A historic railroad water tank in the town of Elkhorn may have been built to last, but nearly 130 years in Montana’s harsh environment has taken its toll. Now a group has set out to restore the tank to its original glory.
The Northern Pacific Railroad built the tank in 1890, according to a history compiled by railway historian Bill Taylor, co-author of “Rails to Gold and Silver Vol. II.” From 1890 to 1914 the tank, which sits on private land just north of town, supplied water to the railroad as it served area mines. Replenishing steam engines was a necessity after climbing the steep grade into the mountains.
“It was part of an engine service facility with a little coal tower and a depot. There’s more there when you start looking around,” Taylor said.
While the town continued to use the tank for an undetermined period of time, decades in the elements left it in serious disrepair.
“We were afraid if we didn’t do anything about it, it’d fall over and just be a bunch of sticks on the ground,” Taylor said.
Taylor and Helena native Dean O’Neill met at a Northern Pacific Railroad convention and the topic of the tank came up. O’Neill had noticed the tank on a trip to climb Elkhorn Peak while Taylor had written about the town and its historic train line.
“We knew the tank was in tough shape and about four years ago, he and I got serious about doing something about it,” O’Neill said.
The tank is significant in terms of history, Taylor said. Most water tanks were dismantled by mid-century as steam engines were replaced by diesel locomotives. The tank is the oldest in the area and is the only known NPR Standard Plan 48,000-gallon tank of that era still known to exist.
“I’m somewhat of a train historian and to me, going up there I think of how odd it is that there was a train line up to a somewhat obscure ghost town tucked up in the mountains,” O’Neill said. “It’s unique to be able to save something like that.”
In 2012 they launched the organization Friends of the Elkhorn Water Tank. Its first task called for stabilizing the structure and by 2013, “Phase 1” was complete.
Bruce Bell’s family’s presence in Elkhorn dates back to 1888 and his great grandfather, who worked at the livery stable. Bell still enjoys going to his family cabin in Elkhorn and the history of the place.
“It was always kind of every summer we’d take a pilgrimage up to the water tank and just take a look to see what kind of condition it was in,” he said. “I really love Montana history and my family ties to the area are why I got involved.”
In 2016 Bell “lit a fire under us about finishing the project,” O’Neill said. “Phase 2” called for dismantling and restoration of the tank, and earlier this summer, the dismantling got underway.
Restoration means contractors and expenses. Grants from the Montana History Foundation and NPR Historical Association and donations from Marks Lumber and Home Depot have brought the project a long ways, but the group is still soliciting tax deductible donations.
Work needs to be completed before snow falls, Bell said.