Last Updated July 14, 2003
Nearly 200 years ago, in April 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their pirogues wended up the Missouri River just past the Yellowstone into what now is Montana. It was wild, open country, under a big sky--and most of it still is. The late historian Stephen Ambrose, who took his family to Lemhi Pass at the other end of Montana, nearly 500 miles west, where Lewis became the first American to cross the Continental Divide, to celebrate July 4, 1976, noted that the land was little different from when Lewis and Clark passed through. Ambrose later retold the Lewis and Clark story in Undaunted Courage and he and his family settled in Montana; they are far from the only outsiders who have moved, part-time or full, into the Big Sky State in recent decades.
Yet American civilization has touched down only lightly on Montana. It is still a land of great empty vistas, with mountains in the west and vast expanses of plateaus and plains in the east--the 4th largest state in area and 44th in population. Almost nowhere in the state are wilderness and empty land out of sight. Montana sits atop America, spanning the Rockies so that on I-15 you can cross the Continental Divide three times. But since the time of Lewis and Clark, it has not been much of a crossroads. The first Americans here were itinerant trappers seeking fur and miners seeking gold, silver and copper, who built ramshackle towns where outlaws battled vigilantes--and, in a few cases gained sudden riches, which would make them kings not of this barren land but of the metropolises back East. Then came the workers who built and serviced the Northern Pacific and Great Northern railroads, followed by wheat farmers and ranchers. Montana's natural history is ancient: At Egg Mountain near Choteau on the Deep Teton River, is the world's most plenteous source of dinosaur remains. But the state's recorded history is recent: At its 1989 centennial, the son of one of its original cattleman-settlers watched 105 cowboys drive 4,000 cattle with 300 covered wagons trailing behind.
Statehood came less than a century after the first white Americans came here as agents of the government--the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805. The mining economy gave Montana a radical, class warfare politics. On one side was the Anaconda Mining Company, which until 1959 owned five of Montana's six daily newspapers, many of its utilities, and many of its politicians. It had strong allies in the Stockmen's Association and the Farm Bureau. On the other side were progressives like Senators Thomas Walsh, who exposed the Teapot Dome scandal, and Burton Wheeler, a New Dealer who broke with Franklin Roosevelt over court packing and isolationism, the labor unions (Montana has no right-to-work law and is the most pro-union state in the Rockies), and pork barrel beneficiaries (for a while in the 1930s, Montana received more federal money per capita than almost any other state). The locus of all this was Butte, with its gold and copper mines on ''The Richest Hill on Earth,'' with its gamblers and bootleggers, company goons and union thugs, IWW organizers and Socialist mayor, and millionaires who bought seats in the U.S. Senate. Today the mines are closed, the ore depleted, and the stone temples of commerce are grim; looming mineheads are being restored to a cleanliness they never enjoyed in the boom days.
Butte's population peaked in 1920, mines gradually closed all over the state, and agriculture--wheat growing and cattle grazing--became the mainstays of the economy. Class warfare died down. Other towns grew, though none is over 100,000 yet: Billings with its agricultural marketing in the east, the university town of Missoula, Great Falls just east of the Rockies, Kalispell near Flathead Lake, the university and resort town of Bozeman, and the state capital of Helena. The muscular tone of a land settled by ranch hands, miners and railroad workers, of cowboy hats, boots and blue jeans, of men who do hard physical work and relax hard afterwards, remains a link with Montanans going back to the mountain men, miners and cowboys who drove herds of Texas longhorns across the open range. And there is still the sense of space. Hunting and fishing are never far away; development in the small cities and resort areas has not been enough to drive the game away.
Over the past quarter-century, the Big Sky country attracted at first a trickle and then a flood of affluent Americans who purchased second homes here--high-visibility movie stars and billionaires like Ted Turner, but also just ordinary people buying small spreads near Big Sky or McLeod, near Bozeman, or around Flathead Lake or Big Timber or the Big Mountain ski resort in Whitefish, where grizzlies come down to forage and the bars hold mouse races. Many newcomers, from California and other urban states, set down roots here, as computers, modems and fax machines make it possible for small businessmen and entrepreneurs to work in Montana, far from their customers and clients, but in an environment they love. These new Montanans have added a spark of energy and inventiveness to a state much of which consisted of those left behind when others moved elsewhere. In the 1990s, Montana's population grew 13%, despite losses in the eastern plains. Growth was especially vigorous around Bozeman and Big Sky, in Missoula and Ravalli County to the south and around Kalispell and Lake Flathead to the north. In little towns like Seeley Lake, the focus of the economy has switched from logging to recreation. Sometimes there are conflicts between newcomers' expectations and the hardiness of Montana life: Gallatin County issued a 20-page Code of the West, explaining to new residents that they shouldn't expect an immediate response from emergency services and they shouldn't plough their snow onto a county road. The DeLorme Montana Road Atlas gives advice on what you should do if you encounter a bear.
But the 1990s growth was not quite enough for Montana to get back the second congressional district it lost in the 1990 Census; it fell about 8,000 people short. But it may get it back in the 2010 Census: With 21st century electronic telecommunications, you can e-mail clients and co-workers, sell stock or design software within sight of towering mountains and seemingly endless scenery--and still be only minutes away from coffee houses and gambling parlors. Even Butte is turning itself around, restoring 1920s commercial buildings and houses; its population increased in the 1990s, after decades of decline.
With its heritage of class warfare politics, radical miners and angry labor unions, Montana was for many years the most Democratic of the Rocky Mountain states; from 1952 to 1988, it elected only Democratic U.S. senators. As late as 1992, it voted narrowly for Bill Clinton, 38%-35%, as Ross Perot came in a close third with 26%. But since then, Montana has trended heavily to the Republicans. Clinton administration environmental policies, popular in East Coast metropolises, were heartily unpopular--even hated--in Montana. Most voters here seem to be part of what conservative activist Grover Norquist calls the ''Leave-Us-Alone Coalition.'' In the 1990s, the legislature stoutly resisted tax increases, even when proposed by the popular Racicot, and when the state Supreme Court decision ordered the legislature to pass a speed limit, it set it at 75 miles per hour.
In 2000, Montana voted 58%-33% for George W. Bush, with 6% for Ralph Nader. Republicans won elections for senator, congressman-at-large, and governor by narrower margins. In these races Democrats carried old mining towns like Butte and Anaconda, Indian reservations (6% of Montanans are Indians), old railroad towns like Great Falls and Havre, university towns like Missoula and Bozeman, and the state capital of Helena. Republicans carried everything else, including fast-growing Billings, Kalispell, and the Bitterroot Valley. Montana also looks like an ultra-safe state for George W. Bush in 2004.
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