Just a little more than 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. To celebrate July 4, 1976, the late historian Stephen Ambrose took his family to Lemhi Pass at the other end of Montana, nearly 500 miles west, where Lewis was the first American to cross the Continental Divide--and 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.
Statehood came less than a century after the first white Americans, Lewis and Clark and their men, came here as agents of the government. The mining economy gave Montana a radical, class warfare political tradition. On one side was the Anaconda Mining Company, which until 1959 owned five of Montana's six daily newspapers, the Montana Power Company 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 D. 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. 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--and not far from the coffee houses and gambling parlors you find on every highway. 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. Montana's population grew 13% in the 1990s, despite losses in the eastern plains; its economy, fueled by construction, continued to grow during the national recession of 2001-02. 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.
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. There are lively political arguments over the grizzly bears and gray wolves reintroduced to Montana in the 1990s; the Bush administration has approved mining activities that environmentalists say will harm grizzlies and some Montanans want state, rather than federal, management so that ranchers can shoot more wolves.
There are two lively political traditions in Montana today. One draws on its heritage of class warfare politics, radical miners and angry labor unions, which made Montana for many years the most Democratic of the Rocky Mountain states. From 1952 to 1984 it elected only Democratic U.S. senators, and in 1992 it voted 38%-35% for Bill Clinton, with 26% for Ross Perot. The other, more recent tradition is in line with conservative activist Grover Norquist's "Leave-Us-Alone-Coalition"--a fierce opposition to higher taxes and federal government dictates. When a court ordered the legislature to set a speed limit, it was set at 75 miles per hour. Montana has not elected a Democrat to the U.S. House since 1994, though Democratic Senator Max Baucus was reelected in 1996 and 2002, and in 2000, Montana voted 58%-33% for George W. Bush, with 6% for Ralph Nader. In these races Democrats have carried only the 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.
In 2004 both traditions were apparent. Bush carried the state 59%-39% (evidently the Nader vote went for John Kerry) and Republican Congressman-at-Large Denny Rehberg was reelected with 64%. But Democrat Brian Schweitzer was elected governor and Democrats won a majority in the state Senate and a tie in the state House. This Democratic surge owed something to the unpopularity of Republican Governor Judy Martz, who in 2003 announced she would not seek a second term. But it was also the result of corporate malfeasance. In 1997 the legislature deregulated electricity rates and in 2000 Montana Power, the state's largest corporation, sold its power facilities for $2.1 billion and put all the money into a fiber optics firm. Bad timing: the fiber optics firm went bankrupt, and so did the buyer of the power facilities; the results were big local job losses, higher utility rates, big payouts to a few corporate executives and a rash of highly publicized lawsuits. Republican business-friendly policies were discredited and Schweitzer, a politically appealing rancher with longtime Montana roots who ran a strong race for U.S. Senate in 2000, argued convincingly for change.