Hamilton Montana History
By Connie Delaney
A brief History of Hamilton, Montana and the Bitterroot
Hamilton, Montana is the Ravalli County
seat of Government and the largest town in the Bitterroot
valley. This expansive, big sky, valley contains
the Bitterroot river which runs south from the border
of Idaho northward to Missoula where it joins the Clark
Bitterrot valley is named after the "bitterroot",
which is now Montana's state flower and used to be an
important food source for the Indian tribes in the valley.
Though this plant is quite bitter in its raw form, it
commanded a high price in trading and was a fine meal
then boiled and mixed with meat or berries. Pulverized
and seasoned with deer fat and moss, the cooked root could
be molded into patties and carried on hunting expeditions
or war parties.
The Bitterroot Valley is framed to the
west by the Bitterroot Mountains, and to the East by the
Sapphire's. The Bitterroot River starts just below
the Continental Divide near Lost Trail pass on the Idaho/Montana
border which is 7014 feet in elevation and ends near Missoula
at an elevation of 3210 feet. Hamilton holds a central
position in the valley at about 3,500 feet above sea level
and enjoys a temperate climate which is often referred
to as the "Banana Belt" of Montana.
Bitterroot Valley is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts providing
a great richness of wildlife and outdoor opportunities.
This valley borders the two largest Federal wilderness
areas in the US: the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and
the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. Hunting and fishing
is abundant. Fresh air, pleasant climate and beautiful
scenery make this a backpacker's paradise. Hundreds
of rafters enjoy the Bitterroot river in the summer.
Cross country and downhill skiing are popular activities
in the winter.
93 (North and South) follows the Bitterroot river through
the center of the valley and joins Interstate 90 in Missoula.
This spectacular highway runs from the center of Arizona
into the middle of Ontario Canada and it so gifted in
its sights, western culture and history that National
Geographic Magazine chose to feature the highway in a
three part feature article.
The Bitterroot valley was home to several
Indian tribes including the Salish, Nez Perce and Kootenai.
It is an important point on the
Lewis and Clark Trail.
St. Mary's mission in the Bitterroot Valley near Stevensville
was the first permanent white settlement in Montana.
It was founded by Jesuit priest, Father Pierre DeSmet
in 1841. It closed in 1850 and later burned. Father
Josphe Giorda re-established the mission in 1866.
The town of Hamilton was founded by Marcus
Daly who was one of Montana's colorful "Copper
Kings." Daly was an Irish immigrant who
made his fortune in the mines of Butte and founded the
Anaconda Mining Company. He established the town
of Anaconda with his smelter. Daly came to the Bitterroot
valley in search of timber for his mines--and this he
found in abundance. He built a mill to process the timber
and formed a company town around the mill for the workers.
built a beautiful summer home in the valley in 1887 and
accumulated large tracts of land for his hobby of breeding
and racing thoroughbred horses. This large ranch
was named the Bitter Root Stock Farm.
The town of Hamilton was incorporated
in 1894 and was named after James Hamilton, a Daly employee,
who platted the town along the route of the Northern Pacific
Railway in 1890. By the time Daly died in 1900,
Hamilton was the commercial center of the Bitterroot
Valley and the seat of Ravalli County.
The years from 1907 to 1911 in the Bitterroot valley
were termed the "Apple Boom." Many other
towns in the west had their boom days fueled by mining
discoveries, but Hamilton received its heritage from the
enthusiasm of slick salesmen who took advantage of an
extensive irrigation network conceived by Marcus Daly.
Enticed by the promise of fertile land and a good climate
for growing fruit trees, many unsuspecting farmers came
to the valley to give it a go.
From 1907 to 1911 the town's population jumped from 1,800
By 1915 all the easily accessible timber
had been cut from the valley and The Anaconda Copper Mining
Company Mill closed. Two years after that the financial
problems of the irrigation ditch builders reached a head
and the Apple Boom went bust. Many orchard farmers
became disillusioned and moved away.
The local economy remained shakey until
1927 when the Rocky Mountain Laboratory was established
to research the cause of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
Contrary to other parts of the nation, Hamilton enjoyed
considerable growth during the depression years of the
thirties until World War II.
Hamilton and Ravalli County are currently
experiencing another economic boom. The valley has
been discovered as an outdoor paradise by urban professionals
escaping the rat race. The valley currently boasts
Lewis & Clark
and Clark entered the Bitterroot valley on a cloudy, drizzly
day, September 4th, 1805. They did not consider
the valley as the climate mecca it is seen as today, but
as a cold, inhospitable spot. The expedition, along
and her young infant, had just come down over Lost
Trail Pass, where they had lost the trail in the sleet
and snow, even though they were being led by a local Indian
guide named Tobe.
The expedition had traversed the Continental Divide twice
coming from the area of Dillon, Montana over into the
Lemhi Valley and Salmon,
Idaho. After determining that the Salmon River
was, indeed, impassable--as they had been told by their
Indian guides, they had headed north for Montana again.
On the morning of September 4th, everything
was wet and frozen, and the ground was covered with snow.
They followed the Bitterroot river drainage into the valley
where they met a village of Flathead which they reported
as having 33 lodges, some 440 people and 500 horses.
The expedition purchased 13 more horses
from the Flatheads. On September 6th the expedition
set off down the valley following the Bitterroot river
to Lolo Creek. At Lolo Creek they named their camp,
"Travellers Rest." Hunters sent up Lolo
Creek from the Travellers Rest camp met three Flatheads,
one of whom agreed to accompany the Expedition as a guide
over the Bitterroot mountains and introduce them to his
people who lived on the other side at a place where they
could build dougouts and sail to the ocean.
The next day the Expedition headed up
Lolo Pass following the Nez Perce trial.