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A brief description of the early history of the Libby area and northwest Montana from Native Americans, early explorers, early mining, settlers, and the timber industry.

Old wooden culvert
Wooden culvert on a Kootenai Forest Road
near Squaw Creek

[Native Americans] [Early Explorers] [Mining] [Settlers] [Timber]
Native Americans who lived in this area before the white man came were mostly members of the Kootenai tribe who lived and hunted in this part of Montana and adjoining territory in Idaho and Canada. While it is believed that no tribe made a permanent home in the Libby area, several tribes frequented the area to hunt and for spiritual purposes. The Kootenai Indians were from the west, and the Blackfeet Indians were from the eastern side of Montana and the Continental Divide. At times, when the tribes met, they fought in order to steal goods and horses, or to settle old scores resulting in tribe members on both sides being killed. Kootenai Falls on the Kootenai River is still a sacred site to the local Indians, a place where tribal members commune with spiritual forces. 
     The Libby area held another special attraction for Indians of all tribes. A certain location up Pipe Creek contained soft, multicolored stone which they used in carving the bowls for their tobacco pipes, which they smoked in ceremonies. The Pipe Creek quarry was regarded as the best quarry in the Kootenai territory, containing stones of several different colors including red, yellow, black, green, gray or banded, which is how Pipe Creek got its name. The 1 foot long pipe stems were made from any wood that had a pithy core that was easy to drill or remove such as willow, quaking aspen and chokecherry. A native plant that served as tobacco was cultivated by the early Kootenai, but later they switched to tobacco which they traded with white men who came to the area in the 1830s.
   The Kootenai's were composed of three bands, a Tobacco Plains band in the  Upper Kootenai, Mid-Kootenai who frequented the Libby and Jennings area, and Lower Kootenai's who lived near Bonner's Ferry, Idaho. The Libby area Kootenai were canoe Indians, often using the river for transportation. They were noted for their plain clothing, absent of decoration, with long fringes. The tribes subsisted on bison, deer and elk as well as berries including chokecherry, serviceberry and huckleberry. In 1855, the Kootenai's were relocated south of Flathead Lake with the Salish Indians on the Flathead Reservation, where many still live today. 

In the early 1800s, David Thompson, a Canadian explorer and employee of the
Northwest Company, traveled into the Kootenai River area and used the Kootenai as a navigational guide through the area following Native American Indian and game trails. He portaged around the falls, following piles of rocks, known as cairns, which
marked the trail, left by the Kootenai Indians. The first white men in the area were trappers and traders from British fur companies. They came as early as 1809 searching for beaver to supply the demand back east for beaver fur hats.
   There were several forts, or posts, built by early traders along the Kootenai River which were small log huts or tents, which served the general trading purpose. These were temporary structures that were frequently moved, and none of these remain today. A warehouse fort was built above Kootenai Falls in the winter of 1808-1809 by Finan McDonald. This was noted by explorer David Thompson in May, 1809, and may have been near Rainy Creek. Two other forts were built near Rainy Creek in 1812 and 1824. Another fort was built by Hudson's Bay Company men in the winter of 1810-1811, on the north side of the Kootenai River one mile downstream of the old town site of Jennings, Montana. Other forts or posts were built by the Northwest Company and the Hudson's Bay Company in the area until 1860.

Libby gold mining remainsMINING
The Libby area was important for both its long-lived placer operations and several of its silver-lead mines. The only gold-quartz vein of any significance is found in the Prospect Creek area. Silver-lead-zinc veins are found primarily along the Snowshoe fault in the Cabinet Wilderness area, and are still mined today. The source of placer gold in the Libby Creek area has never been exactly determined, but is thought to come from veins eroded into both Libby and Howard Creeks. 
    Prospectors first tested the gravels of the Libby district in the early 1860s. John S. Fisher and several other men came through the area at that time looking for gold. They also named a number of the local creeks including Fisher River, Libby Creek (after Stephen Allen's daughter Elizabeth or Libby), and Sherry Creek (after Jack Sherry), later changed to Cherry Creek. Activity increased during the summer of 1867 when a group of prospectors started placering along Libby Creek. Their success attracted as many as 500-600 men to the camp by September. Fortunes varied, however, with some making as much as $1.25 per pan while others washed only two cents per pan. Most men left for the winter, and those who stayed helped dig a ditch to bring water to some claims. While the camp increased again the following summer, the boom was brief and it was virtually deserted by the 1870s. 
    Chinese workers played an important role in the early placer mining on Libby Creek.  In one incident, several Chinese workers were caught robbing sluice boxes of gold dust, and were driven out of the country. They lingered awhile at the rapids of the Kootenai, above the falls, to try their luck at washing gold, which is how China Rapids got its name. 

Snowshoe Mine - Lead/Silver/Gold
   The Snowshoe lode was discovered in October, 1889, while two miners were prospecting up Leigh Creek near Libby. The rich ore deposit at the Snowshoe encouraged operators to develop the mine. In the late 1890s, the ore was milled at the mine and then shipped to a smelter at Great Falls. By the end of the decade, the mine was electrified, a telephone line linked it to Libby, and a compressor supplied power to the crews. Although a good wagon road connected the mine to the Great Northern Railroad at Libby by the early 1900s, the 20 mile trip was accomplished with horse teams and wagons up to the time the mine closed. Operators tried using trucks but found they did not have sufficient power on the hills. Despite the many problems, the Snowshoe was the most important lode producer in the Libby area, reporting production every year from 1905-1912. The total is estimated at 145,000 tons, with smelter returns of $1,211,000 in lead, silver, and gold. Underground workings included two shafts (475 and 550 feet deep) and 11,000 feet of tunnels, drifts, and connecting raises. A full-scale display of the entrance to the Snowshoe Mine can be seen at the Heritage Museum in Libby.

The Vermiculite Mine
Vermiculite deposits were first located by prospectors in the early 1900s  on Rainy Creek northeast of Libby. Ed Alley, a local rancher, was also a prospector and explored the old gold mining tunnels and digs in the area. While exploring the old tunnels in the large mountain north of Libby he stuck his miner's candle into the wall to chip away some ore samples. When he got his candle, he noticed that the material around the candle had swollen and turned golden in color. He had discovered a unique mineral that expanded when heated.  In 1919, E.N. Alley bought the Rainy Creek claims and started the Zonolite Company. While others thought the material was useless, he experimented with it and discovered it had good insulating qualities. Through his marketing skills, it became a product used in insulation, plaster, and to lighten garden soil. Many people used vermiculite products for insulation in their houses in Libby and in their gardens.
   The W. R. Grace Company bought the mine and operated it from 1963 until its closure in 1990. They then sold the property to Kootenai Development Co. While in operation, the vermiculite mine in Libby may have produced 80% of the world's supply of vermiculite and was a significant employer of many Libby townspeople.
     In late 1999, the mine was blamed for dozens of asbestos-related deaths and illnesses among Libby residents and former employees due to exposure to asbestos-tainted vermiculite. The Environmental Protection Agency has been working legally to intervene and remove asbestos-contaminated soil from the screening plant, and to dispose of that soil and continue cleanup operations at the former mine site just down the road. The EPA has conducted numerous air, soil, dust and insulation samples to determine levels of asbestos that may still be in the community and any health hazards to people who currently live here and have little to no connection to the old vermiculite mine. Preliminary test results in Libby, conducted by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, showed lung abnormalities in higher percentages than expected for people who didn't work at the mine and had no known exposure to the vermiculite dust. The health concern is for asbestosis, a restrictive lung disease which can be fatal, and is caused by exposure to asbestos. The disease can cause lung cancer and a cancer of the lung lining called mesothelioma. The EPA is most concerned about people being exposed to airborne asbestos and breathing the tiny asbestos fibers. This is a serious health issue that the town still faces today and has impacted recent tourism and the town's economy. 

Old Libby town sitecabinEARLY SETTLERS
The earliest ranches in the area were located near the mouth of Libby Creek in the late 1880s in the hopes of taking advantage of the rumored coming of the Great Northern railroad to the coast. The early settlers worked at the nearby Libby Placers and built homesteads and mills along Libby and Flower Creeks. The stream, "Libby Creek" was named by prospectors in the 1860s after one of their daughters, and it is believed that the town of Libby was named after this creek.
   The first wagon roads in the area were built in the 1880s-1890s, and were nothing better than ungraded trails that accessed homesteads or mines. The first real wagon roads, called "tote roads" were roughly cut openings for construction camp supplies to be brought through. 
   In the early days, crossing the Kootenai River was a hazardous endeavor, and usually done using horses. Later, ferries were built across the river, with the first toll ferry built in 1892.  In 1912, the citizens of newly-formed Lincoln County voted in bonds for the construction of roads and bridges, resulting in three steel and concrete bridges being built across the river, one at Libby, one at Troy, and one at Rexford. The first automobile came to Libby via road from Kalispell in 1913.
   The Northern Pacific Railroad was the determining factor of the location of the townsite for present-day Libby. In 1890, the railroad made the preliminary surveys for its path and negotiations for rights-of-way were made, determining the location of the town. The early speculators surveyed and plotted 40 acres into city lots and hired men to clear the timber so that streets and buildings could be built. All of the inhabitants of Libby "Old Town" moved over to the more convenient location. The first train, hauling passengers and freight, arrived in Libby on May 3, 1892.  The railroad was a significant factor in changing the course for Libby and settling of the west, allowing the easy, economical access that was needed for many more people to come to the area to live and work.
   Libby is spread out into two areas because the original speculators did not realize that the land they had begun to sell and build on near the confluence of Libby Creek and the Kootenai River had actually been a section originally conveyed to the railroad as part of a land grant giving them uneven numbered sections some years earlier. A homesteader who owned land approximately one mile south of Libby plotted forty acres of his homestead into fifty foot lots and called it South Libby. Settlers who could not get clear title to their land on the northern townsite, eagerly bought building places there. The two towns were separated by heavy timber about one-half mile wide for many years. The railroad later sold the title to the land to the Townsite Company, which was then able to issue deeds to the lots.
   The town grew quickly in the early 1900s, with many new businesses opening. The first cement sidewalks were built, streets were graded, and electric lights and water systems installed. In 1906, a disastrous fire swept through downtown Libby, destroying many of the original business buildings. 
   The first school house was built in 1892, a small board building, in the same block as Libby Hotel. The first church was the old log Methodist Church in 1897. The first homes were built in the early 1890s with dirt floors and dirt roofs. The first newspaper was the Libby Miner in 1892. Telephone service came to Libby and Troy around 1913.

Not much is left today of the town of Jennings, located near the confluence of the Kootenai River and Fisher River upstream from Libby. It looks like just a grassy meadow flat dotted with cottonwood trees along the Kootenai River next to the railroad tracks. But at the turn of the century it became a bustling railroad town, with a railroad station, two general stores, a section house and roundhouse, restaurants, saloons, a boarding house, customs office, schoolhouse with a cemetery, homes and boat docks. 
   The Great Northern railroad reached the townsite of Jennings in 1891 opening options for both railroad transportation and river traffic, allowing trade with settlers of Tobacco Plains and Fort Steele, British Columbia. Enterprising businessmen took advantage of the Jennings river site to construct a steamboat venture business, with the first steamboat, the "Steamer Annerly", launched in 1892 to carry freight and passengers the 150 miles upriver to Fort Steele. Over the next 10 years, several steamers and paddlewheel boats were built at or near Libby and used to transport freight and mining ore to other towns and smelters. These ships had names including "Fool Hen", the "Steamer Libby", the "Steamer Ruth", the "Rustler", and the "North Star". The last steamer built for navigation of the Kootenai was completed in 1898. 
   The town of Jennings thrived on the river and railroad traffic at the turn of the century and it was estimated in some accounts that as many as 5,000 men a day passed through the town of Jennings on their way up the Kootenai River to the railroad camps. The town suffered from two fires ten years apart, in 1904 and 1914, which destroyed the hotel, store, train depot and all the buildings on the east side of the town. By the early 1930s, the town had almost died and the only building left was the school house. It was torn down in the early 1970s when the reregulating dam was proposed for the main Libby Dam just upstream. Foundations for a few of the buildings from the town of Jennings can still be seen today, and a couple of apple trees, enjoyed now only by the nearby wildlife, still grow there.

The first saw mill was built by the first townsite company in the winter of 1891-1892 near the present day bridge across the Kootenai River and was used to supply lumber to build the growing town. Other sawmills were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, with most lumber used locally. 
    In 1906 the Dawson Lumber Company built a modern sawmill plant bringing workers and their families to the town in greater number. Many built homes and decided to make Libby their permanent home. In 1911, J. Neils and Associates bought the Dawson Lumber Mill and it was later named the Libby Lumber Company. Familiar with the timber industry, the owners believed that reforestation was a necessary part of the industry, and they implemented an active tree-planting program through the company. The J. Neils Lumber Company grew and the town prospered as well, with as many as 1,000 people employed in Libby in the early 1900s. Lumber company railroad tracks were built and brought the logs to the mill. The original tracks ran from the lumber mill south along Libby Creek and eventually up Swamp Creek. Railroad logging along some 14 miles of main track was conducted from 1906 to 1925 along the south side of the Kootenai River into the Libby Creek drainage. By the mid 1930s, railroad logging was phased out and replaced by trucks.

The Fire of 1910
The summer of 1910 was unusually dry with fires beginning as early as June that year. Steady heat through July and August caused the forest to become extremely tinder dry. At that time, the Forest Service was still in its infancy, and did not have the manpower to staff the Forests. Available crews were already battling many small blazes in Idaho and western Montana during the summer. Firefighters had to use pack trains to bring in crews and equipment. No major roads were yet in place, and the terrain was forested and steep. In August, strong southwest winds flamed the many small fires and turned them into raging infernos, merging small blazes into larger ones that swept through the country with unbelievable speed. Calls for help were relayed by telegraph and thousands of firefighters, homesteaders and miners fled the area for their lives to the safety of Missoula or Spokane, Washington. The fire burned a path 30-50 miles wide, with over 100 square miles of timber burned in Montana. The town of Sylvanite was burned to the ground. The fire came as close as three miles to the town of Troy and over 200 people manned firelines to keep the fire from consuming Libby. Within 48 hours, most of the damage was done from the blaze. Blackened tree stumps can still be seen in areas of the Kootenai Forest today as reminders of the 1910 fire. As a result of the devastation of that summer's fires, Congress authorized the first national fire protection system for the nation's forests in 1911.

For More Information:
Local Area History Books:
Published by the Libby Pioneer Society and the Libby Woman's Club:
  Nuggets to Timber, Pioneer Days at Libby, Montana; 1970
Published by the Libby Montana Institute of the Arts Writers Group, Inc, Libby, Montana:
  Times We Remember
  In the Shadows of the Cabinets
  The Shining Tree
  Echoes Along the Kootenai
  Pages From The Past, 1989
  Tapestries Of Yesterday; 1993
The above books are available from the Heritage Museum and local bookstores.

More about Libby area mines and mining:

Other History:
Natural Resource Information System/Montana

Please contact the Libby Chamber of Commerce for more information about local businesses
and services in the Libby area.

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