Exploring the Kootenai Trail
Early settlement of the Tobacco Valley was closely tied to the extension of the Great Northern Railroad from Columbia Falls to the Town of Rexford. This railroad link was started in 1901 and finally completed in 1904. It was built to connect the Fernie Branch Railroad which hugged the east bank of the Kootenai River to gain better access to British Columbia. Following the completion of the line, trains also brought in farmers from the eastern states. However, the biggest result of the arrival of rail service was access to lumber markets and the development of a timber economy in the Tobacco Valley area. By 1909, the Eureka Lumber Company was the largest industrial enterprise in Lincoln County.
Fast forward to 1997, when the Sunburst Community Service Foundation began a collaborative effort with various agencies to establish the Kootenai Rails-to-Trail from downtown Eureka to Lake Koocanusa along this same railroad line. Together with the US Corps of Engineers, the US Forest Service, the Tobacco Valley Ranch landowner and the railroad, these organizations and individuals gathered all the permits and agreements needed to have a continuous 7.5 mile public trail suitable for walking, cycling and horseback riding. Since that beginning, the trail has gotten better and better as the US Forest Service maintains brush and fallen trees and the Tobacco Valley Ranch deeded an easement to Sunburst to insure the continuity of the trail. Benches, a picnic table and restrooms are set up for convenience along the route. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has helped with funding for improvements on the trail. This coming spring interpretive signs will be erected. The signs are also a great collaboration between 221 Dewey Design, Derek Hickman's Eagle Scout Project, Forest Service staff who have helped with the text for the signs and Sunburst. The Kootenai Rails-to-Trail is definitely a community effort that benefits not only Tobacco Valley residents but visitors as well. Walking along the trail, one sees families strolling, young joggers, and Eureka Women's Trail Trekkers among the many trail users. Take some time soon to explore the trail and its lovely route along the Tobacco River.
About the Author: Rita Collins. I am a believer in the power of community and for now I call the Tobacco Valley home. I have lived in nine states and three counties and this community here amazes me - how people reach out to neighbors and even travelers. I've never lived in a place that demonstrates people caring for each other so well. And I've never lived in a place that has such a high percentage of talented musicians and artists. I work with the the Sunburst Community Service Foundation, a nonprofit that began in Eureka twenty years ago and now serves numerous communities in western Montana. And I just started a new business, St. Rita's Amazing Traveling Bookstore and Textual Apothecary. I never could have imagined life being this exciting in my sixth decade.