Yellowstone Genealogy Forum


Thomas McGirl – Founded Huntley

[Huntley Experimental Station information supplied by Ron Ross, MT State College 1960, and Huntley tales by Edward Dunne] 

Monday, February 09, 2004

 Thomas McGirl was an Irish native who operated a ferry at Baker Ground. This was a stopping point on the Yellowstone River for travelers. He arrived there in May 1877 and immediately filed for a Homestead. In 1878 he opened a post office there, and renamed the place Huntley. The post office was relocated after the railroad arrived. He was a veteran of the Fifth Missouri Mounted Infantry, and arrived in Montana in 1875. Paul McCormick established a trading post near the Big Horn River outflow in the fall of 1875, becoming his closest neighbor. The other neighbor in 1875 was Horace Countryman at Stillwater (Columbus). Horace operated a trading post and ferry.

According to Dunne, a station was established on the Yellowstone at Baker Ground for the ‘Salisbury Stage Line’ and was located south of the river. McGirl and Hoskins originally owned the station until 1879 when they sold it to Hagy & Smith. Hagy & Smith were Fort Custer merchants. (Dunne ran the store and ferry for them.)  With the proceeds from the sale McGirl and Hoskins entered the cattle business together, becoming the largest ranchers in Yellowstone Valley.

In 1882 Dunne bought the business, but was later forced to give it up as Billings became more prosperous than Huntley. Eddy currents on both sides of the river made it an ideal site for a ferry. It is reported that McGirl was busy every day, and usually ended up with a ‘sock full’ of money. Current changes in the river made the ferry crossing dangerous, and after several accidents he added a heavy cable to hold the ferry steady.

When the first bank in Billings was established, shortly after July 1882 (branch of Stebbins, Post & Mund from Deadwood[1]), Thomas reportedly made the first deposit. He had a flowing beard and a powerful frame accompanied by distinctive marks of old age as he rode up to the bank. He was heavily armed and called out for the banker. The banker (believed to be H. H. Mund; the bank manager) thought it was a holdup until McGirl stuck a sack of gold and currency into his hands, and asked to make a deposit[2]. The privately held bank existed for about a decade, and then the First National Bank acquired its asset, and Preston Moss became its president. Located on Montana Avenue and the NW corner of 27th Street (2701 Montana Avenue – in the Belknap Block.) H. H. Mound was cashier and co-founder. Originally the bank had $50,000[3] in assets when it was nationalized, then shortly thereafter the assets were doubled. Stebbins was president for three years, and then Mund took control until its sale in 1892[4].

McGirl held several warrants in the area. First being a cash sale on 8-20-1886 for 160 acres, followed by other smaller plots on former Crow Reservation land for homesteading and mining. His 1875 claim has not been located.

The ferry was the starting point to Fort Maginnis and Barker mining districts to the north, and on the communication lines between Fort Custer and other military posts. There was a comfortable hotel, ample liquor, home cooked meals by Mrs. Hoskins. Muddy Williams and W. A. Allen (later was Billings dentist) provided wild meat and fowl for the travelers.

Trappers and Indians traded furs at the site, and often the post was so busy that the hides were kicked into the yard until they could be stored in a warehouse, awaiting arrival of a steamboat. Once there were seven steamboats being loaded at one time. Furs provided trappers several options: 1) credit for various needs; wagons, teams, ammunition and guns, and 2) cash from the fur company. Yogo silver mines in the northwest brought a boom of prosperity to the area, and a branch store by Frith was established.  The mine played out and the Huntley profits soon vanished. Other traffic at Huntley was generated by lawyers and judges going to the county seat at Miles City, lawmen and their prisoners passing through, and railroad crews. The railroad ended the town’s growth. The Coulson Packet Line and about ten other steamboats served the town before the railroad arrived. Captain Grant Marsh, who operated the Josephine, was quoted as saying: “being able to take his boat wherever there was a heavy dew.” Steamboat travel ceased in 1883, and the ferry operated until 1884. At the end of May 1877 the Josephine River boat made it’s first cargo trip to Huntley, providing supplies for Thomas who had traveled to Bismarck for the order, and then on to the new trading post (Coulson) founded by Perry McAdow further upstream, arriving there on June 7th, 1877. This is when Captain Marsh tied up to the famous “Josephine Tree.” From the available records it appears that McAdow wasn’t onsite at the time, but that Captain Marsh must have seen the campsite of Joseph MV Cochran’s and stopped there (Riverfront Park.)

Originally, before 1882, the NPR planned to cross the river at Huntley, and lay track to Fort Benton. Surveys were completed after 1875. NPR intended to lay a branch line south to Coulson, and place another bridge there. NPR changed their mind, and selected Coulson as the prime route. For two years he supplied rail and performed grading operations for NPR. With traffic essentially diverted from the town in 1883, Huntley was doomed. McGirl stayed in the area, turning to raising livestock after the railroad took away his other businesses.

In 1907 the U. S. Reclamation Service established a demonstration farm at Huntley. In 1910 it was a field station for the Department of Agriculture. In 1953 it became a branch station for The Montana Agricultural Experiment Station. This station was a guide for farmers. Irrigated and dryland crop practices were tried from 1912 to 1953, establishing what procedures worked best for each type.

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[1] The Merchants’ National Bank of Deadwood was organized April 1, 1880, succeeding the bank of Stebbins, Post & Mund, W. R. Stebbins, president; Seth Bullock, vice-president; A. 
Fox, cashier. The directors were, S. Bullock, W. R. Stebbins, A. Fox, D. McLaughlin, F. Jensen, F. M. Allen, W. E. Adams, J. Deetken and J. A. Harding.
[2] Junction City, Haven of Bullwhackers, Trappers and Soldiers, WH Banfill, 1931 [Published in the Gazette]
[2] The Merchants National Bank dates from March, 1879, when Messrs. Stebbins, Post, & Mund opened a private bank with a capital of $20,000, which within a few weeks it was found necessary to increase to $50,000.  In November of the same year the Merchants National Bank was organized, and the old one merged into it, with a capital of $100,000.  A new brick building was nearly completed when the great fire destroyed it.  The day succeeding the fire, work was commenced on a new building, the bank in the meantime continuing business in a temporary building.  The new building was completed in the summer of 1880.  The institution in the summer of 1883 had a line of deposits averaging nearly $400,000, and an annual business of several millions, with a large surplus. (Lawrence Co, SD History)


[4] Preston B. Moss bio, Gazette Historical Edition, 1899.