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  • Writer's pictureMel Dick

Big Sky Country, Oil, Wheat and Cattle!

We are on our final day back to Sandpoint. No opulent and ornate Union train stations today. Just big wide-open spaces. We have spent the entire day riding through North Dakota and Montana and we still aren't to Idaho. From Eastern North Dakota to Western Montana it is over 1,000 miles. The day has been spent traveling through cattle, oil and wheat country and we are about to arrive in Whitefish Montana, approximately 3 hours from Sandpoint.

Ever wonder how much oil is in North the second largest oil producing state in the U.S. behind Texas....with much of the production being in the Williston area of the Bakken formation. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that up to 11.4 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil are in the Bakken formation and much of that oil is in North Dakota. Twenty of the nation's 100 largest oil fields, as measured by proved reserves, are in North Dakota. It also has significant natural gas and coal reserves and is a major supplier of energy to the rest of the U.S. North Dakota is also the second largest producer of wheat second only to Kansas.

Montana....the Big Sky state....also a growing producer of oil and other energy sources and the third biggest producer of wheat in the country. Did you know that Montana was part of the Idaho Territory until 1864. It's easy to see why it is known as the Big Sky state. Vast plains stretch across the Eastern part of the state, and when those plains go on for miles and miles, seemingly so does the sky. Huge herds of cattle graze the prairies and the wheat fields stretch for as far as the eye can see. It's easy to see why it is called the Big Sky state but what is the real reason it is called the Big Sky state? In 1962 the Montana Highway Department needed a name for a promotion. One of the department employees who had read the book "Big Sky" by a Montana author suggested the name Big Sky....the author gave his permission and the state became known as "Big Sky Country" which appeared on state license plates from 1967 until 1975. In 1976 the name was shortened to "Big Sky".

We traveled through numerous small towns and seemed to stop in everyone. Given the remoteness of these small communities it's easy to understand why they depend upon Amtrak for travel. One of those small communities was Malta, Montana, population, approximately 1,900. Intrigued by the name, I decided to understand more.

Malta, named for the Mediterranean island but otherwise just another ranching town that grew up along the Great Northern Railway. Founded by the railroad and settled mainly by Northern and Eastern European immigrants enticed by the railroad's offers of farmlands and homesteads. Malta, where the Eastbound and Westbound trains of Amtrak's Empire Builder pass each other, is just one of dozens of flyspeck U.S. Highway 2 Montana towns (Dunkirk, Kremlin, Havre, Glasgow and Zurich to name a few) with names borrowed at random by the Great Northern Railway promoters from all over the globe. East of Malta the railroad cross and recross the banks of the Milk River....inspiration I'm sure for the "Milk River Valley Bank" building pictured above.

Off to stretch my legs in Whitefish as we have just arrived.

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