Twice daily, Amtrak’s Empire Builder train arrives in Essex, Mont., at one of the last flagstops in the nation—and the busiest. If passengers have tickets or if someone is on the platform, the train stops. Passengers disembark as the train idles, stepping into air scented by Douglas fir and lodgepole pine.
Larry Vielleux, owner of the nearby Tudor-style Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, listens to the scanner, and if the train stops, he sends a bus for arriving guests. “Then the engineer says, ‘Highball Essex,’” Vielleux says, and the train moves east over the Continental Divide or west through the thickly timbered forests bordering Glacier National Park.
As with much of the West, trains shaped the area’s history. Essex blossomed as a railroad town in 1891 when tracks were built over the Continental Divide’s 5,280-foot Marias Pass and through the town, linking the mountains of western Montana and the windswept prairies to the east. To the north are the glacier-sculpted mountains of Glacier National Park, which explorer George Grinnell once called the “crown of the continent.” To the south is the Great Bear Wilderness.
Today, Essex has a year-round population of about 30, but in the 1920s, when retired University of Montana professor Frank Pettinato grew up there, the town boasted a population of 150, most of whom worked for the railroad.
“At one time there were two grocery stores, a pool hall, a round house for helper engines and a beanery that predated the Izaak Walton Inn,” Pettinato says. “Winters were long. The road was closed until March, but the town was filled with card games and pinochle parties. It was a gala day when the snow plows arrived.”
The stores and pool halls are gone, and the center of town—some might say the town itself—is the Isaak Walton Inn. A gathering place for rail fans, skiers and summer residents, it even served as the town’s post office until postal regulations changed following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the inn is a tribute to the Great Northern Railroad that created it in 1939: the knotty-pine lobby with the stone fireplace features train signal light fixtures, the Great Northern’s mountain goat insignia, oil paintings, model trains and dinnerware that was once used on the Empire Builder. Visitors can stay in one of the inn’s 33 rooms or overnight in one of four insulated cabooses on the hill overlooking the tracks.
The inn was named after the English author of The Compleat Angler and provided housing for engineers, track walkers and crewmen for the Great Northern Railroad. These days, rail fans from around the nation gather there twice a year, armed with binoculars and cameras, to photograph and discuss the 15 to 40 freight trains and two passengers trains that pass by the inn daily. The next gathering, billed as the 24th annual Alta/Mont Railfan Weekend, is scheduled Oct. 8-10.
“Essex is the premier rail-fanning place in Montana,” says Jan Taylor of Missoula, Mont., who wrote three books on railroad history with her husband, Bill. “Rail fans can enjoy sitting trackside, watching modern railroading and enjoying the historic connection with the Great Northern Railroad.”
With an annual snowfall of nearly 240 inches, Essex attracts skiers from across the nation who gather at the Isaak Walton Inn to use 20 miles of local cross-country skiing trails.
For more than a decade, Minneapolis teachers Liz and Lee Hickerson have been coming by train to ski in Essex. “It’s just magical,” Hickerson says. “The train stops in the quiet woods and lets you off at this quaint inn, where you can ski on groomed trails right from your door.”
Fifty summer residents own historic cabins or new summer homes in the woods surrounding the inn. Some are old railroaders who come back to enjoy the trains and wildflowers. Others are a bit newer to the area, like Alan and Sherry Connover, who stayed at the inn numerous times before building a cabin in 1986.
“My husband loves the trains; I love the skiing,” Sherry says. “It’s peaceful and quiet, and the people in Essex are wonderful.”
For more information on Izaak Walton Inn, call (406) 888-5700 or log on to www.izaakwaltoninn.com.