At least 20 cars of a westbound freight train derailed, according to MRL Director of Communications Andy Garland and Plains-Paradise Rural Fire Chief James Russell. Credit: Ben Allan Smith / Missoulian

Freight trains are once again moving along the Clark Fork River near Paradise, four days after a Montana Rail Link train derailed there.

On Sunday, a freight train operated by MRL derailed directly across the river from the Quinn’s Hot Springs Resort. About two dozen cars carrying commodities like beer, clay and butane went off the rails, spilling cases of Coors Light and Blue Moon all over the river bank. No one was injured in the incident. 

While MRL officials initially said that no hazardous materials had spilled, on Monday afternoon they announced that their crews discovered later that a “small amount” of fuel was released from refrigerated cars. The railroad contacted the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, as well as local and federal agencies, to come up with a plan to remove and remediate the impacted soil. The railroad also deployed a boom in the river to catch wayward beer cans. 


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“We have made significant progress at the incident site to remove many of the damaged cars, clean up debris, and begin the process of site remediation,” wrote MRL spokesperson Andy Garland in an email on Thursday. 

The first trains were expected to roll through the derailment site on Thursday afternoon. While the line along the Clark Fork River was closed this week for clean up, MRL was still able to move some train traffic via its other rail line connecting Missoula and Paradise that goes through Arlee and Dixon. 

This week’s incident near Paradise was not the first time MRL has had a derailment in the area — nor was it the first to result in cans of beer floating down the Clark Fork. In July 1999, a train derailed between Paradise and Plains, spilling 8,000 12-packs of Coors Light into the river. Locals dubbed the beer run the “Silver Bullet Derby.” The derailment was believed to be caused by a “sun kink” in the tracks, when the rails buckle because of extreme heat. The cause of Sunday’s derailment remains under investigation. 

MRL is owned by the Missoula-based Washington Companies and leases track across southern Montana from BNSF Railway. Last year, MRL announced it was ending its lease early. BNSF is expected to retake control of the line later this year. Most trains along the line, including the one that derailed Sunday, are operated by MRL for BNSF. 

Sunday’s derailment is the latest in a string of incidents nationwide to make headlines this year, the largest of which resulted in a chemical spill and fire in Ohio. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, more than 1,000 trains derail every year in the United States. 

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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at or follow him on Twitter.