Area History & Historical Organizations


Map Image of Lewis & Clark County, Montana

Lewis & Clark County, Montana (Click here for Larger Image)(JPEG, 119KB)

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Historical Summary of Lewis & Clark County

The area that became Lewis & Clark County was created within Montana Territory in 1864. Originally titled Edgerton County after a territorial governor, the jurisdiction was renamed in 1868 for the Lewis & Clark expedition which transversed it twice, once in 1805 and again in 1806. In 1872 its boundaries were redefined, taking on, for the most part, its existing appearance. Covering over 3,000 square miles, it occupies sections of such famous land forms & features as the Rocky Mountain Front, the Continental Divide, the Big Belt Mountains, the Over-thrust Region and the Missouri River. Rich in resources and scenic beauty, the County has attracted the attention of people from the earliest known times of North American human occupation to the present.

An increasingly diminished theory of North American human occupation brings people into the area about 12,000 years before the present (BP) via land. The theory considers evidence that people walked over receding continental glaciers and between two glacial lobes that left much of prehistoric Lewis & Clark County clear of ice. Now the evidentiary tide, and direction of population, is reversing, bringing people into upper North America earlier and from the south. How ever they arrived, the earliest humans here seemingly followed the glaciers while hunting 'big game' - Pleistocene elephant, elk and other large animals. This way of life never really ended as later animal forms evolved into those we know today, bison in particular being hunted. For millennia, people wandered in small groups over the lands of later Lewis & Clark County pursuing game, picking fruit and gathering foodstuffs such as camas. Small campsites characterize the archaeological record of those years, along with artifacts from activities such as stone mining (for tools and hunting equipment) and camas roasting along the Missouri.

Prehistoric travel was far reaching. The county’s boundaries contain segments of two major overland routes: the Old North Trail connecting Canada with the Southwestern United States running just east of the Rocky Mountain Front and west of the Missouri River and the "River Road to the Buffalo" followed by Lewis in 1806 along the Big Blackfoot river past present-day Lincoln and over Lewis & Clark Pass onto the vast eastern prairie. The first route promoted trade, the latter allowed mountain-dwelling tribes access to buffalo herds. All this activity went on unaltered for hundreds of centuries.

Then there came a change - transportation by way of the horse. By the late 1700s horsemanship was profoundly influencing Native American lifestyles, complementing existing life ways and creating new aspects of cultural practices, warfare and hunting. The source of horses, European people, quickly entered the area, bringing overwhelming technological and numerical forces and swiftly establishing cultural dominance. Between 1850 and 1950 this new culture superseded the old completely, leaving virtually no land form or life form unaffected by its presence.

European settlement reportedly occurred in the area of Canyon Creek, north of Helena, just over the mountain pass leading to the "River Road" where white fur trappers and Native Americans formed a small mixed community around 1840. In the late 1850s a wagon road, the Mullan Road was cut over Mullan Pass west and slightly north of Helena. It drove northeast to near Silver Creek and then passed over the highlands west of Prickly Pear Canyon to emerge near the Missouri River south of Great Falls and on to the steamboat landings at Fort Benton. Settlers used this route in the early years to access mining regions in Idaho and southern Montana.

Gold and silver deposits found where Silver Creek exited the mountains some fifteen miles northwest of Helena encouraged Silver, later Silver City, the first permanent settlement in the county. From 1862 to 1865 it was the seat of local government until voters selected Helena for that distinction. Helena itself was built on a much richer placer deposit complemented by ore bodies to the south. An ambitious and well seasoned population of investors and businessmen took root there after many years of surviving the rigors of gold camp living and eventually made Helena the financial, political and cultural center of Montana. Located on the main wagon road from Fort Benton to points south, Helena was positioned as a commercial distribution point. The Northern Pacific railroad arrived in 1883, assuring the city permanency. J. J. Hill’s Great Northern soon followed, devising a locally supported north to south route from Butte to Great Falls to feed his overland route. Locally, a light rail, or streetcar system connected newly built Fort Harrison (1890), the sprawling State Nursery, suburban developments and a large ore smeltering works at East Helena to Helena itself. Thus, Helena ascended to join the constellation of ‘civilized’ communities, its most fortunate inhabitants enjoying the finest lifestyles Victorian America offered.

Development occurred throughout Lewis & Clark County between 1868 and 1893 fueled largely by gold and silver mining, although agriculture swiftly followed, first as a supplement to the mining camps and then as a source of exported goods. Lode (hardrock) mining followed placer finds around extruded stocks and dikes that shattered overlying rock layers in the Boulder Batholith to the west and north and the Big Belt Mountains to the east of Helena. Hand labor placer operations were replaced by powerful water pressure systems that rapidly reduced natural streambeds. The regions around Unionville, Rimini, Marysville, York and, to a lesser degree, Lincoln were designated large mining districts, peppered with shafts and adits surrounded by camps ranging from a few rude huts to sizeable communities with platted streets, schools and proper stores. Enclosed ore processing facilities, or mills, operated at several localities, their workmen adding to the population.

Each mine and its immediate community required lumber, supply access, means of power, communication lines and water in great quantities. Around each grew a spider web of roadways, telegraph and often electric lines, water ditches and flumes, as well as the attendant trails answering to sawmills, fields, pastures, farms and ranches. As early as 1866, overland transport into the area had been advanced by the Kingston & Gillette toll road up Prickly Pear Canyon and after 1883, rail lines quickly extended away from their main tracks and wove up narrow canyons to serve these outlying regions. In Helena, entrepreneurial bankers Samuel Hauser and Col. Charles Broadwater, representing the Northern Pacific and Great Northern railroads respectively, aggressively vied for such markets, at times laying rails on either side of the same valley.

Vast ranches developed in the county’s central and the northern plains, feeding the expanding population and shipping wool, mutton and beef to urban markets by the trainload. At the head of the Prickly Pear Valley, Malcolm Clarke’s ranch set the foundation for the Sieben holdings of the next century, beginning a phase where many local financiers branched out into grazing. They were soon joined by increasing numbers of small operations as public land offerings and railroad land grant sales attracted homesteaders. Communities like Wolf Creek, Augusta, Gilman, Craig, and Canyon Creek formed to serve agricultural neighborhoods. Lincoln, in the meantime developed a logging industry and later became a favored summer resort.

The national ‘silver panic’ of 1893 ended the county’s accelerated development. Virtually all silver mines closed, affecting the Rimini area and places west of Marysville in particular. Many Helena fortunes were ruined and the collateral economic effects prompted entire communities to be abandoned in an exodus of population never seen since. Struggling survivors held onto gold production, still vital at places like Marysville’s Drum Lummon mine and Spring Hill south of Helena but the industry was much reduced. Agriculture surfaced as the major industry. Helena’s political and financial status buffered the impact but the days of confident wealth were over. Rail lines withered, schools closed and the importance of formerly marginal influences such as recreation, public service, lumbering and small business rose to the fore. Mining continued on a sporadic basis and reworking old mine leavings, mechanized placer mining (dredging) and, later, some mineral mining (sapphires) remained active.

The early 20th century heralded unprecedented effects on land, culture and lifestyles fostered by rapid technological advances tempered by global economic stress and war. Large institutions were created to respond to and harness forces of such magnitude. In Lewis & Clark County, Federal government agencies, the National Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and U. S. Bureau of Reclamation took on significant roles in administering unsettled and abandoned lands, complementing State Fish and Game programs of wildlife reintroduction that regenerated hunting and fishing on a recreational plane. The Great Depression of the 1930’s reintroduced an atmosphere of economic stultification but it accelerated major irrigation developments, road building and similar public works of lasting influence. The first half-century saw small electrical generating dams on the Missouri River followed by large water management systems directing runoff on the Missouri and Sun rivers into wide-reaching irrigation regions. Agricultural production was influenced by federal controls during the Depression and later crop support programs. Rural living information extended out of the land grant colleges to considerable effect. Nonetheless, agricultural areas declined in population as production margins narrowed.

Military events influenced much in this era, bringing various changes. During World War II, Fort Harrison supported combat training teams and dog team units stationed near Rimini. In the closing decades of the 20 century Fort Harrison expanded as a post, supporting an ever more sophisticated and militarily engaged Montana National Guard to local economic advantage. Carroll College, an emerging institution of higher learning in Helena, closed to train Naval officers and emerged into an altered post-war society to develop as a co-educational, university level school.

America’s economic poweress and status as world leader in the late 20th Century energized life in Lewis & Clark County, as elsewhere. Expanded federal and state governmental programs exerted broad influence on rural development and infused Helena’s economy with new residents and wealth. Regenerative federal funds were directed at Helena’s decaying commercial center. Suburban growth ballooned, sprawling into the Helena Valley, the surrounding hills and reaching far out into the county. Ranch and farmland were thus equally reduced. In response to human impact on natural systems, federal and state regulations attempted to protect land by managing its use, resulting in issues of magnified intensity highlighting recreational, developmental, agricultural, conservation and industrial interrelationships. The County benefitted greatly when a segment of the national interstate highway system passed through Helena and along the Missouri River toward Great Falls. Tourism, long an aspirant industry in a county aware of its recreational, scenic, historical attributes, was thus enhanced, along with those commercial fronts reliant on surface transportation.

At the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, Lewis & Clark County faces challenges of expansion rather than decline. Evolving global relationships in the areas of commerce, security and environmental management will still dominate the county’s future and land use questions will form around the resultant pressure points. Whatever periods of boom, bust, natural disaster and relative quietude might come, the people of Lewis & Clark County, well tested over countless generations, will no doubt persevere.

Augusta, Montana

Augusta was a supply center for the cattle and sheep raising regions of upper Lewis & Clark County. Founded in 1884 by a rancher who named it after his daughter, it has remained historically intact, an excellent example of a small Montana town of a century ago. Augusta had no rail service until 1912 when the Great Northern approached, but did not enter, town. Immediately, a rival community sprang up where the railroad ended creating Gilman, a place that lasted until just after 1923 when the trains acquiesced to the older settlement. Located on the prairie east of the Rocky Mountain Front and a prominence named Haystack Butte, Augusta enjoys one of the nation's most spectacular backdrops.

The Augusta Area Historical Society supports events and programs on local history and is improving the old community center as a museum. They recently completed an area history.

Photo of Historic Structures Line Augusta's Main Street

Impressively Genuine Historic Structures Line Augusta's Main Street.

Photo of a Mercantile on Main Street in Augusta

A Mercantile on Main Street in Augusta

 Sawtooth Butte West of Augusta.

Sawtooth Butte West of Augusta. (Click for Larger Image)(JPEG, 108KB)

East Helena, Montana

East Helena's Old School Building which now houses City Hall.

East Helena's Old School Building Which Now Houses City Hall.

East Helena owes its existence to Samuel Hauser, a pioneer capitalist who constructed a large smelter a few miles east of Helena in 1888. The facility grew to become a major industrial site, one of the world's last and largest lead processing operations. It closed in recent years but the community has become part of the population center in and around the Helena Valley.

Photo of Prickly Pear Junction Book

East Helena recently published this extensive local history. It includes a review of the smelter operations as well as significant events and family histories.

Lincoln, Montana

Photo of the Lincoln Community Center

The Lincoln Community Center and Lincoln Hotel are National Register sites.

Lincoln, Montana, has long been a resort community favored by its natural beauty, Blue Ribbon Blackfoot River, easy proximity to both the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness and its rustic heritage. Merewether Lewis passed through on his return to St. Louis in 1806, following the famous "River of the Road to the Buffalo" created by Native Americans centuries before. Gold discoveries in the mid-1860s brought miners to a number of camps in the area and Lincoln was eventually created when nearby Lincoln Gulch was abandoned in favor of the town's present location. Recreational, logging and mining activities along the Blackfoot River in the early 20th century made it a convenient commercial center. Nearby wilderness areas continue to attract visitors and residents.

The Upper Blackfoot Valley Historical Society sponsors historical events in the Lincoln area. Their display of historic buildings and memorabilia is located at the Hi Country Trading Post just west of town.

Photo of Lincoln Hotel

Lincoln Hotel

Marysville, Montana

Photo of the historic Marysville Methodist Church

The historic Marysville Methodist Church

Marysville, a mining community built up around the famous Drumlummon Mine and Mill in the 1880's, also served as the supply center for operations in nearby gulches rich with gold and silver ore. Many historic buildings survive from the day when Marysville reportedly claimed a population of nearly 3,000 people and was served, momentarily, by two railroads. By the early 20th century Marysville was in decline as mines, dampered by plunging silver prices and exhausted ore, closed or ran intermitently. A nearby ski slope and a degree of 'third coast' mountain development has revived a portion of Marysville.

The Marysville Pioneers, a historical group, host a festival every summer and open the impressive little local museum in the old high school there.

Photo of street in Marysville

Street in Marysville

Photo of Abandoned Miners' Homes in Marysville

Abandoned Miners' Homes, Marysville

Montana Military Museum

The Montana Military Museum displays the history of units deployed to conflicts around the world from Fort Harrison and around the state. It features impressive exhibits on the origins of the Special Forces, the Lewis & Clark Expedition and other information related to US Army operations. Camp Rimini, training ground for the famous WWII dog sled teams is featured along with tanks, weapons and a WWI troop railcar, the gift of a grateful French nation.

Display at Military Museum

Display at Military Museum

Tank at Military Museum

Fort William Henry Harrison Museum Foundation
PO Box 125
Fort Harrison, MT 59636

Hours: Thursdays from 9 AM - 4 PM and upon request

Location: Fort Harrison complex.

Entrance Cost: Admission and tours are FREE, donations are welcomed.
Please bring a Photo ID to enter the Fort.

York, Montana

Photo of the historic York Cemetery

The historic York Cemetery dates from the 1860s. The hike up to its overlook position is worth the trip.

York began as "New York", a mining camp in the Big Belt Mountains east of Helena. Surrounded by outcrops of ore extruded through ancient layers of seabed, York survived as a small community away from main transportation routes while mining, logging and recreation activities sustained it over the years. Its picturesque setting makes it an attractive home for commuters and retirees

The York Historical Society hosts activities throughout the year and maintains a museum in a restored log cabin from early days.

Photo of A Restored Miners Cabin

A Restored Miner's Cabin is One of York's Historic Sites.