Bits of Montana Wisdom Part 3 of 5

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Do you sometimes think the state is being inundated with new ways, and we are losing the real Montana? In some places perhaps yes, but most of the state is still the Montana we have always known and perceived. It is only in a small percentage of the state’s mass where this change has actually taken place.

The last census showed Montana, the fourth-largest state in the nation in terms of landmass, as having 989,415 folks residing within its borders. We use the 2010 census, as it provides the most accurate information. Since then some places, many actually, have grown smaller and some larger.

Of that total, according to one of Montana’s most highly respected economists, Larry Swanson of the University of Montana’s Center for the Rocky Mountain West, about 791,532 people (80 percent of the total) live within 50 miles of the state’s seven largest towns, leaving only 197,883 folks scattered over the rest of an enormous landscape.

When we did the 2000 census, this was 70 to 75 percent, and when we do the 2020 census in a few more years, it will be 84 to 85 percent. So we are more “urban” than we think in more ways than one, except that somehow we seem to maintain a majority of “rural” legislators – largely because we keep the more rural districts that are losing population alive by slicing into the periphery areas of growing cities. This serves to reduce urban influence and participation in the state legislature and increase rural influence and participation.

Our state’s seven major municipalities, as of the 2010 census, have sizeable gatherings of humanity by Montana standards: Billings, 104,170; Missoula, 66,788; Great Falls, 58,505; Bozeman, 37,280; Butte, 34,200; Helena, 28,190; and Kalispell, 19,927. The rest of the settlements drop off sharply in terms of residents. A population of 5,000 is considered large, and few places reach that level. Some counties total less than 1,000 souls. For example, Petroleum and Garfield counties, occupying a piece of terrain larger than some eastern states, together hold less than 1,700 folks.

And Swanson says, contrary to popular belief, it isn’t Californians. In Bozeman – sometimes jokingly referred to as Bozeangeles – the majority of the immigration is from Washington and Colorado.

In the mid 1800s, the Hi-Line was the rail corridor for Jim Hill’s Great Northern Railway. Later it became U.S. Highway 2. It crosses the northern prairie in a straight, even direction from East Glacier to just east of Poplar on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Of course, Highway 2 continues on to the Dakota line, but the landscape east of Poplar becomes hillier and more broken, hence it doesn’t qualify as the Hi-Line.

A fact worthy of note is that 1,820 feet is the lowest elevation in the state, where Highway 2 enters Montana downstream on the Kootenai River from Troy. Measuring out 672 miles to the sunrise, the highway leaves the state eight miles east of Bainville.

Now that we’ve mentioned the length of Highway 2, it might be interesting to point out that it is not Montana’s longest highway. That distinction goes to Montana Highway 200, which enters the state from Idaho through the Cabinet Gorge, between the Bitterroot Range and Cabinet Mountains, and exits Big Sky Country east of Sidney – a distance of 706 miles. U.S. Highway 12, dropping into Montana from Lolo pass on the Idaho line and exiting 12 miles east of Baker, comes in third at 600 miles in length. Anyone know what our shortest highway is? If so, let us know.

The Utah Northern, originating from Ogden just north of Salt Lake City, was the first railroad to enter Montana. It’s tracks reached our great state on March 9, 1880, when they crossed the Continental Divide on today’s Monida Pass (not much imagination in this name – it is short for Montana and Idaho) heading to Butte. Work paused for the winter at the site of today’s Dillon, where a winter camp was established and negotiations took place for a continued right-of-way. Sydney Dillon was head of the outfit, hence the name Dillon. The tracks and the first train reached Butte, at 11:10 p.m. on Dec. 21, 1881. Although it was a very cold and snowy night, the hardy and ever-ready-to-celebrate citizens came out to greet the steam engine.

Rick and Susie Graetz

Department of Geography

University of Montana

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