Just a little more than 200 years ago, in April 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their pirogues wended up the Missouri River just past the Yellowstone into what now is Montana. It was wild, open country, under a big sky—and most of it still is. To celebrate July 4, 1976, the late historian Stephen Ambrose took his family to Lemhi Pass at the other end of Montana, nearly 500 miles west, where Lewis was the first American to cross the Continental Divide—and noted that the land was little different from when Lewis and Clark passed through. Ambrose later retold the Lewis and Clark story in Undaunted Courage and he and his family settled in Montana; they are far from the only outsiders who have moved, part-time or full, into the Big Sky State in recent years.
Yet American civilization has touched down only lightly on Montana. It is still a land of great empty vistas, with mountains in the west and vast expanses of plateaus and plains in the east—the 4th largest state in area and 44th in population. Almost nowhere in the state are wilderness and empty land out of sight. Montana sits atop the continental United States, spanning the Rockies so that on I-15 you can cross the Continental Divide three times. But since the time of Lewis and Clark, it has not been much of a crossroads. The first Americans here were itinerant trappers seeking fur and miners seeking gold, silver and copper, who built ramshackle towns where outlaws battled vigilantes—and in a few cases gained sudden riches, which would make them kings not of this barren land but of the metropolises back East. Then came the workers who built and serviced the Northern Pacific and Great Northern railroads, followed by wheat farmers and ranchers.
Statehood came less than a century after the first white Americans, Lewis and Clark and their men, came here as agents of the government. The mining economy gave Montana a radical, class warfare political tradition. On one side was the Anaconda Mining Company, which until 1959 owned five of Montana’s six daily newspapers, the Montana Power Company and many of its politicians. It had strong allies in the Stockmen’s Association and the Farm Bureau. On the other side were progressives like Senators Thomas Walsh, who exposed the Teapot Dome scandal, and Burton Wheeler, a New Dealer who broke with Franklin D. Roosevelt over court packing and isolationism, the labor unions (Montana has no right-to-work law and may be the most pro-union state in the Rockies), and pork barrel beneficiaries (for a while in the 1930s, Montana received more federal money per capita than almost any other state). The locus of all this was Butte, with its gold and copper mines on ‘‘The Richest Hill on Earth,’’ with its gamblers and bootleggers, company goons and union thugs, IWW organizers and Socialist mayor, and millionaires who bought seats in the U.S. Senate. Today the mines are closed, the ore depleted, and the stone temples of commerce are grim; looming mineheads are being restored to a cleanliness they never enjoyed in the boom days.
Butte’s population peaked in 1920, mines gradually closed all over the state, and agriculture—wheat growing and cattle grazing—became the mainstays of the economy. Class warfare died down. Other towns grew, though none is over 100,000 yet: Billings with its agricultural marketing in the east, the university town of Missoula, Great Falls just east of the Rockies, Kalispell near Flathead Lake, the university and resort town of Bozeman, and the state capital of Helena. The muscular tone of a land settled by ranch hands, miners and railroad workers, of cowboy hats, boots and blue jeans, of men who do hard physical work and relax hard afterwards, remains a link with Montanans going back to the mountain men, miners and cowboys who drove herds of Texas longhorns across the open range. And there is still the sense of space. Hunting and fishing are never far away; development in the small cities and resort areas has not been enough to drive the game away.
Over the past quarter-century, the Big Sky country attracted at first a trickle and then a flood of affluent Americans who purchased second homes here—high-visibility movie stars and billionaires like Ted Turner, but also just ordinary people buying small spreads near Big Sky or McLeod, near Bozeman, or around Flathead Lake or Big Timber or the Big Mountain ski resort in Whitefish. Many newcomers, from California and other urban states, set down roots here, as computers, modems and fax machines make it possible for small businessmen and entrepreneurs to work in Montana, far from their customers and clients, but in an environment they love—and not far from the coffee houses and gambling parlors you find on every highway. These new Montanans have added a spark of energy and inventiveness to a state much of which consisted of those left behind when others moved elsewhere. Montana’s population grew 13% in the 1990s, despite losses in the eastern plains; its economy, fueled by construction, continued to grow during the national recession of 2001–02. Growth was especially vigorous around Bozeman and Big Sky, in Missoula and Ravalli County to the south, and around Kalispell and Lake Flathead to the north. Fueled by construction and strong agricultural and petroleum prices, the state's economy continued to grow during 2003–04. Thanks to an oil boom, Blaine County in northern Montana and Richland and Fallon Counties to the east posted the fastest economic growth. But the northern and southeastern plains counties almost all lost population.
Sometimes there are conflicts between newcomers’ expectations and the hardness of Montana life. The DeLorme Montana Road Atlas gives advice on what you should do if you encounter a bear. There are lively political arguments over the grizzly bears and gray wolves reintroduced to Montana in the 1990s. The American Prairie Foundation, funded by Manhattan and Silicon Valley millionaires, is buying up land in the northern plains to create a reserve where buffalo and prairie dogs can roam, and attract tourists and hunters; the Nature Conservancy has been persuading ranchers in Phillips County to change their practices. The state conducted a lottery in 2006 for 50 licenses (Indian tribes were allotted 16 of them) to hunt buffalo north and west of Yellowstone National Park because ranchers fear that the buffalo will transmit brucellosis, which causes cows to abort, to their herds.
There are two lively political traditions in Montana today. One draws on its heritage of class warfare politics, radical miners and angry labor unions, which made Montana for many years the most Democratic of the Rocky Mountain states. From 1952 to 1984 it elected only Democratic U.S. senators, and after the 2006 election it has two Democratic senators again. In 1992 it voted 38%-35% for Bill Clinton, with 26% for Ross Perot. The other, more recent tradition is in line with conservative activist Grover Norquist’s “Leave-Us-Alone-Coalition”—a fierce opposition to higher taxes and federal government dictates. Montana has not elected a Democrat to the U.S. House since 1994, and Montana voted for George W. Bush 58%-33% in 2000 and 59%-39% in 2004. The Democratic tradition is strongest in the old mining towns like Butte and Anaconda, Indian reservations (7% of Montanans are Indians), old railroad towns like Great Falls and Havre, university towns like Missoula and Bozeman, and the state capital of Helena. The Republican tradition is strongest in the population-losing eastern plains counties and in fast-growing Flathead and Ravalli Counties in the west.
In 2004 and 2006 both traditions were apparent. In 2004 Bush carried the state by a smaller margin (evidently the Nader vote went for John Kerry) and Republican Congressman-at-Large Denny Rehberg was reelected with 64%. But Democrat Brian Schweitzer was elected governor and Democrats won a majority in the state Senate and a tie in the state House. This Democratic surge owed much to the unpopularity of Republican Governor Judy Martz, who in 2003 announced she would not seek a second term. But it was also the result of corporate malfeasance. In 1997 the legislature deregulated electricity rates and in 2000 Montana Power, the state’s largest corporation, sold its power facilities for $2.1 billion and put all the money into a fiber optics firm. Bad timing: the fiber optics firm went bankrupt, and so did the buyer of the power facilities; the results were big local job losses, higher utility rates, big payouts to a few corporate executives and a rash of highly publicized lawsuits. Republican business-friendly policies were discredited and Schweitzer, a politically appealing rancher with longtime Montana roots who ran a strong race for U.S. Senate in 2000, argued convincingly for change.
In 2006 the Democrats won the most important victory, when rancher and state Senator Jon Tester beat three-term U.S. Senator Conrad Burns 49%-48%. That victory owed much to the fact that Burns received more contributions from Indian tribe clients of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff than any other member of Congress. But Rehberg was reelected 59%-39%. And, despite Schweitzer’s high job approval, Republicans actually made gains in the state legislature. Initial returns showed the Senate tied at 50–50, but Republican Sam Kitzenberg switched parties, putting Democrats in control by 26–24. Initial returns showed the House evenly split, with one race a 1,971–1,971 tie. But a recount gave that race to the Republicans and with the vote of one Constitution party member they prevailed 51–49.