MISSOULA - Two years after its formation, the reach of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority (BSPRA) continues to gain momentum outside Montana for the restoration of passenger rail service.
Ten years after launching, a Missoula company is turning its art of map making to help the effort to create awareness and raise funds for the campaign.
When Canadian-born brothers Chris and Greg Robitaille moved south they had little idea how Chris' talent would lead to a world-renown map business. But today, marking a 10-year anniversary, their "fine art maps" are collector's items.
That gave Dan Bucks of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority an idea when he met Greg at the Missoula Made Fair last winter.
"The conversation just started like that and they asked us if we could create a custom hand drawn map to help them, you know, fundraise, but primarily raise awareness," Robitaille told me at his shop last week.
Missoula County Commissioner and BSPRA Chair Dave Strohmaier emphasized how much the group appreciates Xplorer Maps' contribution.
"Yeah, the Rail Authority is extremely appreciative of the leadership and generosity of Xplorer Maps to step up, provide this unique and custom piece of art for our efforts that really showcases our aspirations across this greater Northwest region."
Usually, it takes two years to develop a map. But the Robitaille brothers and their team pulled the map now up for auction together in months.
"So that's why we're pretty careful," says Robitaille. "We only do six new projects a year, and a couple years ago during COVID, my brother and I decided one release every year was going to be specifically for a Montana nonprofit or a Montana conservation group."
It's a long-distance effort, with the Xplorer team in Missoula ironing out details, while Chris completes the art from his home in Africa.
"He renders these by hand. Every line and letter is totally unique and original, and he definitely does use that Old World antique style. Likes to pay homage to the original cartographers that mapped the world."
Xplorer uses three tiers of illustrations to tell the story. In this case, showing rail stations, land marks, attractions and economies across the old "Route of the Hiawatha".
Robitaille says the detail is Xplorer Maps' specialty.
"And those are illustrations that we hope the more you look at the map and the more you appreciate it on your wall at home, hopefully, that you're finding those little nuggets of, you know, uniqueness. Or just interesting features that somebody else might not know anything about."
"These are not AAA road maps you know. Don't rely on them for navigating in the backcountry, but they are 100% to scale. They're 100% accurate."
Strohmaier says the brothers and their team did a wonderful job of showcasing the diversity and importance of bringing rail service back to the Southern Route, and beyond.
"This particular map shows the diversity of communities through which these rail lines will pass. The tribal nations adjacent to or crisscrossed by these rail lines and the importance that it might be for this greater Northwest region."
"You know our tagline is connecting people and place," Robitaille notes. "So we hope that our maps, and in particular this new Big Sky rail map, do exactly that. That they bring people together. They help tell the story through art, and that's what we do. We do story maps through art."