Railroads usually connect regions, states, cities and towns. But they also connect time, eras and centuries. In Montana, there is a direct railroad connection between the transportation revolution of the 19th century and the homestead era of the 20th. This is that story.
The coming of the transcontinental railroads to Montana Territory in the 1880s is the single most transformational economic development in the entire history of Montana. This careening generalization certainly deserves explication.
Here in the 21st century, it is impossible to recall how isolated Montana was for the non-Native population in the 19th – how out-of-the-way, how off-the-beaten-trail. Montana’s transportation history before 1880 is colorful, exciting, romantic but ultimately ephemeral. Transportation was seasonal. It was hard to get here in the summer and even harder to leave in the winter. Most people came on foot. They walked or picked their way across the plains and over the mountains on horseback. Montana was a long way from nowhere. The Bozeman or Bridger trails from southeastern Wyoming to the gold fields along Alder Gulch were hundreds of dangerous miles long. Sioux Indians resented the intrusion. They forced closure of the trails in 1868. But the next year, the Union Pacific met the Central Pacific at Promontory Point in Utah. Now the hike straight north to Montana was less than 400 miles.
Along this route – modern Interstate 15 – muleskinners and bullwhackers hauled the mighty Murphy wagons, bringing almost five tons of goods and equipment at a crack to Montana. Stagecoaches also plied this “Corinne Road,” maintaining regular schedules to Montana towns. Drivers were called “Jehus,” from II Kings 9:20: “And the driving is like the driving of Jehu, the son of Nimshi, for he driveth furiously.”
Montana also boasted water transportation for almost six weeks out of the year. Booming little Fort Benton on the Missouri River, the “Chicago of the West,” became America’s most interior port city. When the water was high in the spring, American steam vessels, built to run on a thick dew, could travel 2,600 miles up the river from St. Louis.
In terms of costs, figured at price per ton per mile, this was the cheapest way to get supplies, equipment and people to Montana. Long wagon trains fanned out from Fort Benton to Helena and the Montana mining camps and even north into Canada. But Montana’s rivers run dry in mid-summer, and Fort Benton is drydocked.
These early travel ventures are the stuff of frontier literature, but nobody expected them to last. Railroads represented the coming of age in 19th-century America, and until they reached Montana the territory would remain in its infancy. Already railroads had impacted the state. In 1853, Isaac Stevens had led a northern-tier transcontinental railroad survey through yet-undefined Montana. However, no one would build a railroad through unorganized territory. The first step was to segregate Indians; so just two years later, the same Isaac Stevens was back in Montana setting up reservations. Stevens’ chief lieutenant, John Mullan, later hacked out a mountain road across the Rockies. All this happened before the great gold rushes of 1862-1864.
Miners, merchants, farmers and cattlemen all arrived in Montana in the 1860s, dreaming of railroads. Early territorial legislatures nearly pledged their patrimony to attract them. Many Montanans must have experienced rapture when the Northern Pacific Railroad was chartered in 1864. But the N.P., although a land-grant road, suffered from extremely shaky finances and even went bankrupt during the Panic of 1873. Another line, the north-south Utah Northern, also was curtailed by the Panic.
A reorganized Utah and Northern/Union Pacific finally reached Butte on a sub-freezing day in December 1881. Two years afterward, the Northern Pacific, under the new financial management of Frederick Billings and then Henry Villard, drove its last spike at Gold Creek east of Missoula.
Just four years later, a second transcontinental, James J. Hill’s Great Northern, cut across the Hi-Line to Havre, then southwest to Helena and Butte.
Harry W. Fritz teaches history at the University of Montana.