
Folks traveling from neighboring hamlet to hamlet, or to any point between Paradise, Montana and Sandpoint, Idaho used the Dinky very heavy. Charlie said,
"It handled local freight between all the towns from Spokane, WA to Paradise, MT. The heavy freight, of course, was handled by a freight crew. But they took light stuff. And they took all the cream cans. Cream went to Spokane. They'd bring back the empties, stopping all along leaving off the empties. When they came back in the evening, they'd pick up all the filled cans. I know the operators used to complain about the chore of handling those heavy cream cans.
"Every little town along the line shipped cream. I used to ride quite a bit on the train and they stopped at every little corner and picked up cream cans. They picked up Thompson Falls, picked up Algers, Trout Creek, Noxon and they stopped at Smeads and picked up cans.*12.
"Richards was about ten miles east of Trout Creek on the trunk line of the railroad. It was just a depot, no operator there. Just a telephone for the train crews to go to the telephone and get their instructions out of there. However, there was a section foreman and a section house. My brother, Johnny, was section foreman there when he got married. That's where he took his wife, Eleanor. There was a town at Richards.
"The next stop east was Childs, only just a siding. There was no operator or anything there. Next one east was Talc, Montana, a siding with a telephone where you could get your instructions. It was about 4 1/2 or 5 miles west of Belknap.
"The old line, that used to take off at Trout Creek, was called the 'Pioneer Line'. It went to Algers and Whitepine and then into Belknap. The freight line was the other line down below town. The passenger line spurred off at Trout Creek and joined back in at Belknap. Whitepine was quite a town and had an agent, a store and post office, also.
"The line split at Trout Creek. And I'll tell you the reason why. The freight trains didn't go to Whitepine because it was a steep pull over the grade. They went from Beaver Creek up to Whitepine. And that's why they built the "low" line for freight train service."*13.
Charlie and his brother Johnny, like their father, worked on the railroad after he grew up, but Johnny never forgot his first love.
"I spent so much time on the river drives my old man used to take me out on his section job with him to keep me out of the river," Johnny said. "He was afraid I'd get drowned. When they'd bust them logjams I'd be stomping out there from one log to the other, barefooted. I sure liked the river drives. I could swim that river like a duck. I was ducked many many times but wasn't afraid. I think I could still ride a log across with cork boots." *14.
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Caption: Northern Pacific Railroad engine in 1916 derailment near Clarks Fork, Idaho. Courtesy Mary Easter Younker collection.
The weekly newspaper spread bad news, informing neighbors and relatives throughout the county of mishaps as well as providing them the good news. The July 1, 1920 issue reported a tradgedy at Noxon
."Wednesday morning at Noxon a Ford car driven by Fred Carter, brakeman on the local freight, was struck by a west bound special freight. The accident occurred on the crossing at the depot. Mr. Carter's five-year-old son who was with him at the time was thrown in front of the engine and both his legs were cut off. The injured child was put on the train and rushed to Sand Point with hopes of saving his life. Mr. Carter and his other two children who were with him escaped with slight injuries."
The child died.

Repeated warnings by railroad and county commissioners to use caution when approaching a railroad crossing didn't avert tragedies.*15. While the NPRR tracks were still the most used route of travel in 1920, trains and people were not always compatible. The news reported,
"Earl Engle and Fred Foote, employees of the Cabinet Forest, had a narrow escape from death Tuesday. While traveling along at a fast rate of speed on a [railroad] speeder, they unexpectedly met No. 42 at the curve west of Noxon. They just had time to throw themselves from the machine before it was struck. STOP, LOOK and LISTEN!"*16.
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Caption: Derailed Northern Pacific Railroad car, 1916, near Clarks Fork, Idaho. Courtesy Mary Easter Younker collection.

Since nearly everyone traveled by train, hardly a soul was unaffected by the death of the polite man who had assisted them onto the train, often picking up a bag or helping a mother with children. The newspaper headlined the story of his murder.

October 7, 1920


"Joseph Mabie, well known conductor running a (NPRR) train between Paradise and Kootenai was shot and almost instantly killed at Paradise Monday, by Gust Wagner, proprietor of a pool hall at that place.
"It is reported that the trouble commenced over a game of cards in which it seems Mabie was the loser. In the first combat which occurred between the men in front of Wagner's place of business, Mabie seems to have gotten the best of it, but Wagner, retreated into his pool room, emerging a moment later with a pistol with which he struck Mabie over the head, following the blow with a shot, which sent Mabie to his death.
"The shooting occured at 10:30 in the morning and the unfortunate man passed away before noon. Wagner attempted escape but was soon captured and brought to Thompson Falls by Sheriff Hartman.
"It developed at the coroners inquest... that both men were under the influence of moonshine and that the real villian was 'demon rum' and that the death and disaster that has come to these men and their families is directly chargeable to this source.
"Mabie leaves a wife and three small children living at Kootenai. Wagner has a wife and child living at Paradise. "Gust Wagner is well known in Sanders County where he has resided for 20 years. Before going to Paradise he owned a farm near Dog Lake".

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Caption: Derailed Northern Pacific Railroad cars near Clarks Fork, Idaho, 1916. Courtesy Mary Easter Younker collection.
The Northern Pacific Railroad publicity department circulated a new pictorial book, Along The Scenic Highway, describing points from St. Paul over the entire line that included the following description of Sanders County seat, 
"Thompson Falls; Altitude, 2,462 feet; population, 508. Thompson Falls is another point of importance in the Clark Fork valley the principal industries of which are mining and lumbering. There is a fine water power here: The Montana Power company has a 50,000 horsepower plant here visible from the trains. The town was named after David Thompson, a prominent British explorer and geographer who was in this region and discovered the falls in 1809. This is the county seat of Sander county, etc."

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Caption: Harold Smith and Charles 'Billy' Ellis on crew to electrify the Milwaukee Railroad and catinaries that furnish power to engine through Montana mountains. They worked as partners and also on the phone lines across Lost Trail Pass, and around Trout Creek, Montana. Circa 1910-12. Smith later built Harold's Club in Reno, Nevada. Courtesy Charles Ellis collection.

"Before 1922, Fred Minear said, "the NP railroad had built a dam in Pilgrim Creek. The Noxon water supply dam, that's what it was, you see. I used to go down there and catch a lot of trout right up behind that dam. Then there was a log acrost (sic) there. We kids would take a shortcut there, coming into Noxon about where the old ball diamond was by the George Phillips place [east of the school].
"Frank 'Francis' Minear, my dad, started to work for Andrew Knutson, railroad section man. Over at Paradise they had a heck of a railroad strike because it was the center, or turn around, for the east and west train divisions.
"Then Knutson came up and asked my Dad if he wanted to go to work on the section. My Dad wanted to know if the strike was over yet. Knutson said, 'Yeah, it's settled'.
"'Yeah,' my dad said, 'I'll go to work as soon as the strike is settled'. So that's why my Dad started then, in 1922. They put him on the railroad watching these rock cuts. And there was one fella at Furlong on the cut through there but they needed somebody to work on the night shift. So Dad took over and then the fella over there either transferred or quit. He may have been transfered and my dad then had the full 24 hours. Francis, they called dad, here."*17.

1. Rhoda and Charles Knutson, tape-recorded oral history, November 18, 1983.'
2. Sanders County Independent Ledger, January 29, 1920.
3. Charles Knutson, tape-recorded oral history, November 18, 1983.
4. Sanders County Independent Ledger, January 15, 1920.
5. Sanders County Independent Ledger, April 8, 1920.
6. Sanders County Independent Ledger, April 15, 1920.
7. Sanders County Independent Ledger, May 13, 1920.
8. Sanders County Independent Ledger, August 19, 1920.
9. Northern Pacific Railroad Directory.
10. Charles Knutson, tape-recorded oral history, November 18, 1983.
11. Carmen Moore, tape-recorded oral history, January 1988.
12. Charles Knutson, tape-recorded oral history, November 18, 1983.
13. Charles Knutson, tape-recorded oral history, November 18, 1983.
14. Johnny Knutson, oral history, 1970.
15. Sanders County Independent Ledger, July 1, 1920.
16. Sanders County Independent Ledger, September 9, 1920.
17. Fred Minear, tape-recorded oral history, February 1, 1990.

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