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Harlowton, Montana

Harlowton, MT : Overview & Guide

Downtown Harlowton
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Harlowton, Montana, is located in central Montana, and is the county seat of Wheatland County. The county itself only has 5 towns in it. The town of Harlowton (frequently spelled Harlowtown) itself has a population of around 1100 people, although it used to be much larger during the prime agricultural years of the 1920’s. But, like other eastern and central Montana towns, Harlowton has suffered from population and economic decline due to the consolidation of the agricultural industry, the loss of a railroad, and the lack of a diversified economy.

The location of Harlowton is actually pretty nice. Three mountain ranges, the dominating Crazy Mountains, the Little Belt Mountains and the Big Snowy Mountains are all nearby. These mountains provide excellent hunting opportunities for deer and elk. The Mussellshell River also flows through town. The Musselshell has been hit quite hard by drought recently and has only so-so fishing in town, but further upstream the river can provide for some fine, if somewhat challenging, brown trout fishing.

Harlowton is an interesting and historic town that has seen a resurgence the past few years, due to both an improving agricultural economy, being the county seat of Wheatland County, and the good fortune to be down the road from a large windfarm.

Back in 2002, when I first visited, the downtown area had numerous empty and partially empty buildings. Today, though, the downtown area is busy, the storefronts are full, and the traffic plowing through town was surprisingly heavy.

E57-B Electric Locomotive in Harlowton
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Harlowton has also made great efforts to retain its historic role in the building and operation of the Milwaukee Road Railroad. Harlowton is part of the Milwaukee Road Historic Dictric. Sitting right downtown is a historic E57B Electric Locomotive that pulled the freight and passengers in this part of Montana. This locomotive was donated by the Milwaukee Road when it pulled out of Montana in 1974 (and disappeared completely a few years later).

Railroad fans will also enjoy the very nicely restored Harlowton Train Depot. This depot is home ot numerous interesting railroad artifacts, including an old switch engine, a railroad snowplow, signal lights and more.

The nearest large cities to Harlowton are Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls and Helena, each of which are about 2-3 hours away, depending on weather conditions.

During the summer, Harlowton can receive significant traffic from people “passing through” on the often times busy US Highway 12. If you happen to be passing through town and like western wear, be sure to stop at the gas station (not sure what it is called) at the junction of Highway 12 and Highway 191 that is located about 2 miles east of downtown. Inside this gas station is one of the nicest and authentic western stores you are likely to find – just be sure to hide your wallet if you like to buy western apparel.

Overall, Harlowton is a town that has struggled economically but has been enjoying a resurgence, despite the effects of the Great Recession throughout the rest of Montana. The town has a great location for outdoor purusits, and is also rich in history, especially railroad history. Those with interest in railroad history should be sure to take the 40 mile detour north off of I-90 (get off at Big Timber) to visit Harlowton. Additionally, Harlowton makes a great jumping off point for people heading into the Crazy Mountains or the Little Belt Mountains.

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