The forgotten boomtown of Taft, Montana
By Michael J. Ober
A version of this story first appeared in the winter 2017 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine.
Taft, Montana, may be one of the state’s more forgettable towns, but when it boomed it was raucous and wretched. It owed its sole existence as a railroad construction camp to the creation of the massive Taft Tunnel through the Bitterroot Mountains, connecting Montana and Idaho. The Milwaukee Railroad surveyed and engineered the 1.7-mile-long tunnel to breach the Continental Divide and began blasting through in 1907.
Taft sprang up immediately, its population swelling to nearly 3,000 souls by the 1910 census. Like most railroad construction whistle-stops, she was no beauty queen and was among the numerous shantytowns that emerged, quickly, adjacent to the Milwaukee’s main rail line pushing west. Bankrupt one year and flush with new investors the next, the Milwaukee spawned Taft-like towns in a frenzy and shed them just as quickly. The tunnel was its lifeblood.
As towns go, Taft was strictly utilitarian serving as the operations base for the gigantic tunnel, which required a skilled workforce of teamsters, loggers, miners, cooks, drillers and laborers working round the clock.
At its peak in 1908, when the tunnel finally opened amid great fanfare, there were 1,800 employees working out of Taft. Italian stone masons, Swedish lumbermen, mule skinners, freighters and hundreds of other skilled and unskilled laborers followed the tracks west to the formidable slopes of the Continental Divide, there to construct a tunnel that detractors claimed to be “unimaginably expensive and a colossal boondoggle.” It became the nation’s most expensive railroading feat in history.
As far as can be determined, there was never a church in the town … or a library, school, or Masonic Temple, or an opera house or fire department. Taft featured one grocery store, two cafes and a drug store. In contrast, there were 500 prostitutes and 30 saloons by one Missoulian journalist’s count, and “everything on a high level of impropriety.”
Taft displayed no clear existence of law enforcement, either. Missoula was the closest town offering any kind of police presence, but the Missoula County sheriff’s deputies steered clear using the excuse that it was too far away to effectively patrol. In truth, Taft was 90 miles from Missoula and accessible only by train in most months of the year. Time and again, deputies would be dispatched there only to find no witnesses, no evidence and no suspects in some high-level crimes including assault, homicide, robbery and rape.
Missoula had its progressive and high-minded culture, emerging business class, its streetcars, cemetery, power and water company and sturdy stone architecture. It looked to the west with scorn upon the necklace string of upstart rail stops en route to the tunnel through the Bitterroots: De Borgia, Saltese, Taft, Haugen, St. Regis.
Lawlessness, then, was the order of the day in Taft. One spring, as the snow receded, eight frozen bodies were found in and around the town sporting stab wounds and bullet holes. The year 1907 saw 18 documented—but unsolved—homicides. Nobody talked. Labor clashes were not uncommon. In 1908, Albanian stonemasons killed six Montenegrins in a dispute over subcontract wordings and wages.
Missoula County attorneys and deputies could only shrug. Finding a solid witness in Taft was like finding a proper woman. Forest Service rangers had no better luck curbing prostitution as cribs crept into the Lolo National Forest surrounding the town, one in a crude tree house. Taft claimed to have one prostitute for every three men and a murder rate higher than New York City. U.S. Forest Service ranger Elers Koch wrote, “The bars were lined with hard-faced dance hall girls and every kind of gambling game going wide open.”
Taft was smack-dab on public lands of the Lolo National Forest and therefore subject to federal regulations, which nobody obeyed. Tim Egan, author of The Big Burn wrote, “the rangers’ attitude toward the town was one of disgust. The caches of whiskey and rum, the slot machines, the hundreds of hookers, the killers and felons who mocked the rangers … that’s what Taft represented to a forest ranger.”
One young ranger assigned to the Taft District telegraphed his supervisor: “Two undesirable prostitutes established on government land,” he wired. “What should I do?” “Get two desirable ones,” was the reply.
A Chicago Tribune writer, during a Milwaukee train stop there, described it as “the wickedest city in America.” But to call Taft a city was a great stretch of imagination. It was a grim collection of unpainted slab-wood framed shanties interspersed with tent houses and slope-roofed sheds. Vintage photographs of Taft are hard to come by, owing largely to the truth that it was starkly unattractive to start with and got no better with time. Even William Howard Taft, after whom the town would be named, traveled to the work camp in 1907 when he was Secretary of War and declared it a “sewer of sin” and “a sore on an otherwise beautiful national forest.”
As round-the-clock shift workers disgorged from the tunnel bound for the bars, another shift replaced them, often swapping beds in boarding houses for brief rest before a locomotive whistle announced a new shift, another dollar to be earned and then spent in the prostitute cribs and gambling dens. Taft was awash with vice, awaiting a cataclysmic end.
It was the Great Fire of 1910 that finally did Taft in. The infamous inferno of that summer spared nothing as it seared more than 3 million acres. When the fire raged and raced down off Lookout Pass during the Big Blowup, it seemed bent on incinerating Taft with a fury that only God could dispatch.
In just one night, August 20, 1910, Taft fell to the flames. It was an easy target, its wooden structures mowed down by a relentless firestorm funneled through the narrow canyon. In places, even the steel rails of the Milwaukee Line bent and curled. Forest rangers tried to organize workers into a firefighting force but the citizens chose instead to break open barrels of whiskey and consume as much as they could while the flames approached.
Just in time, a rescue train arrived from Missoula and residents tumbled into boxcars as the locomotive retreated through smoke and fire back down the valley. By morning Taft was no more. After it burned, the Missoulian headlines proclaimed almost dismissively at its riddance: “Taft lost, Deborgia and Saltese spared from flames!”
Parts of the little town survived, like a two-story hotel that was eventually repaired by its owners. When the railroad rebuilt its tracks to the town, they parked boxcars on a siding track to be used as makeshift businesses and housing, a feeble attempt to resurrect the place.
There was plenty of timber to harvest as millions of fire-killed snags stood stark and silent on the slopes up and down the valley. For a brief time, a small contingent of timberjacks tried to remake Taft as a harvesting base and railcar-loading site. Then there was the tunnel and tracks and telegraph line to maintain, offering labor for some. But with the monstrous tunnel now complete, there was no longer need for a large workforce and eventually folks walked away from what was left of Taft. By the late 1930s the Federal Writer’s Project accounted for only four remaining buildings, all abandoned.
In the decades that followed, the Federal Highway Administration built a two-lane highway that punched its way up the valley, past the town site and over Lookout Pass. A small gas station, then a grocery store, was all that Taft could muster up for the thousands of motorists whizzing by, bound for someplace else. In 1962, the Interstate Highway System eventually caught up to the former boomtown. Bulldozers and graders widened the two-lane highway and the broad right-of-way gobbled up the remains.
West of Missoula, underneath the fill and subgrade of Interstate 90, lie the remains of Taft, Montana, a fitting resting place for such a tawdry town. Today, Taft is a green highway sign that marks, well … nothing. It still has a name—just not a place.
Michael J. Ober is four generations deep in Montana’s history and culture. He is professor emeritus at Flathead Valley Community College, and worked as a seasonal ranger in Glacier National Park for 44 years.
Editor’s note: The St. Paul Pass Tunnel, formerly known as the Taft Tunnel, opened for trail traffic in June 2001 and is part of the renowned 15-mile-long Route of the Hiawatha hike and mountain bike trail system that runs between Idaho and Montana.