RV stuck in the underpass? It must be summer in Miles City

Amorette Allison
Star History Columnist

Among the inevitable signs of summer in Miles City is the first recreational vehicle of the season getting stuck in the underpass.

We may look at that dip in the road under the BNSF tracks as an ugly, inefficient necessity but the underpass, in its time, was seen as a sign of progress and beauty.

For many years, Main Street was like all the other crossings in Miles City. It was a surface crossing. The problem was, the modern crossing signal did not exist. At best, a flagman might be sent down from the depot to warn traffic of an approaching train. At worst, people and cars were struck when crossing.

Part of the problem was the multiple tracks at that that point. Trains could pass each other and a pedestrian might see one train vanishing and neglect to see the other train approaching.

Since that crossing was the busiest in town, it was decided that the Northern Pacific Railroad, the Montana Highway Department, Custer County and Miles City would get together and create a safe way for vehicles and pedestrians to deal with the crossing.

It was more than just a run-of-the-mill project. The “subway,” as it was commonly called, was built in 1932, at the depths of the Great Depression. There were no other constructions projects in town and hadn’t been for a couple of years. No highway projects. No city projects. No commercial growth at all. 

Times were so tough, the city left snow shovels in front of city hall during the winter months so out-of-work men could pick one up, spend the day shoveling streets, and be paid 50¢ when they brought the shovel back at dark.

It had taken both the city and the county years to save up the necessary contributions to the project, $9,500 for the city and $10,000 for the county.

Not only was the subway project a sign of progress, it provided local work. The general contractor for the project, Jerome Boespflug of Miles City, noted that rather than haul in gravel, the NP had generously allowed local workers to dig and haul the gravel.

The opening of the subway was a major event, complete with parade, marching band, and with speakers like two Supreme Court justices, members of the state highway commission, the mayor and, of course, representatives of the NP.

The NP district agent spoke quite poetically about the project

 being the first in a long time and sign of the improving economy.  “Pass through and under the arch, but slow up and look around the corner for prosperity.”

It would actually take several years for prosperity to return but the subway made it all seem less bleak.

Over the years, the subway became the underpass. It became a holding pond for water during heavy rainstorms. It was considered obsolete and was scheduled to be replaced several times. 

As the road was resurfaced and drainage was added, it also became shallower and shallower. In the 1970s, the sign over the underpass read “12 ft 0in.” It was known as the home of the twelve-foot “oin,” which was assumed to be a very large pigeon.

Today, the oin is gone and the sharp dip at the bottom, combined with the 11 foot five inch clearance means trucks and RVs are often caught there.

The highway department has put up new sensors and flashing lights and signs but the weary tourist still often loses an air conditioner or simply blocks the road as they pass under and get stuck in the subway.

Ah, summer time in Miles City.