When steam locomotives were in their heyday, crisscrossing Montana, hauling passengers, freight, mail, and other goods, the coal to fire those locomotives came from an area in southeastern Montana that has become synonymous with coal mining. Even the name, Colstrip, is a combination of the word "coal" and the process used to extract it from the ground "strip mining."
Just under the surface of the ground is a rich vein of lignite, a type of low sulfur coal that burns more cleanly than coal from other parts of the country. The coal deposit here is nearly flat, making it relatively easy to mine.
In 1959 — about the time the railroad was switching to diesel engines — the Northern Pacific Railroad sold the coal leases to the Montana Power Company — a deal that included all the machinery to mine the coal and the Colstrip townsite. A Montana Power subsidiary started mining the coal in the late 1960s, and at that time Colstrip consisted of about 60 houses, two churches, a school, a grain elevator. Today, Colstrip is a thriving community in the shadow of the huge electric generation plants.