A Lifetime's Work with the Great Northern Freightliner

by Stan Warner

My association with the Great Northern Stages began when I was seven years old. This was when my father, Stanley J. Warner was hired as driver for the Stages. He remained a driver for around ten years.


Click for larger image

  A 5 ton GMC single axle truck with a 18 ft. cargo body, a 22 ft. GMC 4 wheel trailer and a 10 ton GMC tandem axle truck with a 22 ft. cargo body are spotted on the East Side of the Great Falls freight house.  
  A 1936 GNRy Photo  

In 1949 he was assigned the position of Assistant Supervisor. This was the position he held when my working days with the truck line began in April of 1951. I, along with two other second generation employees (drivers) Robert C. Okrusch and Leland E. Stetson shared a very unique lifetime. We three had our livelihoods provided by the Motor Freight Division of the Great Northern Railway from childhood to our retirement. Lee Stetson and I both started our truck line working days as the shop laborer in the Great Falls garage, moving on to finish our careers as over the road drivers. I remember as a youngster being awed by the big trucks that my dad drove.

 I do not recall ever wanting to be a truck driver. However, I could not have chosen a better career or a better outfit to work for. I was hired by Mr. Frank Covell in mid April 1951 during my senior year at the Great Falls high school as the shop laborer. Mr. Covell rescheduled the job hours from 8:00 am through 4:00 pm to 2:00 pm through 10:00 pm to accommodate my schools hours. In mid June the hours reverted to the previous work hours. While working as a laborer I washed a lot of trucks and trailers, ran the floor sweeper a lot of miles, spent a lot of time chasing parts and I had my nose in the mechanical forces duties as much as was allowed. Mr. Covell warned me occasionally to, "Do your job only." One day I was summoned to the office by what I thought to be a disgruntled, Mr. Covell. I was informed "I can't keep you out the mechanics work so I am going to have to do something about this." He then informed me that I was to be one of two new apprentices if I wanted the job. In later years I found the knowledge of the mechanical work a great benefit in keeping my truck operating. In December 1954 I left the truck line to work for International Harvester Co. for a period of nine months, I returned to the truck line as an over the road driver on October 20, 1955.


Click for larger image

  Four units loaded and ready to depart Great Falls on a 1951 Sunday afternoon. The model 825 Kenworth tractors were the work horses of the fleet for many years. The Brown trailers proved to be very reliable vans for the type of service the Stages / Freightliner needed.  
  A 1951 Stan Warner Photo  

 I was on the Great Falls extra board handling any and all assignments system wide until I bid the Belton job in May 1959. Due to a seniority displacement in December 1972 I moved to Billings. This was after "M-day," which truly began another era. The Great Falls truck garage was located on River Road almost directly across the Missouri river from the Great Northern roundhouse. It was almost due south of the passenger depot on the west side of the Great Falls to Laurel tracks. It was a huge building and very well arranged. There were 2 service pits, an enclosed paint booth that would accommodate a 40' trailer, 6 over-haul stalls, injector room, machinist area with 3 lathes, along with all the other equipment needed. There was a large parts room, locker and shower room along with the office area. The freight house was to the east and north around 3/8s of a mile. The fuel house was on the north end of the lot. All things were in a neat compact package. During the apprenticeship I worked with all the mechanics, some of the best in the North West, on all 3 shifts. This was accomplished with a 6 months rotation plan that ensured a well rounded training. As an apprentice and as a mechanic I was able to work on and with almost every aspect of the functions of engines, transmissions, differentials, and any other part of the trucks "tractors" and trailers.


Click for larger image

  Two 1956 International R-210 single axle tractors with 36 ft. Brown single axle trailers. Four of thee units were used in U.S. Mail service, between Great Falls - Butte and Great Falls - Billings. The mail was delivered 365 days a year. The tractors were powered with 165 hp. Cummins turbo engines, turning through 5 and 3 speed transmissions.  
  A 1957 GNRy Photo  

It is my understanding that Great Falls was selected as the Stages hub due to its central location. The early equipment and roads greatly dictated how far a driver could travel in a work day. The very early trucks would have been hard pressed to average 30 mph. The Great Falls - Butte assignment is a good example. Considering the 45 mph speed limit imposed on trucks and the very narrow winding roads, made a 150/200 mile run into a big day. In later years the 45 mph speed limit was lifted and with newer and faster equipment on both freight and mail assignments, runs could be stretched out.

 There were 3 types of assignments;

  1 - Straight-aways

  2 - Turnarounds

  3 - Peddle runs, both turns and straight-aways

 Any and all of the equipment was used on all of the assignments. The straight-away drivers handled equipment between such points as Great falls to Butte, Havre to Glasgow, Williston to Glasgow, any job where the driver had to "lay over", take his rest prior to returning to his starting point. This was governed by the hours of continuous service rules. A driver could only drive 10 hours without rest. Turnaround drivers would leave their home terminal, travel to their destination and exchange trailers, load or unload their trailer, then immediately return to the starting point.  Great falls - Helena and return, Great falls - Havre and return etc.

Peddle runs would leave their home terminal with freight to be off-loaded at points along their route. The offload points would be Great Northern facilities, or in smaller or off track communities freight would be peddled door to door to business and or private parties.


Click for larger image

  1951 bull nose Kenworth cab-over-engine F47 pulling FT57, a 35 ft. aluminum Brown trailer. The shorter wheel based COE's were used to service Williston, ND due to the North Dakotas shorter overall length laws. F47 was powered by a 275 hp. Cummins diesel engine turning through a single 10 speed transmission into tandem differentials.  
  A 1953 Wm. Bryant Photo  

 During the 12.5 years I spent on the Belton job I found the work interesting and varied. I would receive the loaded unit from the Great Falls - Belton driver around 6:30 am. While I was down in the Flathead valley doing my thing, the Great Falls based driver would be resting for his return trip to Great Falls. The reason Belton was made the meeting point, was the hours of service rule imposed by the I.C.C. The Great Falls men could only make 3 Belton runs per week and remain within their hours of service, due to distance traveled and road conditions, especially in the winter months. During the years that we handled outbound lumber loads at Whitefish I had to find, and invent, various ways to fudge on my hours of service. My first duties would be the inspection of the arriving equipment, check the waybills and deliver whatever freight that was aboard for Belton. During the summer the seasonal depot forces would help with the door to door deliveries. In the winter the Belton agent, Mr. Don Bromley was always very helpful. On occasion the maintenance of way men would help unload the very heavy and hard to handle items. In the years I was with the motor lines I found all Great Northern employees to be a great bunch of people. The stops west of Belton were Coram, Martin City, Hungry Horse and the Hungry Horse dam. All stops in these communities were door to door deliveries, to businesses or private parties.


Click for larger image

  GMC 671 diesel powered tractor, F38 with Brown trailer FT38. The trailer is not yet equipped with a Thermo-King unit. This photograph was taken prior to 1953.  
  A Walt Peck Photo  

 At times it was rather difficult to get around on some of the back roads with the road rig. The dam deliveries were the easiest to offload as they had any and all equipment to handle their freight. Columbia Falls was the first delivery point where most of the freight was unloaded at the Great Northern depot. There were local drays at Columbia Falls, Whitefish and Kalispell. These people would pick up the freight at the Great Northern warehouses and deliver it to the local consignees. The dray men were paid by the pound. They always liked the easy to handle heavy shipments such as the liquor. The road rig went to the Anaconda aluminum plant warehouse with their shipments. This generally amounted to several thousand pounds per day. The plant used a lot of stainless steel pipe as well as black pipe. Their fork lift driver was a master at getting the pipe out from under other freight.

The Kalispell freight house was just east of Main Street, south of the tracks. The house track was on the north side of the building. The trailer dock was on the west end of the warehouse. It had room for 4 trailers. Sadly, this grand old structure was destroyed and a shopping mall now stands there. Across the tracks was the cherry warehouse. We used to handle 20 to 24 trailer loads of Brinier cherries every summer from there to Haywood City, CA via the Whitefish pig ramp. This warehouse is no longer there.

We had a Kenworth made Bruck that ran between Kalispell and Whitefish. This combination of passenger and freight unit connected with all 6 passenger trains in Whitefish daily. It also handled all of the Kalispell express. The drivers of this unit were the nos. 1 & 2 men on the seniority roster; Walter "Butch" Okrusch and Chris Putnam. Both men had been in rail service prior to becoming truck drivers with the motor lines.

 After arriving in Kalispell my next movement was governed by the piggy back trailer movement; "trailers on flat cars".  If there weren't any pigs, I waited while the Kalispell warehouse crew "and a great bunch of men they were; Doc. Whitehouse, Willard Schwartz, Fred walker, Roland Hannon" worked the Kalispell freight out of the trailer, then I would go to Whitefish to finish unloading the trailer. I would then return to Kalispell to pick up all eastbound freight, inspect the unit, fuel it and head back to Belton via Columbia Falls and the canyon towns delivering freight along the way. 


Click for larger image

  Kenworth no. 29 with Brown trailer T54 traversing a flood caused detour in Glacier National Park in 1965. T54 sports a new diesel powered Thermo-King refrigeration unit. A tractor and trailer such as pictured would generally be in service for 10 years or one million miles, which one accrued first.  
  A 1965 Walt Peck Photo  

When there was pig movement, which was around 95% of the time, I would drop the Great Falls trailer, hook up the Kalispell - Spokane trailer and go to Whitefish. I would drop this trailer in the west end of the depot parking lot, and then pull all the trailers off the flat cars, there could be up to 10 of them. The pig ramp was at the south edge of the Whitefish depot. The freight room was also in the depot. I had another great bunch of men to work with in Whitefish. Henry Velton, George Follet, Art Engelter, Orris Kastella, Harold Murphy, Jim Kajwara, Luke Higgens to name a few. The Whitefish yard office was always very cooperative about getting the information regarding inbound car numbers, trailer numbers and consignees to the drivers. The outbound loads were put on any car available. Trailers were then matched to the pig cars. This made it very easy when loading 6  to 10 outbound trailers. Generally the last car unloaded would be the first loaded. This cut down on switching.

I would then start taking the loaded inbound trailers to the consignees who unloaded the trailers. When the trailers were empty they would be picked up, returned to Whitefish and loaded on outbound flat cars. I also took empty flatbed trailers to the area saw mills to be loaded for the next day shipment out of Whitefish. When the Kalispell - Whitefish day was finished all inbound and outbound trailers would have been handled. The eastbound unit would be inspected, fueled and the waybills put in station order for delivery to points between Spokane, Kalispell and Great Falls. Upon arriving back at Belton the Great Falls driver would take over the rig and depart for home. The Great Falls-Belton tractors were in continuous service between these 2 points. They also made a Great Falls-Lewistown turn between Kalispell trips. Trailers were used on any run on a first come basis. This did not hold true with the trailers in mail service, these trailers were kept on their assigned routes.


Click for larger image

  Driver Stan Warner has spotted heavily loaded trailer number four onto the string of 7 piggyback cars at the Whitefish, MT ramp. The 65,000 lb. lumber loads would be picked up at the local lumber mills, taken to Whitefish and loaded onto flatcars for railroad shipment to points on the Great Northern system.  
  A 1961 Lacy Studio Photo  

The piggyback movement was for full trailer loads only. The inbound loads consisted of beer, paint, steel fencing, pipe, asphalt shingles, bolts and nails, construction steel and a few car racks of automobiles. The auto racks were by far the most troublesome equipment I handled. Our outbound loads consisted of lumber, Christmas trees and cherries. 

The Pollinizer cherries were processed, and brined at the Kalispell cherry warehouse then loaded into non-refrigerated trailers and pigged out of Whitefish to Haywood City, CA where they were made into Maraschino cherries. After a visit to the plant I have never eaten one of those little red or green things.

M.F.D. movements were less than trailer loads around 80% of the time, however the L.T.L. movements consisted of around 90% of our business. Over the years I found driving in the winter, despite all the snow and ice much easier than summer driving. It was not only easier, it was much safer. At times it was very difficult to contend with the vast number of summer tourist drivers. There were never any two days exactly the same. Road conditions, loads, pigs or the time spent at any one location. This all kept the job varied and interesting, such as when there would be inches of ice on the road and it would rain. It would then be necessary to run with chains on a front wheel, both drive axles and at least 2 trailer wheels. This was almost as bad as driving against the tourists.

Safety was always a prime concern. It should be noted, that during the entire history of the Great Northern Stages / Freightliner operations, there was not one job related disabling injury, or death. The entire operation had an outstanding safety record. I truly enjoyed my work as an over the road driver working for the Great Northern Motor Freight Division. We were always treated with trust and respect. The employees of the operation, drivers, mechanics, clerical and the managerial staff were all high quality people, and well above the average norm. We had the lowest employee turn over of all trucking operations in the eleven western states.

I now see a full train of pigs and containers, and I remember the first piggy back I ever loaded. It was in Havre in 1957, in the middle of the night. My thoughts were this will never work. Oh, how wrong I was. I also recall all the pigs I handled on and off the ramp in Whitefish and the other points that had pig ramps, I now know that we of the Great Northern Motor Freight Division did indeed contribute greatly to the advancement of the railroad industry. It also enters my mind that it's a shame we lost such a grand truck line when the Great Northern Stages went down.

Talk given by Stan Warner to the Great Northern Railway Historical Society convention at Great Falls, MT in 1998