Milwaukee Road-Side Attractions of Montana



On the extended engine bay…

Life in Harlowton was segmented by whistles from the Milwaukee Road yard: 6:00 A.M. Wake up! 7:45 A.M. You better not be late for work if you’re on the First Shift! 8:00 A.M. First Shift, if you’re not at work, you’re late! 4:00 P. M. Ok, your turn, Second Shift! Get some rest, First Shift—tomorrow’s a busy day…

Harlowton became the place where The Milwaukee Road changed equipment from steam and diesel power eastward to electric locomotion westward, making it one of the most important towns in the huge railroad’s operations. The roundhouse in the Harlowton yards was, in a sense, the nursery and hospice of the electrified mainline.

The substations… 1920. Over The Mountains by Electric Power Brochure.

The story begins with the construction of the Harlowton roundhouse in September 1907, around the time The Road was negotiating the acquisition of the Montana Railway Co., probably with Mr. Harlow himself. Employee Magazines for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St Paul and Pacific remembered the Montana Railway somewhat fondly as “an old streak of rust” that Milwaukee Road adopted from the harsh frontier. Construction of the yards was the work of immigrant labor from Japan and Bulgaria and it was concurrent with many upgrades to the trackage and grades coming from the east.

About a third of the roundhouse was demolished in the 1950s, but there’s a lot left.

Roundhouses are often works in progress that have to be adapted as technology changes, and Harlowton’s yard was no exception. It was originally designed for 12 bays, where an overhead crane could lift engines from their chassis while concrete pits below gave mechanics access to everything underneath.

The pits have long since been filled so the roundhouse could be used for storage.
Sliding fireproof doors and an old hydrant at Harlowton’s old yards.

Steam engines, especially, required constant inspection and maintenance. The demand to service such machines was only complicated when the line was electrified. As Harlowton was the switching point between steam and electric power, the yards had to be upgraded and retooled to deal with the new engines. The first electric locomotive left Harlowton roundhouse in November 1915, well ahead of the completion of the Rocky Mountain Division’s electrification. Power was supplied by Substation #1 at Twodot, Montana.

Substation #1 at Twodot. Electric Railroad Journal, 1915.

Larger steam locomotives necessitated the enlargement of bays 9 and 10 in 1930, and two years later bay 17 was significantly lengthened to accommodate the EF-2, a 167 foot long 3-motor electric. Steam power was abandoned in the area by the 1950s, making much of the yard obsolete, along with the shops to maintain it. Consequently, the Road tore down bays 1-8, along with a boiler shop and machine shop in 1950 that would not be needed for the diesel age. Nonetheless, the Harlowton yards continued to employ about 150 men around the clock.

No windows? Bricks? Must be for flammables.

As Harlowton was the place where the first electric of the Rocky Mountain Division departed, it was fitting that the saga ended there as well. At 11:40 P.M. on June 15th, 1974, the last electric locomotive of The Milwaukee Road was powered down at the roundhouse. Only a few years later the yards were closed for good.

Today the roundhouse is being used for private storage and the nearby circa-1908 depot is a museum.

References »

  • (1918, September 4). The Northwestern Miller, 115.
  • (1929, July). Milwaukee Road Magazine.
  • (1959). Modern Railroads, 14(1), 136.
  • Drake, J. (1914, April). Milwaukee Road Magazine, 26.
  • Clark, R. A., & Fell, J. J., Jr. (2009). Retrieved July 14, 2017, from
  • McRae, W. C., & Jewell, J. (2009). Moon Montana. Avalon Publishing.
  • Milwaukee Road Historical District, Harlowton [NRHP Nomination Form]. (1988, July 8).
  • Snyder, S. A. (2012). Scenic Routes & Byways Montana. Retrieved from
  • Stearns, H. J. (1966). History of the upper Musselshell Valley to 1920. Retrieved from