Trails To The Past - Washington Northern Trail

The Northern Trail

The northern trail from Illinois/Wisconsin across the Mississippi into Minnesota and west through North Dakota, Montana and Idaho into north Washington State was a relatively flat route providing good wagon roads.

But early on that route Seattle in the west was dangerous as the Indians didn't want white people passing through their last great hunting grounds, especially North Dakota which was sacred to the Indians of the area. 

When gold was discovered in Montana, thousands of men rushed up the Bozeman Trails to towns like Virginia City. Emigrants also found the trail off of the Oregon Trail to be quick and good for wagons. They would go up to the area where Havre is now, about 30 miles from the Canadian border where they would intersect the northern trail (future railroad route), and from there have a relatively safe trail through Idaho into northern Washington.

At first the army had built forts along the trail and soldiers escorted the wagons up the Bozeman trail from the Oregon Trail, but the indians were so hostile that the trail was eventually closed by treaty. But after the war with the plains indians was over, the trail open again to settlers.

Most of the rest of this story is about a town named Havr that grew up on the railroad route.  

About Gold Seekers and the railroad. 
In 1862, along the wagon trail used by gold seekers coming from Minnesota, the wagon trail came into Montana high and dry and then ran westward in the Milk River Valley, crossing the river several times. Along this area of the wagon trail, the travelers feasted on currants, gooseberries and fresh buffalo meat and the wagon train from Minnesota stopped and camped one night across the river from a large tipi village of several thousand people. They were Native Americans living the old way, moving to hunt, in a place where hunting was very good. Thousands of buffalo and herds of antelope, deer and elk were everywhere.

The wagon trail continued west to a place on the Milk River where there is a long butte with a notch or a saddle that is called Bull Hook Butte. It is in the last of the shallow brown Milk River bottoms country and that place is called Bull Hook Bottoms. Cottonwoods and willows and flocks of ducks, geese and prairie chickens in the brush in the coulees.

At this place the wagons turned south and climbed out of the valley. A creek called Big Sandy that they could spot in the distance was their next sign and there they bore south to Fort Benton and the gold operations further west as the Bear Paw Mountains began to rise out of the horizon to the southeast.


Thirty years later, Bull Hook Bottoms became Havre, Montana, County Seat of Hill County. A lot of the narrow wagon road went into US 2. The Hi-Line generally gets its name from the Great Northern Railroad because it is the furthest north, beating out the Northern Pacific and the Milwaukee Road. The area between the Hi-Line and the Canadian border is called Milk River Country.

The Milk River enters the U.S. northwest of Havre and flows 200 miles due east to flow into the Missouri River near Glasgow and Nashua, Montana.                                                          

Like Glasgow and Malta, Havre began as a railroad siding. The historic marker on US 2 in Havre says "the town came into existence when the Great Northern came through and provided leisure activity for cowboys, doughboys and miners. It was a frontier town wild and hard to curry." The incredible thing about Havre was that it wasn't finally tamed by law and order until the 1940s.

In the autumn of 1890, the long and heavy work train of the Great Northern Railroad arrived with several hundred workers in the outfit cars and flatcars and box cars filled with construction material.  There was already a large water tank, built the year before, and an artesian well drilled at the site. The carpenters off the work train built a large frame depot building as the rail crews built a seven track wide train yard opposite the depot and set the main line. More materials came off the train and were stored in yards to the south. The bridges that would cross Cut Bank and Two Medicine creeks were piled in row after row of timbers, spikes, track and roadbed materials.

The first town residents moved their tents to a row on the south side of the tracks, considered the last stand in case of flood. By 1893, the railroad operations center had been moved to the bottoms or Bull Hook Siding as it was known and this was the biggest railroad repair and maintenance complex next to St. Paul, Minnesota 905, miles to the east.

Six miles to the west of Big Sandy Creek and near the Milk River, there was an army town called Cypress that was located at the old site of the Power Trading Post, a Fort Benton company. Cypress offered businesses that catered to the soldiers from Fort Assinniboine that was 5 miles to the south on Beaver Creek Bottoms. Gamblers, saloon keepers and prostitutes came from Cypress into Bull Hook and set up the first tent businesses.

Cypress was to entirely benefit from the arrival of the railroad. At the time when the railroad arrived, Cypress was a town of tents and flimsy wooden houses with 32 saloons, 2 brothels, a Chinese restaurant and a store. The store owner was David Cowan and the unofficial mayor was Ole Oleson, a civilian military employee from the fort.

As Cypress prospered, the steady flow of cattle herds reached the Milk River Country coming from the south and the southwest, the Yellowstone and Missouri river country. Other herds came from Oregon and these herds first grazed on the ranges south of Fort Assinniboine and present day Chinook, Montana and into the Bear Paw Mountains.

Hill County Park

Empire Railroad Builder James J. Hill, creator of the division point at Havre, described the place as "tough, where you couldn't get decent men to live."  This was 1904. A January 1916 issue of the Chicago Mail-Tribune reported that Havre was "one wicked little town."  The Chicago Law and Order League visited 28 principal cities between the Windy City and the Pacific Ocean and also found Havre's sister city, Butte, Montana "a disgrace to American civilization and expected it to be reformed soon" (and it wasn't).  This was all at a time, of course, when the move in America was towards the idiocy of prohibition.  In the Land of the Free how could that experiment be given consideration? 

Returning the Law and Order League's report of 1916,

"Of all the communities visited, a little city called Havre, Montana is comparatively the worst.

Everything is licensed there and its most viciously forms of evil are found in broad daylight in the streets and trading areas.  There is no protection for anyone against anything. It is the sum total of all that is vicious and depraved parading openly without restraint, so long as it complies with the law of the license." A federal law officer working the area during the Prohibition in the 1920s said of the town, "Havre is a major smuggling headquarters. Everybody profits by it. Nobody wants it stopped and booze sleuths have no friends in Havre once they are known. Bootleggers travel in caravans and have a system of signals whereby they are able to warn collaborators of the approach of Federal officers. No local assistance can be secured here by Federal officers in fighting the liquor traffic."

"The town has a boss -- a man named Shorty Young. He runs it with an iron hand, although he holds no elected office. The saloons operate openly. You may walk right in and let the world see you drink. Then you gamble any style."                                             

There is a story that James J. Hill, owner and founder of the railroad, did not want the town named Bull Hook so a group of the first citizens met. Some of them were former teamsters from the Diamond R. Ranch, Tom McDevitt, Gus DeCelles, Joe DeMars, Exor Pepin, and Charlie Goutchie. Well, so the story goes, they picked Havre as the town name because of their French ancestry.      

Burlington Northern would establish a Montana headquarters at present day Havre.  Some of the best milling and baking wheat in the world is grown in Hill County.  Bull Hook Creek, which will end in the Milk River, begins about 5 miles south of the bottoms near the notched butte today called Saddle Butte.   From Billings, Montana, to drive to Havre, follow the driving instructions from the travel blog article Driving to Glasgow (see link below) but when you arrive in Malta turn left and drive west on US 2 for 89 miles to Havre, Montana.                                 

Three of the stops on the Montana Dinosur Trail are close to Havre, Montana.  The H. Earl Clack Memorial Museum is actually at the Holiday Village Mall on US 2, west of Havre.  The Rudyard Depot Museum is at 4th Avenue NW in Rudyard, Montana just off US 2 and the Blaine County useum in Chinook, Montana is just four blocks from US 2, at 501 Indiana Street.                        

Through Havre poured thousands of people who could afford the small fare, many to settle in Montana, Idaho or scattered along the top tier of Washington State to Seattle.

The most exciting thing to come next was the great railroad tunnel of Seattle which ran under the city.