Chew Choo is a local treasure

By: 
Jacques Ruttem
News-Argus Publisher

Lewistown’s Sid Napier entertains members of the Montana Newspaper Association during a recent trip on the Charlie Russell Chew Choo. 

Photo by Jenny Gessaman 

Each year at this time visitors from across the country come to Central Montana to ride the Charlie Russell Chew Choo. It is one of our leading tourist attractions and has earned national recognition as a one-of-a-kind experience. 

For the reasons mentioned above, I feel bad admitting that I have taken the train for granted during most of the past few decades I have lived in Lewistown.   

 Sure, I have always appreciated that the train brings in a lot of tourism revenue and is good for our local economy, but somewhere deep down I always wondered if the dinner train experience really lived up to the hype.  

Over the years, I had been on the Chew Choo a few times. My kids and I have ridden the Christmas train, and when I was the sports reporter I did a special ride with the MSU football team. They were fun trips, but up until recently, I wouldn’t say I had gotten the real Charlie Russell Chew Choo experience. 

I finally got that chance last week when we hosted the state newspaper association convention in Lewistown. As the president of the group, it was my job to line up our Friday night entertainment, and it was with a little reluctance I signed us up for an evening on the dinner train.  

My reluctance stemmed from a few things. The newspaper association was here for a convention in 2011, and we had the same trip booked on the Chew Choo that year. As fate would have it, a week before our convention, the Judith River hit flood stage and twisted the tracks to a point where the train would not cross that trestle for another four years. 

I was also a little nervous because newspaper people are usually pretty frugal, and tickets for the Chew Choo can be pricey when you rent it for a private trip like we did. I wanted our convention-goers to have a good time but I also wanted them to get their money’s worth, and I was keeping my fingers crossed that the dinner train would be time (and money) well spent.  

Long story short, I should not have been concerned. The train was a huge hit. 

In fact, the convention has come and gone and I am still getting compliments from people who enjoyed their adventure on the Chew Choo. The scenery was incredible, with rolling green fields of grass and winter wheat turning to rugged hills covered in yellow sweet clover. Velvet-antlered mule deer bucks and does with new fawns were plentiful along the way, while the rooster pheasants seemed to enjoy showing off their colors as we passed by.  

Kim and the crew from Harry’s Place did a fantastic job on the prime rib, while Connie and Liz from the Chamber office provided exceptional customer service throughout the trip. And, of course, the legendary Salt Creek Gang put on a show to remember for the wide-eyed train-goers. 

As we glided along the rails it occurred to me that I have seen a lot of Central Montana by car, by plane and by foot, but on this trip I learned there is something truly unique and relaxing about traveling by rail. The slow rumble of the train gives you time to take a close look at the country you are passing through. I found myself imagining the early settlers of Danvers, Hoosac and Ware riding these rail lines and wondering what they must have thought when they first laid eyes on this country.  

One of the best parts of our journey was the entertainment provided by Sid Napier. I knew Sid was a talented local musician, but he seemed to be truly in his element strolling up and down the aisles of the Charlie Russell Chew Choo. Sid picked up his guitar on the return trip from Denton and kept us singing and laughing all the way to Kingston Junction. One of the ladies told me afterward, it was the most fun she and her husband have had in years. 

By the time we de-boarded, I was brimming with pride over the exceptional food, service, scenery and entertainment the trip had provided. 

I finally understood why so many people from so many places come to enjoy this unique experience. I had gained a new appreciation for the Charlie Russell Chew Choo and for this great place we call home. 

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