Butte is a city in Montana that thrived from producing more mineral wealth than any other mining area in the world and was one of the largest copper boomtowns in the American West, up until the mid-20th century. Evidence of its history is still visible today, including the remaining head frames (hoist towers for lifting elevators used in underground mining) and dilapidated dry houses. A dry house was a building for miners when they surfaced from the mine at the end of their shifts to be able to change out of their work clothes. Even though Butte is known for its mining history, the “Richest Hill on Earth” is also known, by some, as the home to a unique 1966 Peterbilt 351A owned by Mining City Express – and its history is rich, too.
35-year old Jimmy Johnston, born and raised in Butte, was always interested in trucks, but hadn’t really thought about driving until after high school. Since he was about 14 years old, he worked at a company his cousin owned called Rocky Mountain Traffic Control. Through the years of working there, Jimmy did a little bit of everything, and at age 21 he got his CDL, which was necessary for the work he did. When Rocky Mountain Traffic Control bought a company that manufactured concrete barriers and guard rail materials, which would need to be hauled, Jimmy opted not to drive one of their trucks. Instead, he went to the junk yard in October 2012 and bought a Peterbilt 379 daycab. That 379, still in his possession, is a 1995 glider kit with a Big Cam III 400, an 18-speed and 3:58 rears.
Being a fan of the older vehicles, Jimmy’s first car was a 1950 Plymouth and he always loved to “tinker” on it (and everything else). Around 2010, he became an ATHS National Member and in 2012 he attended their big National Convention and Antique Truck Show in Yakima, WA. While there, he saw a very faded green Needlenose Peterbilt, which he must have really liked, because he took a lot of pictures of it.
Mining City Express (Butte, MT is also referred to as The Mining City) was started by Jimmy in the early part of 2013 and was eventually hired as a subcontractor for a company to haul specialty construction equipment. These days, he hauls temporary traffic signals and provides installation and tear-down services, as well. This equipment is hauled on either his 53-foot flatbed or 53-foot RV transport style trailer, and mostly in the West, but he has hauled plenty to the Midwest, as well.
Fast forward to 2016, when Jimmy decided he wanted a “little window” Peterbilt – not just to own, but to build and drive, which was not a far-fetched idea, considering he does all his own mechanical work and metal fabrication. A mutual ATHS friend, Jeff Hinch, was helping Jimmy locate some parts and introduced him to Buddy Hoehn at an ATHS chapter meeting. Unbeknownst to Jimmy, up until they met, Buddy was the owner of the previously mentioned Needlenose. Buddy had a couple of 358 hoods for sale, and Jeff mentioned to Jimmy that he should go and look at them. Their in-person conversation quickly shifted from the 358 hoods to Buddy’s 351A and ended with Jimmy buying that Needlenose.
The rig, dubbed “The Duck Truck” by Jimmy’s mom Linda (there’s a duck painted on each side from a previous owner), is a 1966 Peterbilt 351A, with the “A” standing for aluminum, which is a designation of the truck’s aluminum frame. Jimmy has the original build sheets for this truck and is now the 4th owner. The truck was ordered August 19, 1965, through AEC (Automotive Equipment Company) based in Seattle, WA, and was spec’d as a log truck. Painted Pine Tree Green Metallic with Charcoal Grey and white accent stripes, the faded paint you see on it today is original. But Kenny loves that patina look and has no intention of repainting it and “destroying” all that history.
The truck’s first owner, named Ed Gullieson, took delivery of the truck on October 29, 1965. For reasons unknown, a few years later, Drake Harkness bought the truck, which originally had a 335 Cummins with a 5+4 transmission, but he replaced it with a 400 Big Cam II Cummins, which is when the duck was painted on the doors, as well. Drake was also a logger and owned the truck for a very long time until it was purchased by Buddy Hoehn. Buddy had stripped the truck of all the logging gear, shortened the frame by 32 inches, stretched the wheelbase 12 inches and installed the RTO 14613 transmission. Jimmy took the truck home in January 2017.
The idea of buying a second truck was to run it during the warmer months and run his 379 during the winter, which started out well, until March of 2019, when the 379 came home on a hook. Since then, he is running this 351A full time, and any available off-time he has is spent working on the powertrain, with plans to have her completely gone through by this summer, including an upgrade to an N14 Cummins motor. The 379 is also undergoing a makeover, and Jimmy hopes to have the revamped rig back on the road this summer.
The 351A boasts a Big Cam II Cummins under the hood, a 13-speed transmission with a 1241C auxiliary transmission, 3:55 rears mounted to a Peterbilt Low AirLeaf suspension, and a 252” wheelbase. The truck also has an air-ride front suspension, and the spring hangers were moved to the top of the frame rails to lower the truck. Currently, the truck has 6” Dynaflex Chino stacks, an 18” tapered Valley Chrome bumper and Hogebuilt half fenders. If you look closely at the frame, you will see that not all the bolts are possessing chrome nut covers, but instead feature strategically placed bottle caps pressed over them.
I first met Jimmy in May 2019 at the ATHS National Show in Reno, NV and was able to get a good look at his truck, as well as hear part of his story, when Big Rig Videos produced a video at the show. I hadn’t been to Montana since my first trip in 2001, but I knew this would be the perfect opportunity to go again. Plans were made to attend the 2019 Great Salt Lake Truck Show in Lehi, UT and tie a trip to Montana with it. Along with Jimmy’s truck, I coordinated with Shawn and Amy Cielke to shoot their W900, Road King (featured in the January 2020 issue). I drove from Utah up to Haugan, MT and then on my way back down I went to Butte to meet with Jimmy and start scouting out where we would shoot his truck. Some might laugh, but I got to help Jimmy prep the truck for the photos, and for those who know me, you know I enjoyed every minute of it.
One of the amazing sites in the city is “Our Lady of the Rockies” which stands on an elevation of 8,510 feet atop the continental divide overlooking the city of Butte. This statue is 90 feet high and visible from almost every point in Butte – and it lights up at night! The vision was had by Bob O’Bill in 1979 when he promised the Virgin Mary, if his wife survived cancer, he would build a statue in her likeness.
Through the assistance of others, including Roberts Rocky Mountain Equipment (Mack Truck dealer), who owned the shop Jimmy leases today where part of it was constructed, the statue was completed. The base is made of 400 tons of concrete and was finished in September of 1985. On December 17, 1985, it was hauled in four pieces by a Sikorsky Sky Crane (helicopter) and the Nevada Air National Guard team. With thousands of spectators present, the final piece (the head section) was placed by support from the Montana National Guard, the U.S. Army Reserve from Butte and teams of civilian workers. It really is a neat sight to see.
Our first location for photos was just north of Butte off I-15 on a frontage road with an old log schoolhouse in the background within the area known as Elk Park. I-15 was also the designated 4-lane to capture some rolling shots with some beautiful Montana scenery in the background. We also shot a few photos at the Granite Mountain-Speculator Mine Memorial, which was unveiled on June 8, 1996, and dedicated to the 168 miners who perished in an underground fire in the tunnel that connected the Granite Mountain and Speculator Underground Mines in 1917.
Another place we took pictures was a location Jimmy has that he uses for storage, and we set the truck up against one of the previously explained “Dry Houses” (part of the Anaconda Copper Mining machine shop), located on the same property. One of the backdrops is the head frame of the Kelley Mine, which was the most productive hoisting shaft in America. This mine was the last underground mine established on the Butte hill, and the last one to close.
For the future of the 351A, Jimmy plans to add air conditioning, install a Mercury sleeper and switch out the 6” stacks to period-correct 5” pipes with heat shields. He recently found a brass duck head (that is fitting for the truck’s nickname), which he modified and polished to replace the swan you see on the hood in most of my photos. He also recently acquired the original bumper which is made of aluminum. Special thanks from Jimmy to his parents and close friends for all the support and help they have given him throughout this exciting trucking adventure.
Some people sputter “old school” like it is a fad, but there are those who live and breathe how trucking used to be and make every effort to preserve it. Old school is a way of life with the trucks you drove, the trucks you drive, the way you present yourself and the pride in the industry you are so passionate about.
To some, Jimmy Johnston may not be thought of as an “old school” trucker, since he does not have a long trucking history, but he is an old soul who works hard and listens to the older generation, many of whom that have been trucking longer than he has been alive. Jimmy dresses and presents himself in a way which shows professionalism and is reminiscent of the “old school” look some remember from way back when.
My trip to Montana was extremely memorable, to say the least, and I totally enjoyed learning about different parts of the state and a good amount of history on Butte. I am grateful for Jimmy’s time in making this all happen, for a great new friendship and humbled to have the opportunity to tell his story. Butte is a city rich with history that earned its nickname as the “Richest Hill on Earth” for what was found beneath it – but, more importantly, for the heart and soul of the people of The Mining City. As always, to all the drivers out there doing the deal, truck safe.