Great Northern Railway’s St. Paul, Minn.-Seattle transcontinental main line, now part of BNSF Railway, was built in the early 1890s as the northernmost such route in the United States, crossing the Continental Divide in the Lewis Range at Marias Pass, 5,213 feet above sea level. The Great Bear Wilderness in Lewis and Clark National Forest is south of the pass and Glacier National Park is to the north.
To successfully cross the pass, the railroad built snowsheds to protect the right-of-way and placed them at strategic spots throughout Marias Pass. Today, 11 sheds of various lengths are still used daily by BNSF, the shortest measuring 342 feet, the longest 1,420 feet — placed end to end they stretch 1.3 miles. Found only on the west side of the pass, the sheds are spaced from just west of Blacktail, Mont., on the east to just east of Essex, Mont., on the west. One shed, 4C, burned down and was never rebuilt. Others have suffered non-critical fire damage of one form or the other over the years and have been repaired.
The Great Northern chose Douglas Fir with which to construct the snowsheds. Some designs are fully enclosed, while others have an open side supported by vertical timbers. All are made using 12-inch by 12-inch and 12-inch by 16-inch post timbers with cap timbers made from 20-foot-long 12-inch by 18-inch timbers. The roof timbers are 40-foot-long 12 by 12s. Many are reinforced with concrete, or have a concrete foundation. Workers regularly use shims to keep the sheds square, and Shed 9 near Highgate recently had concrete ties installed. Railroad workers are continuously engaged in an ongoing ground stabilization process by reinforcing the pillar foundations.
Great Northern records now kept by BNSF indicate that the snowsheds were originally covered with creosote. Today they are inspected on a regular basis by the Structures Team of the Engineering Department, based at the railroad’s headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas. BNSF inspectors regularly look at the snowsheds and notify Bridge & Building gangs whenever repairs are necessary. The timbers are completely retreated on a 15-year cycle. In 2007, BNSF said there is no plan for replacing or removing any of the remaining sheds. They’re still doing their jobs — keeping trains safe from snowdrifts and avalanches in one of the most rugged parts of the North American railroad system.
Best of all, it’s all visible from public places. Amtrak’s Empire Builder crosses the pass, and many of the most spectacular sheds are visible from adjacent U.S. 2. At Sheep Creek Trestle, also known as Goat Lick Trestle for the many mountain goats that flock to nearby salt deposits, there’s an observation area that provides a look at the railroad action as well as the living descendants of Great Northern’s trademark.
Railroads included in this map:
Amtrak; BNSF Railway; Great Northern