A history of homesteaders, prospectors and dude ranches

By Anne Marie Mistretta EBS Contributor

Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, trappers, prospectors and loggers trekked into the relatively untouched and pristine Gallatin Canyon to harvest its resources.

The earliest residents traveled through the unforgiving Gallatin and Jack Creek drainages in the 1880s searching for good land for grazing and potentially profitable homesteads. Ranching here was challenging for homestead families, who were often crammed into log structures that were poorly insulated against a harsh climate. Dryland farming in high altitudes tested homesteaders’ hardiness, self-sufficiency and spirit.

As early as the first decade of the 20th century, some residents began to realize that, rather than mining and timbering, it was the area’s landscape and tourism possibilities that held the promise of an economic motherlode. At that point, change was truly underway in the Gallatin Canyon, culminating later in the century with the opening of Big Sky Resort.

Tom Michener, among Gallatin Canyon’s first champions, hoped his slog up the riverbed road would be rewarded by the mineral fortune that surely lay in the mountains and streams.

“The Gallatin Basin … is destined someday to become one of the main wealth producing parts of the county,” Michener wrote in a Seattle magazine in 1908. “The most important part … is its undeveloped mineral resources.” Michener established and sold stocks in the West Fork Mining Company, owned by Hercules Dredging Company and Eureka Improvement Company of Spokane and Seattle.

Walter Cooper, another entrepreneur, sought riches in timber standing in the Upper Gallatin watershed. Backed by Helena money, he formed the Cooper Tie Company in 1904 and set up a tie hacker camp in Eldridge on the Taylor Fork, supplying railroad ties to the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Michener’s West Fork Mining Company failed to produce much gold, and mining in general didn’t “pan out” here, so to speak. Cooper Tie folded four years after it began.

Many homesteaders abandoned their ranches and moved on. But some ranchers continued to work hard to eke out a living and build a community.

Although the canyon developed first, the West Fork drainage (now the Meadow) saw successful homesteading in the early 1900s. The Crail Ranch, a section and a half (960 acres), dominated what is now known as Meadow Village, through two generations of Crails. Crail neighbor Clarence Lytle, who ranched an adjacent quarter section (160 acres), sold out to Julius Butler and Don Kilbourne (the B Bar K) in 1926. Henry Johnson sold his 160-acre homestead on the South Fork in the 1950s to the McBrides.

Dude ranches – Big Sky’s first resorts

As early as 1906, ranchers along the Gallatin supplemented their finances by enticing Yellowstone visitors to extend their vacations “dude ranching.” Sam Wilson, owner of Buffalo Horn Ranch and Resort (now the 320 Ranch), collaborated with Michener, who owned a ranch near the current Conoco gas station, to regulate rates for the dude ranches. For $12 a week—plus another $6 for a horse—vacationers could escape urban stress by renting a cabin, donning chaps and tackling ranch chores.

Located halfway between Yellowstone National Park and Gallatin Gateway, the Half-Way Inn, pictured here in 1919, was formerly the Dew Drop Inn and would become the Rainbow Ranch.

Many of the area’s current resorts opened their doors to tourists throughout the early 1900s. The Lemon Family purchased the Dew Drop Inn in 1919, renaming it Half-Way Inn (now Rainbow Ranch). They offered lodging, a café, a gas station and convenience store, and “dude” activities. The B-K evolved into a boys’ camp and eventually became the Lone Mountain Ranch.

Pete Karst, mail and supply freighter for Cooper Tie camp, acquired the Cold Springs Ranch when Cooper’s operation folded. The 1910 railroad extension to Gallatin Gateway was a boon for the Karst Kamp and other dude ranches, such as Elkhorn and Covered Wagon, that cropped up along the improved “Gallatin Way to Yellowstone.” Buck and Helen Knight relocated from Paradise Valley to build a resort on the old Stillman ranch in 1945.

Eventually the Crail Ranch, which operated as a ranch for a half century, succumbed to dude ranching under new owners in the 1950s. It was the intact Crail Ranch, along with the timberlands of Andesite, that became core elements of Huntley’s vision for Big Sky Resort.

When Huntley’s Big Sky Resort opened in December 1973, he reached across the country, inviting visitors to experience this exhilarating environment of unique natural resources that had lured and satisfied tourists for nearly a century.

As Michener predicted, this area has become an economic engine not only for Gallatin County but also for the region and entire state. Michener had foreseen the value of tourism, but real estate and resort resources have exceeded his wildest visions.

Anne Marie Mistretta is the chair of the Historic Crail Ranch Conservators, and has been active with Crail Ranch preservation since 2003.