"Sure-thing" railroad never gains traction


George Burt was a promoter for the town of Ismay. When Ismay was first created, he wanted to name it after himself, but the post office officials in Washington, D. C. were less enthused. So it was named after Isabelle and Maybelle. Burt did get a school named after him.

Burt was also a big promoter of railroads. In the late 19th and early 20th century, every town wanted to be on a rail line. Having a depot in town was a sure sign of progress and stability. Miles City had two by 1913.

There was supposed to be a third railroad coming through any day now. It was the famous north-south railroad, also known as the Tongue River Railroad, and it would be pulling into Miles City next year.

While waiting for next year, George Burt got involved in promoting another “sure thing” railroad, the Ismay-Ekalaka Electric Traction Company.

In December of 1913, Mr. Burt was assuring everyone that the promoters of this useful road are “certain to make it go.” The company was going to incorporate for $400,000 According to Mr. Burt, “the par value of stock being $100 and they expect to sell at least 10 percent of the stock, which will be necessary before they can become incorporated.”

In 1913, the long-term plan was to electrify the line, but they would probably have to start with plain gasoline-powered engines for the first three years or so. The gas engine could be operated cheaply and required no special or expensive equipment. Based on that plan, the railroad would be running by early 1914.

One plan for selling the stock assumed that every rancher whose land would be crossed by the railroad would be anxious to invest. The theory was that ranchers on each side of the proposed route, for as far back as six miles from the track, would subscribe to the railroad at the rate of $1.25 per acre or $200 from the man who owns as much as 160 acres.

The theory was that this scheme would raise $4,800 for the 24 quarter-sections along each mile of track per side, or $9,600 per mile with both sides counted.

The investment would, of course, greatly increase the value of the land that was so near to a convenient rail line so it would be a profitable investment for the ranchman “independent of whatever value the stock of the corporation might eventually develop.”

Once the line was completed between Ismay and Ekalaka, why not expand it in both directions? This could be the great north-south railroad that had been expected since the proposed Deadwood-Miles City road of 1884.

Like all of the great north-south railroads, be it the Deadwood-Miles City or the Sheridan-Miles City or the Ismay-Ekalaka, it seemed like a great idea and a “sure thing.”

Funny how those “sure things” always turned out to be unsure.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Amorette Allison is a local historian and a columnist/reporter for the Miles City Star. She is also a former preservation officer for the city. Allison has authored several volumes on local history titled “The Way We Were,” which are available for purchase.