The Northern Pacific Railroad has been a part of Montana history since the first surveyors arrived seeking a route through the still wild country along the Yellowstone.
Sitting Bull, Gall, Crazy Horse and other legendary Sioux war chiefs tried to stop it from rolling through their hunting grounds, scaring away the massive herds of buffalo and bringing unwelcome new claimants for their land.
Lt. Col. George A. Custer and the U.S. 7th Cavalry escorted an 1873 survey crew as far west as Pompeys Pillar, skirmishing with some of the same warriors he would meet three years later at the Little Bighorn.
Finally, after a financial collapse that held up progress on the northernmost transcontinental railroad for a few years, Northern Pacific engines steamed into the new city of Billings, which it helped create, in 1882.
Ulysses S. Grant drove in the final “golden spike” connecting east to west at Gold Creek, Mont., on Sept. 8, 1883.
Members of the Northern Pacific Historical Railroad Association plan to celebrate and study the pioneering railroad in Billings this week during the group's 2013 convention.
More than 100 people have already signed up for the three-day meet at the Crowne Plaza in downtown Billings. The association also invited members of the Burlington Route Historical Association and more than a dozen are registered to attend.
The Burlington Route brought rail traffic to Billings through Casper, Wyo., and from Omaha, Neb., through Sheridan, Wyo.
Former Northern Pacific Railway employees have been invited to sit in on a casual forum to talk about their experiences working for the railroad before spring 1970.
Anyone interested should contact Kyle Brehm at (406) 656-0251 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Because the Northern Pacific has been gone for 43 years, it’s becoming more difficult to locate those who would qualify to speak,” Brehm said.
The Northern Pacific is now part of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail system.
Events begin Tuesday at the Billings Depot with a reception hosted by the Historical Association. The next two days will be filled with lectures on the Northern Pacific and how it served this region.
On Friday, participants may tour the Montana Rail Link yard at Laurel while spouses visit the Beartooth Pass.
On Saturday, the public is welcome to attend a railroad memorabilia swap meet from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The swap meet is open to the public and will feature 45 vendors. Brehm said it will be the largest “railroadiana” meet in the area for several years.
At the same time, members of the association will present daylong prototype modeling clinics. Members also will display their current projects.
The association will present a company store where model kits, books, DVDs, NP caps and back issues of its quarterly magazine, “The Mainstreeter,” will be for sale.
The annual dinner is also scheduled for Saturday. It will be the 29th annual dinner and the second time the association has met in Billings.
The association has more than 2,000 members.