The Early Years Of Columbia Falls


Probably the first settlers in this area were Mr. and Mrs. Gaspard (Malvina) Martin.

They first located south of Columbia Falls, on the bank of the Whitefish river. Later they moved to take up a homestead on the bank of the Abbot creek. In this area is the town of Martin City, named for them.

An old hunter, trapper and prospector by that name had a "squatters right" on the land. He was also something of a hermit. Thinking that civilization was closing in on him, he moved away when the Martins located there.

The little white house that the Martins built still stands there, to the west of Highway 2 and just south of the creek. It was this house that they called "home" for many years, and in which they reared a large family. Eight children in all.

As a young man, Mr. Martin came to Frenchtown from Chatham, Ontario, Canada. In a short while he returned to Canada to claim his bride. When they came to the Flathead it was still a very primitive area. In an interview with Mrs. Martin in 1956, she told of having a contract, along with five others, to cut the timber for the shingles to go to Jake Demer when he was building his store in Demersville in 1887. At this time she was the last survivor of the six. She also related that during the big forest fire in 1929, she carried water by the bucket from the creek to keep her home from burning. She also told that before the Coram school was built in 1910, school was held in Felberg's garage. The first school teacher was Ruth Selvage.

Mr. Martin passed away in July of 1945 and Mrs. Martin in May of 1956, he at the grand old age of 85 and she at 88.

Lewis Bowman, or better known as "Buckskin Louie" was another of the very oldtimers. His location was across the river where Columbia Heights is now. He got his nickname from the fact that he made all of his clothes and even his footwear, from buckskin. In those days people even made their own furniture, as there was nothing else available.

Clint White was another colorful oldtimer. I don't believe he ever had a homestead, but he lived in Columbia Falls in the very early days. He was, as they described him "a little touched in the head," but harmless. And he did have a great sense of humor. He would saunter out into the middle of the street (and this was before the days of airplanes) and gaze skyward. A crowd would gather and while they were intently looking upward to see if they could see what Clint was seeing, Clint would silently duck out of the crowd and steal away, leaving them feeling like "dummies" and looking rather silly. Very soon the townspeople caught on, but Clint would always wait until there was a "greenhorn" around before going into his act.

In 1889 a group of pioneers, who came into the valley by boat and by wagon, formed a little village on the bank of the Flathead River directly south of the present Nucleus Avenue, then east along the river. They called this little community Columbia.

There are two possible reasons for the choice of the name. First is that it is at the headwaters of the Columbia River. Second is that the mountains on either side of the canyon had already been named. Teakettle, on the north of the canyon got it's name from the rock formation on its face that remarkably resembled a huge teakettle. The mountain on the south of the canyon was Columbia. This mountain overshadowed this new little community, therefore the reason for the name.

The Flathead River was then the main means of transportation, so these pioneers wished to be near it. Water, also, being necessary for survival.

Coal had been discovered up the North Fork a few years earlier and was being mined in a limited way and being brought down the North Fork of the Flathead River on barges and flat-boats, powered by "donkey" engines. The coal was then sent on down the river through Demersville to Flathead lake. There it was loaded on the big freighter boats that plied the lake and taken onward, finally to come to the Northern Pacific Railway, where it was shipped on to its destination.

In 1890, when the information came that the railroad was really coming through the mountains, a group of Butte business men formed what they called the Northern International Improvement Company. The names of G. E. Gaylord, L. C. Trent, A. J. Davis and Frank Langford, became well known. Another name was that of the man who could well be called "The Father of Columbia Falls." This man was James Asbur Talbott.

Adjoining land was purchased by Talbott and added to the land already purchased from Mrs. La Frambois. This became the Townsite Company and Frank Langford became manager.

The year of 1891 was a busy one for the little town of Columbia. The little village down on the flat had become quite spread out. It is reported that there was 18 saloons, a general merchandise store and a men's store. There was also a barber shop and a flour mill.

Spring high water had not been kind to this little settlement so near the river, and with the promise of the coming of the railroad, the settlers began moving up on higher ground and also nearer to the sight of the coming of the rails. Nucleus Avenue between 7th Street (at the top of the hill) and 5th Street became the first settled part of the new location. However there were a few buildings both east and west, as well as farther north.

It was in 1892 that Talbott built the first bank building, which bore his name. This was located on the southeast corner of Nucleus and 7th. Around the corner on 7th, west of the bank, was Garrette Grocery, later to become Smalls Grocery. This building later housed the Farmers Exchange Telephone Service. South across 7th was Fifield's Bakery. Going east on 7th and across Nucleus was the Schanders Hotel. Next to it was a livery stable. Down under the hill was the red light district, known as "The Brick."

Schanders Hill was a long hill down onto the flat. It had an "S" curve in it and was the favorite place for winter sleighing and tobogganing. Still on farther east, by the river, was the John O. Olsen Lumber Company. This was the first saw mill and lumber company in Columbia Falls

Logs were cut in the woods and then skidded or hauled out to the nearest contact with the river, then floated down stream to the mill. At this same time A. L. Jordan built a planing mill up in the far northeast part of the new townsite, near where the rails would come through the canyon. A "narrow gauge" tramway was built, half way down the side of the hill, between Olsen's saw mill and Jordan's planing mill. After the logs were sawed into boards at the mill they were loaded onto gondola type cars and with a little steam engine, hauled up to the planing mill. There they were finished and then loaded into box cars (after the coming of the railroad) and shipped. Columbia Falls was a lucrative lumber market.

It was also near the sight of the Jordan Mill that the first Great Northern depot was built in 1891. Herm Lewis was the first agent. Somewhere around 1914 this building was moved to the north end of Nucleus Avenue. Then, in 1953, with the completion of the Hungry Horse Dam, President Truman was scheduled to come to dedicate the dam. It was decided to build a new depot, in honor of the coming of the president. The old depot was sold and moved to just east of Columbia Falls, on Highway 40, and is presently the Link's Automotive Service.

Also near the location of the first depot and the Jordan Mill was a two story rooming house and lunch counter. This was run by Bill Patterson. This building was also moved, when the depot was moved, up to the north end of Nucleus, on the east side of the street. Mrs. Nettie Siders ran it then.

There was also, in this same area, a grain elevator, operated by A. D. Priest. In 1894 Columbia Falls was known as the chief shipping point on the Great Northern Railway, for grain.

Coming back to 7th and across north from Schanders Hotel was a couple of vacant lots and then the Kennedy building. The Kennedys were very early comers to the new town. "Uncle Jim," as he was affectionately called by the towns people, operated a drug store. In May of 1891 he was appointed the first post master. When he applied for the name of Columbia, he was informed from Washington that there already was a Columbus in Montana, and that a similar name might be very confusing. He was asked to make a second choice. Mrs. Kennedy was quick to solve the problem. She said "Just add 'Falls' to it." And so Columbia changed to Columbia Falls.

Either in the Kennedy building, or in a little separate building, Ted Kennedy had a shoe store. Then in the northeast corner of the block the Gaylord Hotel was built in 1892. Gaylord and Talbott built the hotel, but for many years it was run by Mr. and Mrs. John E. Lewis and C. C. "Charlie" Miller. It had the reputation of being the finest hostelry for many miles around. It was a 31-room, three story high, brick building, with a full basement, a dining room and a bar. It was a very elegant building. It burned in January of 1929.

Going north across 6th was a whole block full of businesses. There was the R. W. Main Mercantile. A two story building that had several different owners in the grocery business on the ground floor. A long stairway went up behind Main's to the upper floor which was "The Opera House." It was also the local gathering place for the Saturday night dances. Tom Kilduff had a shoe store and I believe some clothing. There were three or four saloons. I'm not sure in what order they came, but there was Fitzpatrick's and "Orie" Reeves, Herm Selvage and Paul Norris. Then there was Dave Greve's Pool Hall with a lunch counter in the back. In my teenage years there was a cafe in the basement run by Nick Bedenejak (pronounced B-den-a-jack). I don't know what nationality Nick was, but he spoke with a very definite accent. We like to hear him talk. We would ask "What kind of pie you got?" On his long, bony fingers, he would count them out, very slowly. "I got obble (apple), beach (peach), bear (pear) an' greem bo-na-ni (cream banana) all which I'm got, which you want?"

Next to Greve's, on the corner was the Chinese Cafe manned by one Mar You, known as Columbia Falls' friendly Chinaman. Mr You's cousin cooked at the Gaylord and they lived togtheer in a back room.

Nothing down Nucleus now for two blocks, then the home of the weekly newspaper, The Columbian. The first newspaper in Columbia Falls was edited by J. W. Pace, who had come to the new town from the Missoulian. Herm Laeuger was also the editor for awhile, and C. E. Clemens was the editor for a long while.

Across Nucleus west was the Great Northern Rooms, run by a widow woman, Mrs. Gross.

Coming back south on Nucleus there was nothing until the end of the second block. There the Lord Brotherns had a furniture and Second Hand store.

Billy Lewtz' blacksmith shop was just around the corner from Lords. Now we're on 5th Street. There was a big excavation under the blacksmith shop. Then there was a vacant lot and then a little shed that housed the fire equipment. Later the fire hall was built on this location. The first fire fighting equipment in Columbia Falls was a man powered two wheel cart and a volunteer fire department. The cart could hold two barrels of water at a time. If that didn't put the fire out they would for a "bucket brigade" from the well, which was the only well in town, and situated on the Johnnie Gansman property at 2nd Avenue West and 3rd Street. The cry of "fire" was the first fire alarm system. After the water came down and the fire hall was built, it had a bell tower and a bell that could be heard for miles around. Even the first water supply was very limited, and sometimes no more than 10 lbs. pressure, so the sounding of the fire alarm always struck terror to the heart.

Grass fires were dreaded and frequent in the late summer months. Forest fires, too, were a constant fear. The first big fire was the fire of 1910. That is the fire that swept over Teakettle Mountain. Since that time the teakettle has not been as discernible as before, one has to know where to look for it before you notice it.

Next to the fire department is the Big store. Many owners have come and gone in that one. Carr and Poss founded it. And there was a Mr. Taft that had a partnership. Thorvald Elsethagen was bookkeeper and eventually bought out Poss, so it was then Carr and Elsethagen for many years. It is presently DaVall Mercantile. In the "good old days" one of the features was two kinds of coffee - Lyons and Arbuckles. They came in great big paper bags with a prize in each bag. There were the whole coffee bean and a grinder stood at eh end of the counter so that you cold grind the coffee of your choice. And as this was the days before electricity, the grinder had a hand crank.

From 5th to 6th was the town square. Nothing stood in this whole block except the band stand, where the city band would gather almost every summer evening, to practice. The townspeople enjoyed these concerts. The streets, at this time, had board sidewalks, and half way between corners on the east side of this block, after the water came down, was a fountain and a watering trough for the horses. This trough resembled very much an overgrown bathtub, only it was made of cement.

Across 6th were two vacant lots, then the show house, operated by a Mr. Wolgomuth. Miss Wolgomuth was a school teacher in Colubia Falls a few years later. Later, Dwight Grist bought the show house and changed the name to the Park. Dwight's dad was a barber and had a shop in this block. L. A. Smith had a jewelry store that later was run by Theo and Anna (Neitzling) Christensen. They also had a bicycle shop there, and lived in the rear of the building. Martin Conlin had a real estate and insurance office. Columbia Falls was never short on bars. In fact, no early Montana town, or western town, was ever short on bars. They were always called saloons.

Over on the corner of First Avenue West and 5th Street, after leaving the Big store and going south again, there were a couple of vacant lots and then a butcher ship. Joe Mateka ran that for years. There was another butcher by the name of Steller, Then one or two more vacant lots, then a string of buggy sheds from the street to the alley with the entrance next. Then the office, where over the door was a sign "Studebaker Wagons and Carriages. Next, on the corner of First Avenue West and 6th Street was the Odd Fellows building. Murray and Junkins had a hardware store on the street level and the lodge rooms were upstairs.

On the corner of First Avenue West and 7th Street was Joe Miller's. His home faced east, and still stands. There was always a neat yard completely enclosed by a white picket fence. Joe had a little building on the back of his lot that was his harness ship and he did shoe repair.

Next to Miller's was Bischoff's bakery. Then the Valley House. Board and room. Across the street east of the Valley House Art Haskill had a livery stable. He had many fine horses, and had buggies for hire. He also ran the passenger and dray service from the Gaylord to the depot. Also carried the mail. It is long gone, as is the Valley House. The name of the Valley House was changed to the Maple Apartments, and burned in about 1938.

In 1891 Talbott donated the ground for the first Episcopal Church. St. Richards Catholic church was built that same year. They were both over on Fourth Avenue West between 4th and 6th streets.

In 1892 the Columbus School was built, also on ground donated by Talbott. This was located at Second Avenue East and 2nd Street.

In 1894 Columbia Falls was proclaimed to be the healthiest town in the state of Montana.

In 1895 the State passed an act to build the Old Soldiers Home. The Townsite Company gave 160 acres of ground west and south of Columbia Falls for the location. They also gave $3,100 in cash for the building. They also installed the boiler, engine, tanks and pump. Governor E. J. Richards laid the cornerstone. The building cost $9,985. The first enlistment was on June 17, 1897. A Colonel White was in charge. Later additions were the hospital, the women's quarters, engine building and service buildings consisting of a bakery, employees building, laundry tables, and offices.

In 1900 the Talbott family made the permanent move to Columbia Falls. They built a 24 room, 3 story mansion at the south end of 2nd Avenue West, overlooking the Flathead River. The place was beautifully landscaped. There were many out buildings such as guest cottages, servant's quarters, buggy sheds, stables, and later, garages. It was truly a palatial home.

In 1919 this was the headquarters for the first movie to be made in the Flathead. A western type, silent movie called "Where Rivers Rise." It was, of course, a love story, but it had plenty of thrills and chills. There were lumber jacks riding the logs down the river, and there was a forest fire scene. The fire, conveniently, broke out at the time and the director took advantage of it. And there was the big fight, where the "hero" knocked out the "villain" on the steps of the saloon. It was mostly local talent. Art Staten was the hero. He was also a very good lumberjack. The late A. L. Jordan was the "barkeep" and others that I remember taking part in the "Mob" scenes were Francis Ehrig, Vern Smith, "Foe" Brunette and Minnie Selvage. Only Vern remains of these. Yours truly was in some of the dance hall scenes,

The last of the Talbott family vacated the building in 1923. The mansion stood vacant for many years. Some of the other buildings were rented from time to time, then in 1926 it was sold to the Hoerner family. It was destroyed by fire in January of 1941. Mrs. Talbott had passed away in 1909 and Mr. Talbott in 1923. Columbia Falls owes much to the Talbotts.

When Columbia Falls moved up from the river in 1891, there was a need for water. There was only one well in town and that was located at Second Avenue West and 3rd street. Water was pumped from the well and hauled in barrels and sold to the townspeople. Charlie Foster was in charge of this water department. In 1892 a water main was brought down from Cedar Creek, north of the track. These were the old type wood stave and tar pipes, and sometimes the water tasted of the tar, but it was good cold clear water, no chlorination or fluoridation in those days.

In 1904 Mrs. Talbott bought the land west of town and established the Woodlawn Cemetery. She had it fenced and a great arch over the driveway had a double swinging wrought iron gate. Many of the Talbott family rest here, including Mr. and Mrs. Talbott.

In 1907 construction began for the new bank. This was built on the two vacant lots next to the show house on the corner of 6th and Nucleus, and directly across from the Gaylord Hotel. The bank occupied the north half of this two story brick building. It was built so there was two steps up into the bank. Mr. Talbott was the banker, was assisted by George Watt and Jack Smith as cashiers. The big plate glass window in front had the lettering "Bank of Columbia Falls."

There were doctors offices and apartments up stairs and the doorway to the stairs was on the north side of the building, behind the bank, proper, to the right, as you entered the door to the stairs was a barber shop. This building still stands and is now known as the Nord building.

The south side of the building was at street level and was a drug store operated by L. D. Bates. The post office was moved from the Kennedy building up to the new bank building, and was situated in the northeast corner of the drug store. Mrs. Bates was postmaster or more fittingly I should say postmistress. Frank Sheeran later ran the drug store and a soda fountain. Mike and Billy Berne operated a brick yard west and south of town. Present location would be called east of the La Salle road. They made and placed all of the brick for the early buildings in Columbia Falls. Many of these fine old buildings still stand, a monument to their good work.

Over on Second Avenue East on 5th street was the old cement jail. It still stands. Jake Neitzling was the respected Town Marshall for many years until a moonshiners bullet cut him down in 1931. Columbia Falls lost a tried and true friend.

Billy Lewtz was Justice of the Peace and Tom Carroll was City Judge.

There was a cemetery over near the hill near the jail. Denny Hogue had a diary farm out on the eastside across the river and brought milk into town. Later Mengon's had the dairy route.

In 1909 Columbia Falls decided to incorporate. E. J. Murray was the first mayor.

The telephone and electricity came in 1910, and a sewer line was laid along Nucleus Avenue. About this same time the first cars were making their appearance in Columbia Falls. Dr. Robinson had the first one. R. W. Main, Billy Reid and others were soon to follow.

The Red Bridge was built across the Flathead River just east of the Talbott mansion, in 1912. There were several farmers across the river on that side whose only way of getting into town was by ferry. This bridge was very welcome by them.

The high water in the spring of 1913 tipped the bridge, oddly enough, up stream. The County Commissioners called in a bridge expert by the name of Buck, from the west coast. He walked out onto the bridge and sized up the situation and came back with the solution. Cables were attached to the bridge and anchored to trees downstream. There were tightened by a "donkey" engine so that the bridge could not tip any further. When the high water was over a crew of bridge builders righted the bridge and it has withstood all high water since.

Most of the people had moved up from the flat before 1907. And it is well that they had, for it was completely submerged in from 3 to 4 feet of water that spring. There were a few people still living down there so rescue crews were busy with boats and canoes getting them out and saving their belongings, Just about when they thought they had everything under control they heard cries for "help!" An elderly Austrian woman, known only as Kristonsia, had been living in the abandoned flour mill. They found her, floating around her kitchen on her kitchen table.

Many of the early settlers came in brother teams. There were the Bernes, the Bolicks, Jim Bolich was the first plasterer and paper hanger. There were the Kennedys and the Laeugers, and the Lords. the Mengons and Phillips. Selvages and Whitestones and Westbergs and Zorzia. In Whitefish it was the Bakers and the Hutchinsons and the Skyles. One Hutchinson brother and Ward and Jack Skyles later came to Columbia Falls.

Other early names were that of Bartleson, Brinkerhoff, Bryant, Brunette, Comeau, Ehrig, Elsethagen, Fierstein, Greve, Johsnon, Johston, Junkins, Kiley, Lewtz, Lutz, Mengon, Miller, Murray, Neitzling, Olsen, Opalka, Reed, Reid, Ross, Roth, Saurey, Secord, Skyles, Wedge, Werner and Wiles, to name a few.

This brief history of Columbia Falls was prepared by Beatrice M. Macomber in 1976 for a class reunion. Beatrice Montana Comeau was born in Columbia Falls on May 30, 1901 in the Valley House.




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