History

The Great Northern Railway's MONTANA MOTOR FREIGHT DIVISION, The GREAT NORTHERN STAGES, became a true truck line on July 16, 1935. On this date the Great Northern Railway dropped its Montana passenger bus operations, of which the trucking department had been a part.

     
 

Click for larger image

 
  A 1934 TW/95 GMC Truck and Trailer. Equipped with a six cylinder gasoline engine, a single 5 speed transmission turning into tandem axle double reduction differentials. The truck had a 22 ft. body, the 4 wheel trailer also had a 22 ft. body.   
  A 1936 GNRy Photo  
     

The first trucking equipment roster consisted of;

 

 

All were General Motors trucks and trailers. The trucks were powered by gasoline engines.  Three additional GMC truck and trailer units were purchased prior to 1939.

     
 

Click for larger image

 
  1939 GMC tractor F18 pulling FT18, a 34 ft. Fruehauf trailer. F18 was the first diesel- powered unit the GN Stages purchased. The GMC engine was a 671 series producing 170 hp, turning through  5 speed main and 3 speed auxiliary transmissions into tandem differentials. Trailer FT18 was painted silver after being wrecked and repaired.  
  A 1943 L.E. Eschler Photo  
     

In 1939 the Great Northern purchased ten GMC units, all powered with the "71 Series" diesel engines. Three single axle tractors with 471's, three tandem axle tractors with 671's and four trucks with 671's.

 The trucks had 24ft. boxes and pulled 24ft. trailers.



The Stages' Jimmies, were almost overmatched during World War Two, being required to operate during a period of extreme shortages of parts and tires. The Stages' talented mechanical forces were forced to invent strange but useful methods of keeping the equipment on the road. Purchase of new equipment during the war was impossible. The Great Northern had to get permission from the U.S. War Department to build a new garage-shop for the Stages in late 1944. This large building was built in two stages. It was completed in 1949.

     
 

Click for larger image

 
  Four model 825 Kenworth tractors with thirty-five foot Brown trailers. The KW's were powered with 300 hp six cylinder Hall Scott gasoline engines,  a two transmission system, a 5 speed main along with a 3 speed auxiliary, turning into tandem axle differentials, The units rode on 11:00x20 tires.  
  A 1948 GNRy Photo  
     



Shortly after the war ended the purchase of new equipment resumed. Between 1946 and early 1949, nine Kenworth tandem-axle tractors and several Brown trailers were added to the roster.

Due to an expansion of routes in 1949, additional equipment was needed.
In July of 1949 the truck line purchased 10 new GMC tractors. In addition several  Brown and Trailmobile freight trailers were purchased. Beginning in 1950 through 1969, 51 tractors both

     
 

Click for larger image

 
  Freightliner tractor 58 with trailers 2414 and 2409 between Billings and Great Falls. The four-wheel-drive Freightliners proved to have exceptional traction on ice covered mountain roads. The 4x4 Freightliner tractors were purchased to be in doubles service only. They were powered with 275 hp. Cummins diesel engines, a single 10 speed transmission driving through a transfer case to the front and rear axles.  
  A 1963 Walt Peck Photo  
     

 conventional and cab-over were purchased for both singles and doubles service. Purchased were ten Internationals, eight Freightliners and thirty-three Kenworths. A mixture of thirty, 40ft. Brown and Comet single trailers, twenty, 24ft. and thirty-two, 27ft. doubles trailers were added. Between 1959 and 1970 all trailers were equipped with Thermo-King Refrigeration units.  Prior to 1959 the trailers had been equipped with ice bunks for cooling. During the winter months charcoal heaters were carried, keeping perishable items from freezing. Cooling or heating was mandatory due to the large amount of perishable goods handled.

     
 

Click for larger image

 
  1949 Model 825 Kenworth F33 pulling 40 ft. Brown trailer FT403. The trailer is equipped with a Thermo-King refrigeration unit. Cooling or heating was mandatory due to large amounts of fresh meats shipped out of the Billings packing plants.  
  A 1956 Walt Peck Photo  
     

The Great Northern Stages, renamed in 1950 as, Great Northern Freightliner was a division of the Great Northern Railway. This small Montana based truck line was headquartered in Great Falls, MT, the state's geographical center. The original truck routes were, with Great Falls as the center point hub, Butte, Lewistown, Browning, Shelby-Sweet Grass and Havre along with a Havre-Shelby and a Shelby-Cutbank route. All communities along the routes were served, generally twice per day. In 1949 and 1950 routes within MT to Billings, Kalispell and Glasgow, and service to Williston, ND were added. A direct Billings-Glasgow route was added in the late 1960's. Note, the original 1936 and the 1949 expanded service maps.   During the peak years of operation there were 56 over the road drivers, 14 mechanics, 2 office clerks and a supervisor of trucking operating out of the huge garage-shop in Great Falls. The building measured 120ft. X 200ft. With a bowstring roof there was a 23,500 square foot column-free service area. The truck line had it's own pickup and delivery service in Great Falls, Billings, Cut Bank and Havre. All other community's had local contract dray service.

 

     
 

Click for larger image

 
  1951 Kenworth Bruck no. 101. This unit was 40 ft. in length, with a passenger capacity of 20 and a 20 ft. cargo and baggage compartment. 101 was powered with a 300 hp. Hall Scott gasoline engine, in the pancake mode, turning through a 10 speed transmission into the tandem differentials. She was painted in the Great Northern Empire Builder color scheme.  
  A 1952 Wm. Bryant Photo  
     

Passenger bus service between Kalispell and Whitefish, Great Falls and Havre, and Williston, ND and Scobey, MT was handled by the trucking operation. This service replaced passenger trains between these communities.     

The truck line boasted of having the lowest employee turnover of all trucking operations in the eleven western states. Working for this close knit operation, were 6 father & son teams along with 4 teams of brothers, all working during the same time period spanning several years. Safety was of prime concern. During the years of Great Northern operation, there was not a single job related disabling injury or death. Many of the drivers had extraordinary records of twenty-five plus years of absolute accident free performance despite the narrow, mountainous and ,very often, ice covered roads they traveled. The truck service averaged 2.3 million miles annually, with ninety percent of the tonnage handled as LTL, (Less than Trailer Load)  and the balance of the tonnage being full trailer loads.  The trucking service offered customers much greater flexibility and moved commodities much more rapidly and more economically than could have been accomplished by local train service.

The Great Northern Stages / Great Northern Freightliner system met it's demise when the Great Northern, Northern Pacific and Burlington railroads merged, forming the Burlington Northern Railway on March 4, 1970.


  
Written by Stan Warner