Rails To Trails: The Great Northern Historical Trail
Long ago, the Somers-Kalispell Spur line, part of the Great Northern Railway, help shaped the railroad and local history. Now, the trails has been paved and converted to a walking/biking path.
The trail is also known as the The Sonny Boon Memorial Trail. It’s part of the former Somers-Kalispell Spur Line from Somers to Kalispell, MT. In all, The Great Northern Historical Trail is about 22 miles, connecting Somers, Kila and Kalispell.
The trail is paved making it easy to walk or cycle enjoy the views of the Swan, Salish, Mission, and Whitefish mountain ranges along the fields, pastures, creeks, and cafes along the way.
It’s a great amenity of the area: miles of picturesque walking or cycling along a path in history.
Somers’ Railroad and Logging History
An historical marker along Highway 93 just south of the Highway 82 intersection, briefly explains the history of the trail and the importance of Somers in railroad and American history:
In 1901, Great Northern Railway tycoon James J. Hill and local businessman John O’Brien joined forces to build and operate a 11-mile railroad line to a saw-mill on the north shore of Flathead Lake. Hill built this spur line in record time and provided financial assistance for the construction of the sawmill.
In return, O’Brien supplied 600,000 railroad ties annually to the Great Northern Railway until 1906 when Hill acquired sole ownership of the sawmill. At Somers, O’Brien built 122 residences and a general store to provide housing and support services to the workers and their families.
By 1910, the Somers Lumber Company sawmill was the largest in the Flathead Valley, producing over 30 million board feet of lumber every year. Freight and passenger trains passed over the spur line daily carrying travelers between the Great Northern Depot in Kalispell and the steamboat terminal at Somers.
The sawmill closed and was dismantled in 1949. The Burlington Northern Railroad used this spur line until 1985.
Trailhead: Somers, MT
The trail-head is located in Somers, MT. You can’t miss it since it’s marked by the old S2 locomotive formerly used by the Somers Lumber Company.
Somers is a small town – that’s big on history. The town itself, and the people who lived and worked in Somers helped build the Great Northern Railway, and subsequently America itself.
Another sign telling the history of the town is located outside the Sliter’s Hardware store in Somers. The sign reads:
SOMERS: A COMPANY TOWN
In the late 1890′s James J Hill, founder of the Great Northern Railway sent John O’Brien into the Flathead Valley to build a lumber mill at the head of Flathead Lake. In 1900 the railroad finished a spur line from Kalispell to the mill site. It named the town after George Somers, one of its executives. The settlement quickly spawned ethnic neighborhoods called Swede Hill, Dirty Dozen, and Pickleville.
For years rivermen ran mill logs down the Flathead River during the spring runoff. Tugboats then gathered the logs in booms and chugged them over to the mill. The Somers Lumber Company grew to operate the sawmill, a tie-treatment plant, and a factory to make boxes for shipping locally grown apples. At its peak (1937) the mill employed 375 workers and produced 60 million board feet of lumber.
At one point, the company owned the townsite, 122 houses, a company store, the water and electric utilities, and John O’Brien’s mansion on the promontory – still the town’s dominate feature. Then after World War II, rapid changes in the timber industry devastated the operation, particularly the truck – hauling logs destroyed the Somers Lumber Companys profits.
In 1948 the Great Northern sold the sawmill property and the townsite to a Seattle salvage dealer. He resold it piecemeal. Only then did Somers die as a company town.
John O’Brien’s mansion, a large yellow home with matching barn and outbuildings, was recently put up for sale and sold. Hopefully, the new owner will recognize the historical importance of the homestead.
Somers it truly an inspiring, step-back-in-time kind of place. It has a unique charm. If you’re there, be sure to stop at the Somers Bay Cafe.
If you’re interested in knowing more about Somers, buying property there, or more info about the area in general, just contact me anytime.