The Lumberjack’s Box Car Library

The problem of getting books into the hands of readers has been solved in many ways over the centuries. One of my favorites is the bookmobile. A classic, and staple of American rural life in the 20th Century, but in 1919, there was something else to get books into the hands of the lumbermen in the employ of the Anaconda Copper Mining Co. The Anaconda company is one of those “too big to fail” sorts in the history of Montana — it’s name was apt. But that’s not to say this wasn’t a great idea getting books to readers where there were no roads.

Beginning in 1919, this railroad boxcar, now found at Historic Fort Missoula, was refitted to be a library on rails to serve the mobile timber camps in western Montana. The men and their families could be in these remote camps for a few months at a time, and undoubtedly anticipated the days when the library car came. According to information posted in the exhibits, it was perhaps administered by the Missoula Public Library. I would certainly love to hear more about how this “cooperative effort” really worked between the public library and the Anaconda Co. I’d also love to get my hands on lending records — — what were lumberjacks reading in the 1920s? Especially lumberjacks with access to an ostensibly public library working for an enormous multi-national “evil empire” type corporation whose practices gave rise to the modern organized labor movement? How were books selected? Did the employees and their families enjoy it? It must have been effective since it was in use into the late 1950s as a library by the Anaconda Co. After that, it was used by the University of Montana at one of their lumber research stations — first as a library then as a dormitory. It was later used for storage, until it was discovered by the museum and acquired for restoration and interpretation of the timber history of the region.

To interpret my own photos a little, the floor plan above is oriented opposite of how the car actually sits in the first photo. The restoration is well underway. It certainly is impressive, and should be on the biblio-tourists list of stops when passing through Montana.

Of course, if you know more about this amazing piece of bibliophilic history, please get in touch. A real dream would be records, or even a book with markings that showed it was used on this unique library. Even if it’s not about this particular library on rails, I’d love to hear about others. Do any others even exist? Surely they do, but I’ve had a hard time finding any online. I know the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula would also appreciate any stories as well.

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Originally published at on October 30, 2011. Reprinted with permission in American Library Association, I Love Libraries Newsletter, December 6, 2013. ©Benjamin L. Clark, 2011. All Rights Reserved.