Railroads, Mining, and Political Corruption

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A 1908 log jam on the Blackfoot River, which illustrates the vast amount of timber taken from local forests. Courtesy of the University of Montana - Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library via Big Sky Country Digital Network.

As the developing mining industry and railroads grew, companies seized the opportunity to exercise their political power in order to guarantee their access to the abundant natural resources across Montana. Railroads, mines, smelters, and towns all used enormous amounts of lumber. Railroads used vast amounts of timber for ties, to brace tunnels, and to support trestles and bridges. The Anaconda Copper Mining Company used more than 200,000 board feet of timber every day in its mines. Smelters burned thousands of cords per day in their smelting processes.

In the 1880s, Marcus Daly, who owned the Anaconda Company and the Northern Pacific Railroad, bought up several small lumber companies and created the Montana Improvement Company. This company became one of the most aggressive logging companies, cutting timber wherever they could, including illegally on public lands and on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

In 1885, the government sued the Montana Improvement Company, saying it had illegally cut $600,000 worth of timber in 1885 alone. Marcus Daly told Congress that 10,000 workers would lose their jobs if the illegal logging stopped. The Northern Pacific Railroad used its power to gain support of Montana’s territorial governor, Samuel T. Hauser. They threatened to remove all railroad money from Hauser’s bank if he did not oppose the federal lawsuits. The lawsuits dragged on for years while illegal logging practices continued in Montana. The massive deforestation of many areas prompted many to call for a better logging management system.