Life in a Railroad Town

By Jill Evans, Administrator of the Stumptown Historical Society

Good times were usually noisy, sometimes rowdy, occasionally boisterous. Probably they needed to be. Life was hard, as Mrs. Motichka makes clear, and it was violent.

The railroad had brought roustabouts, hold-up men, thieves and drunkards to town. There were almost daily robberies. Drunkenness on the downtown streets was commonplace. Accidents on the railroad made injury frequent and death no stranger. There was also hunting accidents and drownings. There was a murder or two, Smallpox, typhoid, and flu epidemics were feared-and fearful. Forest fire was a summertime danger, and other fires a winter hazard. Day-to-day living was never really safe, and women worried or put their trust in God.

There have been only two hangings in Flathead County and neither crime occurred in Whitefish. They were both known about in Whitefish, though, and talked about there.

Calvin J. Christie, alias Charles J. Black, was hanged December 21, 1894, for the murder of Mrs. Lena Cunningham the preceding April 28 in the woods north of Columbia Falls.

Christie had had a long life of crime under several aliases in St., Paul and elsewhere, and had lived in Columbia Falls as a painter under the name of Black. Mrs. Cunningham was a reputable housewife, slain for no known reason while walking home. The crime frightened other women.

Fred LeBeau was hanged in 1909 for the Yoakim murders in nearby Fortine, west of Whitefish. When Riley and Frank Yoakim were found dead in June, 1908, it was supposed that the son had killed his 70-yar-old father and then committed suicide. Joseph Hobbins came forth with other information, saying that he had a certain LeBeau had gone to the Yoakum cabin together, asking for food, and that after he had left, LeBeau had killed both men. LeBeau was hanged, Hobbins was implicated with LeBeau and given life imprisonment. Later he was released.

There were other murders. In November 1907, James Hines, who had worked in the extra gang at Essex, cashed his checks in Whitefish and next day was found dead on the railroad tracks, where a train ran over both legs.

In October, 1908, Brakeman Ray G. Gregory of Whitefish, while on his run from Cutbank to Whitefish, was shot by a tramp; he died the next week of his injuries. The same month Arthur W. Livingstone, a young man married only a little over a year and with a small baby attempted to kill his mother-in-law and injured his wife before he committed suicide near the bridge at the Somers mill on Whitefish Lake. Most Whitefish crime fell short of murder, but there are frequent Pilot references to these lesser crimes. Three items might be call typical:

January 14, 1905: “Constables O’Brien and Hofman this week did a good turn for Whitefish, They rounded up a bunch of toughs and gave them the privilege of leaving town or going to jail. In the gang was Omaha Jack. They all concluded to leave except Chub Casey. O’Brien pulled him in Thursday and Justice Reed sent him to county jail for 30 days.”

May, 1906” “That Whitefish is infested by a gang of thieves, hold-up men, and hoodlums who should be jailed, if possible, or run out of town if necessary, has been shown this week on a number of occasions. Sunday night was particularly productive of law-breaking acts, a hold-up and two robberies occurring on this night, in addition to the usual drunkenness, carousing, and yelling, which has come to be a regular thing…Ike L. Freudenthal last week installed a handsome new safe in his business house.”

July 5, 1907: “Several fights during the past week have helped to keep up the reputation of ‘Hell Roarin’ Avenue.” (Central Avenue, we assume.)

One of the best-known, biggest, and most interesting robberies involving Whitefish, as well as other Flathead law officials, occurred when the Great Northern Oriental Ltd, was robbed near Rondo in Lincoln County in September, 1907, by Charles McDonald and George Frankhouser. Forty thousand dollars was taken. Frankhouser was sent to Leavenworth, where he died in 1920, but McDonald escaped after a Helena jail break in 1909.

Railroad robberies occurred up and down the line and were sometimes serious, like that at Rondo, sometimes a bit on the humorous side. The big depot robbery in Whitefish itself was of the latter variety.

In June, 1904, the townspeople were awakened one night by loud explosions and immediately rushed in the direction of the racket to the railroad. There they found a blown safe on the platform, which had a hole in it, broken windows in the shack that was then the depot, and scattered currency being picked up by assorted trainmen and citizens. Burglars, plainly green at the business, had broken into the depot through J. S. Babcock’s window, removed the outer door of the safe, and then carried the safe to the platform, where they blew it open. Scared off by the blast, the robbers left the money and a gold watch behind. Fortunately a railroad car loaded with “giant powder” that had stood at the depot the previous day had been removed before the robbery. Otherwise the town would have been blown sky-high.

Note: The quoted material is taken from Stump Town to Ski Town, by Betty Schafer and Mable Engelter, written in 1972 and reprinted by the Stumptown Historical Society in 2003. It is available for sale in the Whitefish Museum located in the Train Depot.

CuratorLife in a Railroad Town

There was nothing to do, but just keep going

By Jill Evans, Administrator of the Stumptown Historical Society

It is difficult to imagine the level of difficult challenge that early pioneers faced. I could not describe the experience of just getting here better than one of our first loggers did.

“W.O. Hutchinson described his own fairly typical journey from Michigan to Whitefish Lake……I arrived at Whitefish Lake on November 14, 1890. My brother Joe had been here two months. I left my old hoe in Michigan on November 6. I went north to Mackinaw Strait, from there to Duluth and Minneapolis, from there I took a Northern Pacific train to Ravalli, which is about 35 miles south of Flathead Lake, and it took five days to make the trip.

Historic Whitefish Lake“At Ravalli I bought a stage ticket to the foot of Flathead Lake, There were five stages leaving that morning but they were so heavily loaded that several us had to walk. The first day we traveled to the present day of Ronan, there were no beds so we were forced to sit up all night. During the night it snowed about twelve inches, with sleighs replacing the stages. At noon we reached the foot of Flathead Lake where Polson is now and took a steamboat to Demersville. (4 miles SE of Kalispell).

The next morning I got up early and started afoot for Whitefish Lake, carrying a heavy suitcase and a rifle. There was no snow until I got to the timber line, about five miles south of whitefish. It was said to be twenty-five miles from Deversville to Whitefish Lake and people had already begun to settle along the road. When I arrived at the Henry Good ranch I took a wrong turn and came north. I then followed a trail through the woods towards Whitefish. After walking about a mile and a half I came upon three men building a log cabin in a meadow. One of then was A.N. Smith, later county commissioner of Columbia Falls. He told me that it was about a mile an a half to the trail to Whitefish Lake. I made two attempts, but both times came out to the Whitefish River, so I went back to where they were building the cabin and Mr. Smith showed me over to the lake read. I was surely warm and tired when I got there, as I had then walked twenty-five miles. It was sundown, and I was still three and a half miles from the lake: however there was nothing to do except keep going.

The trail passed a small log cabin with some hay in it. I thought for a few minutes that I would camp there for the night, but on second thought I decided to go on and see what I could find. I had gone only forty rods when I found my brother and two other men working on his cabin, about a half mile south of the Lake. I was then dark, so we came down to the lake to a cabin where John Morton lived. He was the first to locate in the Whitefish Lade country, having built his cabin just west of the outlet of the lake. He was from Michigan, not far from where we had lived, and I had known him there.

“I was pretty tired from my long hike and slept well that nite. When I got up the next morning, the sun was coming up over the mountains by the canyon making the peaks of the Whitefish Range a beautiful red. There was a dead swell three feet high rolling down the Lake. I went out and sat on the shore of the lake, admiring the scenery for two hours. Never had I seen anything so beautiful.”

It is men like this upon whose shoulders we stand and to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. They had the courage to go into the wilderness to forge a future for themselves and create the beautiful town of Whitefish for all of us.

Note: The quoted material is taken from Stump Town to Ski Town, by Betty Schafer and Mable Engelter, written in 1972 and reprinted by the Stumptown Historical Society in 2003. It is available for sale in the Whitefish Museum located in the Train Depot.

CuratorThere was nothing to do, but just keep going

Whitefish – The First Decade

By Jill Evans, Administrator of the Stumptown Historical Society

An excellent picture of Whitefish life during the first decade of the twentieth century is drawn by two ladies who were young then, Mrs. Ed Motichka and Mrs. Carl Walters. Mrs. Motichks, in an interview with the Whitefish librarian, detailed what she called “The Hard Times,” and “The Nice Things,” of the old days. What she describes is typical of many a frontier community, but it is Whitefish she is describing:

Hard Times:

This boy is carrying water from the Kootnei river

This boy is carrying water from the Kootnei river

“The woodbox that was never full for long and the hard work splitting wood and carrying it in. That water pail that was always empty when one needed a drink and the water that had to be pumped by hand and carried from the well or creek. The water that had to be heated on the stove to do the washing, using a washboard and rubbing the clothes by hand. Also wringing the clothes by hand, making our own soap from tallow and waste grease. The floors to be scrubbed on hands and knees with a scrub brush and lye, the endless ironing with sad irons located on the cook stove, butter to be churned, Bread made, and the endless baking. The baths to be taken Saturday evening in the wash tub by the kitchen stove.”

“The cows, pigs, and chickens to be taken care of by the women while their husbands were off at the lumber camps, perhaps gone all week. The deep snow to be waded through in winter and the ice to be chopped so that the stock could get a drink…”

“The men getting up before dawn to curry and brush and feed their horses and get them harnessed so they could be at camp before daylight. Some men in those days took better care of their horses than they did of their wives, horses were real valuable in those days.”

“The clearing of land which all had to be done by hand and team…(The men) staying away from home and family maybe weeks at a time, sleeping in bunkhouses on bunks built against the wall with only boards with a straw tick, using sometimes the same blanket that was used during the day to cover their horses when they came in sweaty from a haul to the camp landing.”

“The flies and yellow jackets in the cook house with a yellow jacket or fly in the pie for extra good flavor.”

“The lumberjacks who spent their last nickel for a bottle, never remembering to buy themselves a warm pair of socks or mittens…”

“The times when the camps closed down and there was little to eat except maybe fat pork, beans, deer meat…”

Whitefish Women Pioneers

This is the mother of the boy carrying water(Frank), here name is Ollie Logston, Frank is the oldest of her ten children. Ca. 1920

“There was little to make life easy for a woman. To set up housekeeping in those days she had only a one-room cabin, cook stove, a home-made table and a couple of benches which served for chairs, a washboard and tub, a few dishes and a kettle or pail to cook coffee in, a bunk built in the corner, no mattress, a feather bed if one was lucky, otherwise a straw tick filled with straw, home-made comforters, sheets made out of flour sacks, curtains at the windows made out of flour sacks, or calico, a broom made out of fine willow branches.”

“In winter, water froze setting a few feet away from the stove, and many mornings there would be a covering of snow near the door, which blew in during a blizzard. A hole under the cabin served as a cellar where the vegetables were kept or anything one didn’t want frozen reached by a trap door in the middle of the floor, a lantern and lamp…if one ran out of kerosene, one used a candle or went to bed when it got dark or just had the light from the fireplace, if one was lucky enough to have one.”

“The men and women worked long hours and the work was hard, but even at that they were happy and raised their children There were no delinquent children in those days. Papa and mama believed in using the strap or willow switch when needed, and children knew they were loved even though paddled now and then. Everyone took their children with them when they went places in those days.”

“Later men and women working in the fields together gathering the harvest…the threshing machine and threshing crew to thresh the grain in the fall…the high straw stacks and the big dinners mama and the neighbor ladies cooked for the men, getting up before daylight so the men could start threshing by daylight.”

Nice Things:

“…at the ball park on Sunday, tables laden with all good home-baked goodies, the children playing games, the men playing horseshoes or baseball, the ladies just visiting…”

“The school programs at Christmas or last day of school…dressed in stiffly starched dresses mama had spent hours ironing, highbutton shoes, pretty ribbons in our hair”

“The dances held at the different homes or the schoolhouses; the children were never left home in those days-babysitters were unheard of… Everyone took something for lunch and they danced until the wee hours of the morning, many walked, had no horses to drive. The women curled their hair, using a curling iron heated in the lamp chimney, and if they had no powder, cornstarch worked very well with a little dash of cinnamon. Sometimes there were fist fights between the young blades and the lumberjacks from across the river over who was to take the prettiest girls home.”

“The; quilting bees held in neighbors’ homes in the afternoon when the work was done, the little girls busy playing house with broken pieced of dishes and an old spoon or two, the young boys teasing the girls and showing off. “The house-raising when the hired girl and one of the lumberjacks got married and set up housekeeping in a little cabin, the chivari in the evening, and the goodies brought by the older married women.”

Note: The quoted material is taken from Stump Town to Ski Town, by Betty Schafer and Mable Engelter, written in 1972 and reprinted by the Stumptown Historical Society in 2003. It is available for sale in the Whitefish Museum located in the Train Depot.

CuratorWhitefish – The First Decade