Big Sky Treasures #5

Gracing the Treasure State with a magical oasis, Columbia Gardens will always reign as one of Montana’s past gems.  Now forgotten along with the “richest hill on earth,” Butte’s utopian paradise hearkens back to its mining past.

Copper ruled Montana from the underground mines of Butte to the State Capitol in Helena.  The ore from copper-rich veins even reached across America to influence the nation’s capital.  Many knew of Butte, America (the city liked to say). 

Businessman and mining magnate, William A. Clark, welcomed an opportunity to gift the mining families of Butte as well as to pave the way to his election as U.S. Senator.  He bestowed a magnificent park with every imaginable attraction; while at the same time, he purchased a significant vote in the Montana legislature (U.S. Senators back in the day were elected by each state’s legislature until the 17th Amendment allowed for their direct election).

Built in 1899, Columbia Gardens would eventually grow to cover 68 acres in the city of Butte.  Admission would always be free, and concessions and rides could be purchased for a small price.  Over its lifetime, the park would never generate a profit.  The “richest hill on earth” always paid the bills.

The park became well-known outside of the Treasure State when President Theodore Roosevelt visited in 1903.  Thousands would continue to enjoy Columbia Gardens for almost eight decades.

Here’s a quick synopsis of the major Columbia Gardens’ attractions:

Grand Pavilion:  Big band music and dancing

Sports Stadium:  Baseball home for minor league’s Butte Miners

Roller Coaster:  Multiple stories high (built in 1906)

Zoo:  Featuring Montana’s wildlife

Various Rides:  Ferris wheel, mini train, carousel, bi-planes

Visitors also enjoyed walking the well-maintained grounds.  The immaculate park shined as a garden for the ages.  Every week one day was set aside as a “Children’s Day” with the emphasis on just plain ol’ fun.

Butte’s slow demise from its greatness as the “richest hill on earth” caved in as the 1970s approached.  In 1973, Columbia Gardens closed for good.  No longer would summers be filled with the excitement of another season at the park.  Copper’s riches had built the park, and now they would take it away.

Big Sky Treasures #4

Downstream from the steamboat port of Fort Benton, the currents of the Missouri River find ways to hide a mystery from the night.

Montana Territorial Secretary, Thomas Francis Meagher, has disappeared late at night outside of Fort Benton.  In the absence of the Territorial Governor, he is the acting governor.

What has happened to Meagher on this quiet evening on July 1, 1867?

Traveling by steamboat, Meagher appears to have fallen overboard.  His body is quickly swallowed up by the Missouri River’s unforgiving waters, never to be seen again.

Along the Missouri River, a steamboat waits while anchored at Fort Benton, Montana. (courtesy of Pinterest)

No one really knows what actually has happened, or better yet, they are keeping quiet about the dark happenings on this July night. 

Meagher is known to be a heavy drinker.  Is he killed in an accidental drowning when he mysteriously falls overboard?

Or did he succumb to suicide provoked by disillusionment with his shattered, personal dreams?

With many enemies, perhaps Meagher is murdered aboard this steamboat, and his body is forgotten as it conveniently floats far downstream in the swift currents of the river.

This “immortal” Irishman’s life is honored with a high degree of irony.  In an unusual tribute for a relatively unknown man with a dubious past, a statue of him is erected in 1905 and placed on the grounds in front of the State Capitol in Helena.  In the central region of the state, Meagher County is named for him.

Here are a few additional facts about Thomas Francis Meagher:

He is born in Ireland in 1823.

As an Irish nationalist, he participates in the Rebellion of 1848 and is sentenced to serve in a Tasmanian prison.  However, he escapes in 1852, and eventually ends up in the United States.

During the American Civil War, he joins the Union Army as part of the “Fighting 69th” Irish Brigade.  He rises to the rank of brigadier general.

Following the war, his dreams take him to the Montana Territory.  In his future, he hopes to build an Irish-Catholic colony and pursue a career as a U.S. Senator.

Big Sky Treasures #3

The longest river in the United States is the Missouri River, and its headwaters are found in southwestern Montana near the town of Three Forks.  The 1930s and the Great Depression held the Treasure State in its catastrophic grip, but economic relief was on the way.

The Missouri River headwaters in southwestern Montana where three rivers (Madison, Gallatin, Jefferson) join up. (Courtesy of Pinterest)

The rest of the story takes place in northeastern Montana, not far from the communities of Glasgow and Nashua.  Here the largest construction project in the state’s history would create a man-made lake covering 134 miles with 1,520 miles of shoreline.  By far, this lake would be the largest in the state.

Shoreline view of an inlet on Fort Peck Lake (near the dam).

With the blessings of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, construction of the Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River began in 1933.  This massive undertaking would finally see completion in 1940 as World War II was tearing the European continent apart.

One of the many boomtowns which sprung up around the dam’s construction site. (Courtesy of Pinterest)

Providing work for nearly 11,000 displaced people was the driving force behind the project.  Several small towns sprang up near the construction area:  Fort Peck, Square Deal, New Deal, Park Grove, Delano Heights, and Wheeler.  Today, only Fort Peck and Park Grove remain.

The historic Fort Peck Theatre was built to provide around-the-clock films for construction workers and their families. Today the building hosts a very successful summer theater program.

Fort Peck Dam is the world’s largest hydraulic earth-filled dam.  Dredge cuts in the area remind one of the searches for much needed mud and earth to be used in building the dam. 

Here is a sampling of a few facts about the dam.

The dam’s length is about 3.5 miles, and Montana Highway 24 runs over it as well as the spillway.

Dramatic look at the massive spillway with Montana Highway 24 crossing over.

The spillway is actually three miles east of the dam.  The first cover of LIFE magazine (November, 1936) featured the mammoth spillway under construction.

Here is the LIFE magazine over. The photography was captured by Margaret Bourke-White. (Courtesy of Pinterest)

Four diversion tunnels go under the dam to bring water from the reservoir to the hydroelectric power plant.  Each is about a mile in length and 24 feet in diameter.

Looking west across the face of the dam, the emergency shafts for the diversion tunnels remain as quiet sentinels.

Fort Peck Lake provides six recreation areas, numerous fishing and boating access sites, and an interpretative center and museum (found near the power plant). 

On a personal note, I had the privilege to know Joe Morin who worked on the construction of the dam.  Here’s a quote of his, “Everybody knew what a massive project it was, but everybody was so thankful to have a job.”  Joe’s work ethic would serve him well for the rest of his life, with most of it spent in Montana’s McCone County.

Montana’s PBS has produced a well-received documentary about the Fort Peck Dam.  Even if one doesn’t have time to view the entire video, the first few minutes capture the magnitude and significance of this construction project to the people of northeastern Montana.

Here are links to the previous two posts featuring more Big Sky Treasures:

Big Sky Treasures #2

Growing up under the Big Sky and spending about 50 years living there certainly makes me a citizen for life.  This short feature will put the spotlight on how gold fever rushed miners and others into three different regions during the 1860s into the Last, Best Place called Montana. 

During America’s Civil War, Montana seemed a bit more preoccupied with gold than war.  Three separate gold strikes poured people into western mountain valleys overnight.

Each region was designated with a geographic name as well as the town which sprung up in the midst of gold fever.

  • Grasshopper Creek in 1862 (Bannock)
  • Alder Gulch in 1863 (Virginia City)
  • Last Chance Gulch in 1864 (Helena)

Montana became a territory in 1864 when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Congressional legislation into law.  Each of these three gold mining communities would serve for a time as territorial capital.

Bannock (Territorial Capital 1864-1865)

This boom town started from Montana’s first significant gold strike.  Along an unassuming creek, hundreds of miners made the trek into Montana.  Today, Bannock is a ghost town, but a state park preserves the town’s structures.

These Bannack pictures (courtesy of Pinterest) show the exterior of a Masonic Temple and the interior of another building.  

Virginia City (Territorial Capital 1865-1875)

One of the world’s largest placer gold strikes proved much richer than Montana’s first discovery along Grasshopper Creek.  While Bannack declined, Virginia City thrived.  Today, the town serves as the county seat of Madison County with the historic courthouse formerly being the territorial capitol.

These photos were taken during a summer, 2016 trip to Montana which included an opportunity to visit Virginia City.  The Madison County Courthouse (formerly the Territorial Capitol) is on the left.  Virginia City is a unique community with the 21st Century living alongside of the preserved historical district as shown in the photo on the right (the inside of a business as it looked back in the gold rush days).

Helena (Territorial Capital 1875-1889)

A forlorn group of prospectors decided to pan for gold.  Their “last chance” before moving on proved to be the discovery which turned the region into a mad scramble of miners and businesses.  The gulch later became a meandering avenue (the original Main Street) in Helena, Montana’s capital city when statehood became a reality in 1889.

The above images (courtesy of Pinterest) show the contrast of Last Chance Gulch from earlier times on the left with the modern walking mall of today.

Thanks for visiting as Big Sky Buckeye appreciates your readership.  Stay tuned for future posts about the Last, Best Place of Montana.

60’s Flashback

The decade of the 1960’s brought many new gadgets, tools, and toys into stores across America and around the world.  Some of these products still exist today in their original form or with a modern update.  All images are courtesy of Pinterest.

Kodak Instamatic 104 Camera

The tradition of ground-breaking technology continued with Kodak’s newest camera in 1963.

Barbie Doll

The #1 doll of the decade arrived in 1959, and it made Mattel a fortune.  The doll reflected the mod-inspired fashion style of the 1960’s.

Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm

This popular “formicarium” or ant farm is still produced today, and it was one of the top sellers during the decade.

Sunbeam Mixmaster

This innovative kitchen device was the best-selling mixer of the decade.  I can still remember my Grandmother making her famous whipped potatoes with this mixer, and my Mother owned one as well.


This popular toy was invented in 1960 by French toymaker Andre Cassagnes, and later it was sold in America through the Ohio Art Company.

West Bend Flavo-Matic

Long before drip coffee brewing machines, the good ol’ percolator brewed America’s coffee throughout the decade and beyond.

Chatty Cathy

This doll was the second most popular in North America (first sold in 1959).  When pulling Cathy’s string, she was capable of saying one of eleven phrases.


I hope you enjoyed a journey back in time.  I imagine some of you used one or more of these products.  Do you have any other gadgets or toys from the 60’s that you remember?