Saturday, October 10, 2009

Troop train ...

During the World War II years, the United States military made extensive use of the railroads to transport its soldiers across the country. Chartered "troop trains," each carrying hundreds of men, frequently traversed Montana on each of the state's east-west railroads as part of journeys that often lasted for days. For many veterans of the era, it marked their first -- and perhaps only -- introduction to our state.

Here's an excerpt from a reminiscence of one such transcontinental adventure, undertaken by a young soldier named Donald M. Brown in 1945 and later retold in an essay titled "Journeys on World War II Troop Trains." Brown's train crossed Montana from east to west, following the route of the Northern Pacific ... and for the purposes of this story you should note that back in those days, when you flushed a toilet on a passenger train, the waste was dumped directly onto the ground below.
The total trip was five days and five nights on the train. It seemed to us that the troop train was a low priority on the railroad. We would pull on a siding to let a train of tanks, trucks, or tank cars pass by. There was a lot of war materiel heading west at that time.

Even in late May, the weather was hot on the western plains. The old cars were cooled by ice when we could get some at service stops.

During the journey, we were given little chance to exercise. With 1,200 men stuck on a train for days, we stunk and were out of sorts. We were told we could get off the train in Billings, Mont., but the station management had had enough of troop trains that day and forced us to remain on board. So before we left, word was passed through the train to flush the toilets in each car before we left town. This was our gift to Billings.

Later in the evening, we pulled into Livingston, where we sat for at least an hour. It was dark, and we saw people along side the train with with baskets of cookies, doughnuts, sandwiches, and jugs of coffee. Compared to the cool reception in Billings, this was a welcome surprise. Livingston was not a large town, but they sure treated us well.


  1. Not sure when it was built but the restored train depot in Livingston is a wonderful place to visit. But for the incessant wind, it's a lovely town. Can't say as much for Billings...sorry.

  2. Yep, the LIvingston depot is a handsome one ... and it was built way back in 1902. Billings has a nice old depot, too, but like you I'm not much of a fan of the town. Livingston is a great little place, though, and lots of fun to visit for a day.

    Montana actually had quite a few great old train stations, and nearly all of the major ones are still around, too. Too bad we can't say the same for most of the trains!

  3. Old depots grab the imagination, at least for me. And I find it intriguing that the Billings experience is universal, through the generations.

    A friend and I once discussed the personalities of Montana towns, and when we got to Billings, we both agreed that it was trying to be a big city, but only succeeded in sprawling, not maturing. It's very self-important and self-serving.

  4. Yeah, there's something unique about a railway station ... the way it was once such a hub of activity, and how it served as the gateway to the outside world for an entire generation.

    And you've pretty much hit the nail on the proverbial head when it comes to Billings ... it thinks it's a big city, but it's really just a small Midwestern town with a bad case of sprawl. So it has many of the disadvantages of both small towns and big cities, but few of the advantages of either. A pretty charmless place, I think.