Harmon’s Histories: The day the railroad came to town

By Jim Harmon

Imagine Missoula County with a population of 500,000 people. Then imagine that population increase happening in the span of 10 years.

For that to happen, there would have to be some incredible event – some unprecedented circumstance. So it’s improbable – more likely impossible and not happening.

Strange thing is, that kind of growth actually did happen once.

In 1870, Missoula had about 2,500 residents. Those folks had been drawn here by the fur trade and gold, which had been discovered in the region. Once here, they found the land was perfect for agriculture. Still, there wasn’t much growth. Missoula’s population remained at about 2,500 by 1880.

But in the next 10 years, the number soared to 14,427.

What happened? What incredible event occurred? What unprecedented circumstance could have caused this? Transportation. Specifically, the railroad.

In 1883, the Northern Pacific was close to connecting its eastern and western legs in southern Montana. It would happen just east of Missoula.

Before the railroad came to Missoula, it was difficult to travel or bring goods to the city. Transportation was limited to boat, horse, mule or foot. Missoula relied on huge pack-trains from the east, west or south, and then, only in the good-weather months.

So it was a big deal when the railroad came. In fact, for the better part of a year, area newspapers carried weekly progress reports on track laying.

By January, 1883, the tracks from the west were still 90 miles away from Missoula, near Weeksville, west of Plains. Still, the Northern Pacific was planning on completing that section of the line by summer – amazing, considering the rough, intimidating, virgin terrain.

Artillery, explosives and drills had to be used to clear rock from mountainsides. Forty carpenters were dispatched in the dead of winter to Marent Gulch (at Evaro Hill) to start building a huge trestle that would span nearly 800 feet, at a height of more than 220 feet.

There were similar challenges east of Missoula, including the “Big Blackfoot crossing.” In areas between the rivers and gulches, graders were busy preparing for the track layers.

By early June, 1883 it was all coming together. The Weekly Missoulian noted, “On Tuesday, June 5, 12,200 feet of track were laid. Mr. Winston has promised all his men a new hat if they get to Missoula by the 26th of June.”

A couple of weeks later, the newspaper’s editor rented a carriage, drove out west of town and viewed the progress, remarking, “… we caught a glimpse of an engine, and a thrill of pleasure ran over our frame as we thought how many years the coming of that locomotive had been looked for by the old-timers of Missoula.”

We’ll all presume the track layers got their promised new hats, because the first train rolled into Missoula at 4:50 pm., Saturday, June 23, 1883.

There was no shortage of hyperbole in the local press. The New Northwest’s Missoula correspondent proclaimed, “… the long agony is over and Missoula is a railroad town.” He continued, “Engine No. 452 steamed slowly inside the city limits, and was welcomed by the thunder of cannon, a lavish display of bunting, the cheers of the assembled populace, and last but not least the opening of Frank Worden’s celebrated barrel of N.P. whiskey, which has been hid in Worden & Co.’s cellar for about twenty years.”

Let me explain that last reference. Fourteen years earlier, back in 1869, Sam Wilkinson of the Northern Pacific had visited Missoula to discuss the prospects of the railroad coming to Missoula. Over drinks at Worden & Company, Wilkinson, Higgins and Worden set aside a barrel of whiskey to celebrate the event, whenever it might come.

Now 67 years old, and too frail to travel, Wilkinson sent Worden and Higgins a letter telling them to share the whiskey with the “thirsting crowd,” but, “when by measure it has sunk to a quarter of the barrel… pull out the spigot… then roll the precious and patriotic residue into your cellar as my property.” The remaining spirits were sent to Wilkinson in New York (presumably by “rail”).

Meantime back at the celebration, the track-laying crews were paid off and the “red hot” Saturday night drinking began. It lasted well into Sunday morning, when “the cooler was full, and the city authorities were looking for (more) cell accommodations.”

The men had a few days to sober up, before heading out to help on the eastern flank, where progress had been slightly slower. There was concern inside the Little Blackfoot tunnel, where material kept falling from above. Some thought it better to blow “the whole top off and make a big cut of it,” but an inspector recommended shoring it up with timbers instead. Meantime, pile drivers still had to finish work at Rattlesnake Creek.

In early July, upwards of 30,000 railroad ties were floated from Warm Springs to the mouth of the Blackfoot to help complete that section of rail.

In August, Northern Pacific officials ordered that all buildings in Missoula, except those owned by the company, be moved back at least 250 feet from the rails. The company had big plans for its permanent depot, encompassing passenger and freight areas, gentlemen’s and ladies’ rooms, an extensive platform, and a second story which would house company offices.

At the end of August, Northern Pacific’s President Henry Villard, a German-born journalist-turned-entrepreneur who had raised millions of dollars from his European connections to take over the line a couple of years earlier, announced his plans to gather international dignitaries in New York, and transport them west to Montana in two special trains for the golden spike ceremony. It was to be an exclusive affair – invitation only.

But, when the day came, Saturday, September 8, 1883, as many as 2,500 uninvited Montanans showed up at Gold Creek, east of Missoula, joining Villard’s 400 international guests for the ceremony.

James Mills of the New Northwest newspaper reported Villard “had erected a grand pavilion, and had taken up a quarter-mile of the main track in front of it, that his guests might see it relaid rapidly to the point of union, where the last spike… should be formally driven.”

Mills called the event “impressive and picturesque,” but also pointed out the “ridiculous (and) spectacular deception” of faking the final spike driving, given the fact trains had been rolling over that spot continuously for a “fortnight.”

He also noted the arrogance of Villard who, through much of the ceremony, turned his back on the locals who had not been invited. Ulysses Grant, however, before driving the final spike, acknowledged the crowd and the role of veterans and pioneers who had opened the West. The uninvited crowd went wild.

Puck, a national satirical magazine, featured the ceremony on its October cover. It took a shot at Villard, in the form of an unflattering characterization of a “cowboy talking to a British nobleman who is standing on papers labeled “Brutality, Vulgarity, Insolence, Arrogance, Selfishness, [and] Boorishness”, with an “Invitation N. Pacific R.R. Opening – Villard” extending from a pocket.”

Still, it was the seminal moment for Missoula. The arrival of the railroad allowed this place to grow from a somewhat insignificant western town to today’s modern Garden City.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here for those among us who might not appreciate the importance of improved transportation, in the form of modern air travel and timely connections, to Missoula’s future potential for growth.

Jim Harmon is a retired journalist whose 50-year career included nearly three decades at KECI-TV, Missoula in roles ranging from news anchor to weather forecaster. In retirement, Jim is a landscape gardener and history buff who’s spent years reading historical micro-film newspapers. You can read his weekly history column at the Missoula Current.