The story of a puffing pup and a hiking trail

June 25, 2009

Wherever I travel, I’m always keeping my eyes and ears open in search of two of my favorite things — new hiking paths and good dog stories.

Last weekend when I was visiting Harlowton for the Festival of the Wind, I stumbled across a real find. A shirt displayed in the window of Passage Creek Design boasted a large picture of a retriever-looking mutt holding a pipe in his mouth. From the cab of my truck, I could make out the words, “Smoking Boomer.”

I just had to find out more.

Ty Franks, the owner of Passage Creek, gave me a short description of Boomer’s interesting life, and suggested I drive down to the old rail yard bordering Harlowton city limits on the south side at Chief Joseph Park.

“There’s a walking trail named after him,” Ty said. “And a sign that tells his story.”

A walking trail named after a pipe-puffing dog — what a score. I bought a Smoking Boomer shirt and then went looking for the path.

It was easy to find the very official Smoking Boomer information signs; the 1.1-mile rail trail — a work-in-progress — was rocky yet graded, flat and easy to follow, marked with large boulders.

“The Smoking Boomer Rail Trail was one of many ideas we considered during the 2004 Community Tourism Assessment Program,” Mandie Reed, Extension Agent for Wheatland County explained to me after my first hike on the path. “The MSU Extension, The Institute of Tourism and Recreation Research from University of Montana and the Montana Department of Commerce created this program which allowed members of the community to evaluate and decide for themselves the projects that might be best for their town. We decided to use the start-up grant for the trail.”

According to Reed, coming up with a name for the trail wasn’t easy.

“And then Jerry Miller, owner of the Harlowton Times, brought by an old postcard and a story about the dog,” Reed said. “Several articles had been written about Smoking Boomer. He was a big deal. They even had a proper burial for him after he passed. They bought a casket and everything.”

The trailhead sign reads, “Smoking Boomer was a big burley dog who rode into the Harlowton yards on a Milwaukee train in 1940 and immediately befriended roundhouse foreman Phil Leahy, who gave him a free meal. Phil taught Boomer to stand on his head, wear safety glasses and carry a briar pipe.”

Smoking Boomer was a hit with all of the passengers of the Milwaukee Road’s train, the Hiawatha; many took pictures of him walking the platform with his pipe. He lived at the Harlowton Depot until his death in 1949.

The path is in the early stages of development, and the Friends of the Smoking Boomer Rail Trail are working to gather funds for upgrades.

“Until we can raise enough money to make the trail a hard surface, we can’t get grant funds because it’s not handicap-accessible,” Reed explained. “We’d like to make enough money so we can apply for a Fish, Wildlife & Parks grant to match what we’ve raised.”

The trail work began in 2006 and locals quickly began using it for wildlife and bird-watching. FWP recently established a fishing access site on the Musselshell River just south of the site.

“The healthy aspect of walking is something we want to promote,” Reed added. “And we also want to highlight our rich railroad history here. They switched from electric to steam engines on this site. We plan to have railroad information signs along the path so you can read and learn about the switchyards, roundhouses and depot while you’re getting some exercise.”

Many volunteers from the community got the Smoking Boomer off the ground.

“We had volunteers doing all kinds of things from welding to tree planting,” Reed said. “And people showed up to help who actually still remember Smoking Boomer.”

A good dog story can take you a long way.

For more information or to become a member of the Friends of the Smoking Boomer Rail Trail, contact Mandie Reed at 406-632-4728.

Keep up with Karen Land at

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