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History of Red Lodge, Montana

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Red Lodge lies in south central Montana and Carbon County, next to the Absaroka-Beartooth ranges. This small ranching community looks onto 28 peaks rising over 12,000 feet. The famed Beartooth Highway lies to the south of Red Lodge, neighboring the Wyoming northeast border along with Yellowstone National Park. The 69-mile drive with dramatic switchbacks reaches heights of nearly 11,000 feet and looks over snow-capped peaks, glaciers, alpine lakes and plateaus. Historic downtown Red Lodge features businesses built from the 1880s to 1915.

The quaint little town of Red Lodge is a place you may see cowboys, Indians, and mountain men roaming a downtown that is on the National Register of Historic Places. On and off Main Street are homes and buildings constructed during the coal-mining boom from 1893 to 1910. Originally a resting place for Crow Indians, this valley was eventually discovered by European settlers, and with the opening of a post office in 1884, the town of Red Lodge was officially established.

Like many towns in the West, Red Lodge was built on mining. The Rocky Fork Coal Company opened the area's first mine in 1887. By 1891, more than 400 Finns, Scots, Irish, Italians, Slavs and Scandinavians worked the East Side Mine, digging an average of 100 tons of coal a day. A year later the population soared to 1,180. By 1896, the vibrant town of Red Lodge was teeming with action, filled with strong-willed folks and twenty saloons. In 1906, eight men died in the town's first mine disaster, but prosperity continued to smile on the population, which had grown to 4,000. By 1910, Carbon County led Montana in coal production and by 1911, Red Lodge boasted a population of 5,000 souls.

The Great Depression of the '30s brought great economic woes, and the coal boom started to bust. To offset the suffering, illegal bootleg liquor, labeled "syrup" was made locally and marketed as far as Chicago and San Francisco. The visionary J.C.F. Siegfriedt, a Red Lodge physician, hoped to bring prosperity back into the community after local mine closings. Congress was persuaded to authorize the Secretary of Interior to build an "approach highway" to its neighboring national parks, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. The bill was signed by President Herbert Hoover in 1931 and construction began September 4, 1931. The highway officially opened June 14, 1936 at a cost of $2.5 million.

In 1943 tragedy hit the Smith Mine near Bearcreek, the area's largest remaining mine. An explosion trapped and killed 74 miners, the worst coal mine disaster in Montana's history. The mines fell silent forever shortly thereafter. The old buildings stand as a reminder of the suffering and survival of the townspeople during the terrible aftermath.

The region around Red Lodge was originally part of the domain of the Absaroka or Crow tribes, the name Red Lodge apparently comes from red clays used to color the dwellings of a long lost people.  Spectacular outcroppings of red clays can be found today in the Pryor Mountains, about 40 miles to the east.

The origins of Red Lodge are humble, as with so many other western towns.  When the Indians lost a part of their territories in the 1880's, the land was available to settlers, who quickly located favorable sites for towns.  The town came into existence in about 1884 as a waystation and post office along the Meeteetsee trail, which ran from Billings, Montana Territory, to Meeteetsee, about 150 miles to the south.  It is not clear why a wagon and stage road was laid out so that it had to climb 2000 feet coming up to Red Lodge from Billings, then across rough country at the foot of the Beartooth Mountains, rather than the longer, but much easier route along the Clark Fork River.

Red Lodge would have remained forever a small village if it weren't for the coming of the Northern Pacific Railway and the discovery of coal.  Red Lodge is almost unique among old western mining towns that have seen a revival in the 20th century, in that it was based on coal rather than the extraction of heavy metals.  Coal was as important as gold to the agricultural communities and railroad towns that sprung up in eastern Montana Territory.  The discovery of high-grade coal at Red Lodge was followed quickly by the establishment of the Rocky Fork Coal Company in 1887.

The Northern Pacific Railroad reached the new town of Billings in 1882. By about 1887, with the entry of James Hill's railroad to northern Montana, the Northern Pacific began a period of competitive fervor. Though the Northern Pacific route was laid out near to many deposits of coal, most of the coal was relatively poor grade lignite that could be scooped from near the surface.  Since the coal deposits were far from the main line, they stimulated the development of the Rocky Fork Railroad line to Red Lodge, so the railroad could have the benefit of the relatively high-grade coal there.  Red Lodge then entered several decades of boom years, in which it quickly became one of the most important cities in Montana.

The colorful characters of the earliest years, such as "Liver Eating Johnston" were quickly relegated to the history books as Red Lodge became an industrial town.  The respectability of both the community leaders and the workers was proclaimed in the charming old houses that still stand on nearly every block in the town.  The makeup of the town was quite similar to that of other, larger industrial cities of the time.

The coming of rails led soon to the construction of a substantial commercial district in Red Lodge.  Some of the buildings from the early years are still in use.  One of the largest, and now the oldest on Broadway, was the Pollard Hotel, which opened in 1893.  The Red Lodge Historical district is centered on a fine group of downtown buildings dating from before 1910.

Visitors to Red Lodge today see little evidence of the bustling industrial activities that lasted nearly 50 years.  On both sides of the valley were large mines.  The mills and railroad yards occupied a major part of the valley bottom. The old depot (now the Depot Gallery) and a few concrete structures on the hillside are almost all that remains of that era.  The railroad yards continued southwestward from the bend in the highway at the entry to the town, past where the depot stands, filling the area now occupied by the Civic Center, a convalescent home, the True Value Hardware, and the Beartooth Market.  Where the senior center now stands was a huge mill that received the output of the mine shafts on the hillside directly behind.

The mines began to decline by the late 1920’s, following a period of strikes and labor disturbances.  At about that time new mines were established at Bearcreek and Washoe, about five miles to the east.  

Another railway branch line was built up the much easier grade from Belfry.  The mines at Bearcreek were busy until World War II.  The mines' days of prosperity were effectively ended on February 27, 1943, when the Smith Mine at Bearcreek was the site of one of the biggest coalmine disasters in American history.  The death toll was 74 men.  Minor operations have continued up to recent times, but all the big mines have been closed for many years.  The rails connecting the town with Laurel and Billings were finally removed in the late 1970's.

The character of the town changed considerably with the coming of large numbers of agricultural settlers, encouraged by the homesteading acts of the nineteenth century.  The big homesteading boom in Montana occurred in the 1910's. The peak came in 1920; there are several entire counties in eastern Montana whose present day population is less than it was in 1920.  The growth of farming and ranching in the area around Red Lodge shifted its economic emphasis from industry to commerce.  Nonetheless, the long decline continued from the 1920's to quite recent times.

By the 1920's Red Lodge was, like so many washed-up mining towns, a rather seedy and reckless place.  It attracted adventurers and people who just liked tough western saloons. Red Lodge is mentioned prominently in several major 20th century novels.  Ernest Hemingway, who made many trips to Red Lodge and its saloons, cited Red Lodge as the boyhood home of the principal character in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

The decline was arrested in Red Lodge by the growth of tourism in the 1970's and 1980's.  Thus began another social and economic shift from commerce toward recreation-oriented service.  Bear Creek was less fortunate; one would hardly know that only fifty years ago the town was a flourishing rival to Red Lodge.  Even today, however, the population of Red Lodge is considerably less than at its apex, when it was one of the most important cities in Montana.

Red Lodge and its mines attracted people from all over the world, who had come to improve their living conditions and chances for a future. The multi-cultural heritage of Red Lodge is celebrated today in the Festival of Nations that is the focus of activities in the early part of August every year.  From Finland came mine workers and construction workers.  "Finn Town" on the east side of Red Lodge still has many traces of their unique architecture, and the indispensable saunas.  From the Balkans came the strong workers who did much of the heavy work, and also tended many of the town's shops.  Immigrants from England, Ireland, and Scotland spread over all the mining districts of Montana, forming an important part of the population in Red Lodge, Butte, Anaconda, and Helena.  Italians and Germans came west too.  The last major immigrant group was the Scandinavians.  They played a large part in the settlement of the prairies of Montana and the Dakotas, but they also came to cities and industrial regions.  The handiwork of Scandinavian carpenters is can be seen everywhere in Red Lodge's splendid architectural heritage.

Red Lodge today is a small city of about 2000 people, plus another several thousand in the nearby area.  It no longer has any ties to mines, railways, or manufacturing.  Many of the businesses of the town exist to serve large numbers of tourists throughout the year, many of those tourists found inexpensive land and housing, so about 20 years ago they started building vacation homes around Red Lodge.  Within the past decade a new wave of immigration has begun to affect the area, as people have begun to seek permanent homes at Red Lodge.  For many people moving to Red Lodge involved little more than converting an existing vacation home into a more substantial home when they reached retirement age.  Newer arrivals have included many younger people, seeking a low-stress life. How this will affect the town is now the subject of much debate, as housing prices increase rapidly and the business district looks forward to growth and expansion.

Railways in Montana

Mentioning the history of cities and towns in Montana is almost impossible without talking about the railroads.  Since California and Oregon became part of the United States people had talked and dreamed of a transcontinental railway.  In May 1869 those dreams can true with the linking of two railways, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific in Utah.  But even grander dreams possessed Jay Cooke: to build a truly transcontinental railway from the head of shipping on the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean.  Construction of the Northern Pacific began in 1870 and reached the Missouri River at Bismarck, Dakota Territory in 1873.  There they were held up for several years by the fiscal panic and collapse of 1873, and by the question of how to cross the Missouri river.

The Northern Pacific was reorganized by a financial group headed by Frederick Billings (for whom the city of Billings was named), and by 1881 had reached the Yellowstone River (the Missouri was still unbridged).  They were thus the second railroad to reach Montana, being preceded in southwest Montana by the Utah and Northern (now part of the Union Pacific).

Through other fiscal maneuvers, Henry Villard took control of the Northern Pacific from the Billings group, and completed the main line in 1883.  The huge debt burden assumed by the Northern Pacific precipitated another change of ownership in 1884, by which time the people of Montana had lost considerable confidence in the prospect of service to many of the outlying towns.

Real competition began at the end of the 1880's, when the Great Northern Railway crossed northern Montana and soon began building branch lines that reached every part of Montana and the Dakotas.  By the beginning of the twentieth century Montana was served by the five major railroads: the Union Pacific, the Northern Pacific, the Burlington Line, the Great Northern, the Milwaukee Line, and the Soo Line (a subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific).  The busiest railway in the state, the Butte, Anaconda, and Pacific, never reached the Pacific coast, but operated entirely within Montana.

Since 1960, many branch lines, including the line to Red Lodge, have been dismantled.  The Great Northern, Northern Pacific, Burlington, and several smaller railways were merged into the single Burlington Northern Railway.  The Burlington Northern has recently merged with the Santa Fe to become a gigantic system with little interest in, or identification with any of the twenty-three states it serves.  After the formation of the Burlington Northern the Milwaukee quickly became defunct.  The Soo Line has given over its operations in Montana to a small independent.  The Butte, Anaconda and Pacific died with the closing of the copper mining industry.

For Red Lodge, perhaps the most important event was the railroads' switch from coal to oil as a primary fuel, beginning in the 1940's. There is still coal in the hills around Red Lodge, but no way to mine it economically and safely.

Bearcreek Montana

Few visitors to Red Lodge (and perhaps not all residents) are aware that the dilapidated nearby town of Bearcreek was once a mining and population center comparable to Red Lodge.  By the 1930's Bearcreek had a population of nearly 3000 people.  There were several large mines and a railroad to transport the coal to the main line of the Northern Pacific.  Bearcreek had all the businesses appropriate to thriving small city (and perhaps some not so appropriate).

The Smith Mine at Bearcreek was the site of one of America's worst mining disasters in 1943.  In the Smith Mine disaster, which took place in the shafts underground, 74 men lost their lives.  The mines are gone now, the last mine closed in the 1970's.  Unlike Red Lodge, there are still many artifacts of the prosperous mining industry at Bearcreek, including some that appear relatively recent.

Bearcreek, however had no other economic base, such as commerce.  It easily lost the competition for tourist business to Red Lodge, which is situated directly on the routes entering the mountains.  At the Festival of Nations and other community events one may hear occasional references to Bearcreek and the rivalry between the two towns, which would be incomprehensible without knowledge that Bearcreek was once prosperous enough to rival Red Lodge.

Red Lodge's Architectural Heritage

The architectural heritage of Red Lodge was determined by the social structure of early mining and industrial cities, and by the influx of skilled carpenters and construction workers from Europe.  Several grand mansions are still preserved on the west side of Red Lodge, where the important mine officials and merchants lived.  In other parts of the town can be seen rows of houses that were clearly built in concentrated projects--"housing developments"--to house newly arrived workers.  Many of the workers arrived as single men, so they were housed in large boarding houses throughout the town.

The immigrants brought with them both skills and traditions.  The traditions resulted in numerous houses with very distinctive appearances, built in styles that owed much to their European antecedents.  Several surviving houses are indistinguishable from houses in Scandinavia of the same era.  In other places the skill and tradition worked together to produce charming details that give the city a singular architectural homogeneity. Among the interesting historic buildings in Red Lodge is the old Northern Pacific depot.  The tracks were taken up in the 1970's, but the depot lives on as the home of the Carbon County Arts Guild. This depot was the site of a prominent flashback scene in Ernest Hemingway's novel, For Whom the Bells Tolls.

The business district, running along Broadway for several blocks, includes many buildings on the national register of historic places. The Pollard Hotel is one of the largest of these, built as a grand luxury hotel in the 1890's.

The old theater and opera house, behind the Pollard Hotel, has decayed perhaps beyond the point of restoration.  It stands as a reminder of how much of our civic heritage has been lost, or is in danger of being lost forever.

Liver-Eating Johnson

Liver-Eating Johnson is one of the strange legendary characters that have appeared so frequently in the history of the West.  He got his nickname from his supposed enmity with the Crow Indians, whose livers he was said to eat after killing his enemies.  From the accounts we have of him, it appears that Johnson was another of those unusual, and sometimes heroic western individuals whose exploits were magnified by the primitive communications that existed throughout the early West.  Like many others, he may have enjoyed the myths and done little to dispel them.

What is true is that Johnson was a large, strong, intelligent man and an accomplished Indian fighter.  After working for the army as a scout, trying a part in a group that was emulating Buffalo Bill's Wild West Shows, and a bit of placer mining, he became a sheriff at Coulson and Billings.  He then moved to Red Lodge where he became a constable of the law and acquired a certain notoriety as colorful character, with methods that weaker men might flinch from.

Liver-Eating Johnston's cabin has been preserved, and will be exhibited as part of the Carbon County Historical Museum.