Montana and Whitefish Politics in 1910

Dan Kohnstamm, Whitefish High School

On the national level, the United States faced such issues as immigration, the living conditions of the poor, political corruption, conservation of natural resources, women suffrage, child labor and labor working conditions.  William Howard Taft was president, having succeeded Teddy Roosevelt who was president from 1901 to 1909.  Taft, a Republican, lost his popularity due to his defense of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act of 1909.  Tariffs were a leading political issue and the Republican platform in 1908 sought to lower tariff rates.  Big business favored tariffs because it protected their products.  Southerners and farmers in the Midwest wanted to lower tariffs so that their products would be more affordable.  Taft worked closely with Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, the boss of the U.S. Senate, to create a bill that instead of lowering tariffs increased them.  In so doing, he alienated his party as well as the former president, Teddy Roosevelt.  Roosevelt was committed to regulating big business, also known as the Trusts, lowering tariffs and conserving the environment.  His platform was named, the “New Nationalism.” Taft, as a conservative Republican, turned his back on reform and in the process, helped precipitate a split in the Republican Party.  As a result, Teddy Roosevelt created the Bull Moose Party.  With this split, it ushered in Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson, a southerner who had been a professor and president of Princeton University, was running for governor of New Jersey in 1910.  He advocated reform of Princeton along the lines of the English university house system which became unpopular.  Therefore, he ran a successful race for governor where he pushed through important reforms such as a primary elections law, anti-corruption measures and employers’ liability.  In running for president, he consulted with Louis Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court and came up with the platform of the “New Freedom.” This platform advocated freedom from monopolies as opposed to Roosevelt’s attempt to regulate monopolies.  Later as president, Wilson accomplished much: three constitutional amendments that dealt with direct popular election of senators, prohibition and suffrage for women; the Clayton Antitrust Act, establishment of the Federal Reserve banking system, and the Federal Child Labor Law.

Teddy Roosevelt in 1910 was on safari in East Africa, enjoying his freedom from the strain of politics in the wake of his presidency.  Of note during his administration was the creation of the Panama Canal, his negotiations for a cessation of hostilities of the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, his Nobel Prize for Peace, the regulation of big business, and the conservation of national resources.  Teddy selected Taft, the secretary of war, as his successor for president.  However, Taft never enjoyed his job as president.  He would much rather have stayed with jurisprudence.  As a result, he lost his reelection bid and ultimately would become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1921-1930.

Eugene Debs, a socialist, had the most radical political outlook.  The national secretary and treasurer of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, he was a leader in the Pullman strike in 1894.  He later organized the Social Democratic Party of America and became the presidential candidate of the Socialist Party from 1900 to 1920.  He was imprisoned for three years, convicted and sentenced for violation of the Espionage Act of 1918. 

Debs was a champion of workers’ rights, especially of rail workers.  He was deeply involved with the Pullman strike that convinced him of the anti-worker, pro-business sentiment of the federal government.  The Pullman railroad strike resulted from layoffs, wage reductions and steep rents for rail construction workers of sleeper cars in Chicago.  The period of 1880 through the 1910s was a period of rapid business growth, primarily the railroads.  Immigrants played a large part of this picture because they provided the inexpensive labor that fueled the growth.  Imprisoned due to the Pullman strike, he saw that strikes were impossible in the face of corporations and government.  He was not a Marxist and believed that the masses would use the democratic system to promote socialism and provide the governmental framework to enable men to advance to their fullest abilities rather than repressed by huge corporations and their governmental cronies.  In running for president in 1900 he believed in a centralized, democratic bureaucracy that would run the economy for the benefit of humanistic mankind.  This was a message that appealed to both immigrants and native-born citizens.  His appeal was based on his view that society should be restructured to reflect the needs of its citizens, rather than the needs of business. He also called for the end of the control of the economy by the elite.  In 1912, Eugene Debs received six percent of the vote for the presidency.

In 1910, Montana, the state, was only twenty-one years old and its politics reflected its youth.  The state was in the midst of a growth boom.  The population increased from 39,000 in 1870 to 243,000 in 1900.  Homesteading was at its peak between 1910 and 1920.  Seventy- to eighty- thousand people migrated to central and eastern Montana during this period.  However, this was short-lived.  With the coming of drought, sixty thousand people left before 1922.  The fuel behind this growth was the Homestead Act of 1862.  With time, people found that 160 acres could not support a family and the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 increased the allowable acreage to 320.  The population as of 1910 was 2.6 persons per square mile.

Montana’s geography dictated the wide economic differences in the state.  In western Montana, metal mining and timber harvesting dominated the economy.  In eastern and central Montana, beef, wool, and wheat dominated the economy. Nearly one-half million beef cattle, worth $27 million dollars dotted the landscape.  The average price of an acre of land doubled from $20 to $40.

Non-ferrous mining employed 20,000 wage earners who produced $55 million in wealth in 1910.  Copper was the largest of the mining industries.  Thirteen thousand people were involved with this industry, three-fifths of the state’s wage earners.  The Anaconda Copper Mining Company was the largest mining company.  With the huge profits and low wages came labor problems, especially in Butte.  Between 1908 and 1916, the International Workers of the World (I.W.W.) were advocates of class warfare and in favor or worker’s rights.  The mining industry steadfastly resisted the unions and violence erupted often.

One of the biggest political issues was the doubling of counties, from 28 to 56, starting in 1910.  With the county split came changes in representation.  Each county was to have one senator and at least one representative.  Unfortunately, this meant that more representatives made the legislature less responsive to the people. 

The state highway system expanded to enable farmers to go to market in regional centers.  In 1900, the highway system consisted of 15,000 miles of roadway.  In 1910, 23,000 miles of roadway existed.  However, stagecoaches were still in use: for example, a 120 mile trip from Great Falls to Lewistown took fifteen hours.

In 1902, Jeannette Rankin graduated as a biology major from Montana State University in Missoula.  She was one of eighteen graduates that year.  In 1909, she graduated from the New York School of Philanthropy.  She was a leading member of the successful 1910 Washington women’s suffrage campaign.  Only Idaho and Colorado had previously allowed women to vote.

After this victory, Jeannette worked for women in Montana to be able to vote.  One of the largest barriers to the women’s vote was the temperance group.  Men were afraid that if women were to vote, they would vote for prohibition.  This did turn out to be the case.  At the time, though, Jeannette was determined to keep the issues apart.  Her efforts paid off, though narrowly: the voting was 41,000 to 38,000 in favor of Montana women’s suffrage in 1914.  This decade also included victory for women’s suffrage in California, Arizona, Kansas and Oregon.  By 1920, a U.S. constitutional amendment enabled women to vote in every state.

An event that would have ramifications on both the state and federal level was the creation of Glacier National Park in 1910.  The driving force behind this act was George Bird Grinnell who had founded the Audubon Society and, with Teddy Roosevelt, organized the Boone and Crockett Club.  Grinnell argued that the lands nearby the Great Northern Railway should be protected in a similar manner as Yellowstone and Yosemite Parks in 1872 and 1890, respectively.  Grinnell also credited the Great Northern for its role in establishing the park.  President Taft signed the law establishing Glacier Park on May 11, 1910.

If Montana was a young state, the town of Whitefish was barely passed infanthood.  The town was incorporated in 1905 by a vote of 153 in favor and 64 opposed.  Two hundred and seventeen of the population of 950 people voted: the low number because women as yet could not vote in Montana.  Whitefish was on the map because of the Great Northern Railroad.  The division point changed from Kalispell to Whitefish in 1904 because the line was too difficult west of Whitefish, in Jennings, Montana.  By 1910, the town had a population of 2300.

According to Stump Town to Ski Town: The Story of Whitefish, Montana, 1910 was a memorable year, a year that the town became “modern.” The First National Bank had a new building that represented the stability and prosperity of the town.  In April, a $10,000 sewer bond issue was passed.  A franchise for a railroad between Polson and Whitefish was granted.  Unfortunately, this railroad never materialized. 

Of political note in 1910 was Carrie Nation’s visit to Whitefish.  Her visit was decidedly unpopular by the description in the local paper, the Whitefish Pilot.  The headline read: “Carrie Nation’s ‘Hatchetation.’” A prohibitionist, her trademark was a hatchet that she used in bars.  Since the saloons, which were zoned to north of Second Street, were a considerable part of the town, she did not make many friends on her brief visit.  She was also an advocate of women’s suffrage.  A small riot broke out when she slapped a gentleman and she was ushered quickly to the train station.  Dorothy Johnson, in her book, When You and I Were Young, Whitefish, makes a rueful note that she died the following year.

The city council did try to come to grips with the problems of the bars in Whitefish.  Hoping to clean up its image, the city ordered bars closed from 2 a.m. to 7 a.m., but only on weekends.

The Whitefish Pilot in those days was much more personal and opinionated.  For example, it describes the creation of Glacier Park in these terms, “President Taft has signed the Glacier Park bill and the big playground now actually exists as such.”

The Great Fire of 1910 affected Whitefish as well.  Part of Lion Mountain, which overlooks Whitefish Lake, burned.  The Great Fire reportedly burned for five months and it forced much of the smaller news from the front pages of the Pilot such as railroad wrecks, robberies, smallpox and polio outbreaks.  President Taft ordered thirty companies of regular soldiers to fight fires and the governor called out the National Guard.  It caused an estimated $45 million in timber damage in the region and 87 lives were lost fighting the fire.  In Whitefish, the 1910 fire was not as serious as the 1907 fire, but the 1910 fires created the will of the National Forest Service to protect our forests.

Development was evident by the drawing of names for Flathead Reservation lands and the completion of a new wagon road to Kalispell.  The tax levy was raised from 14 to 16 mills to fund street work and lighting of the streets.  A road to the North Fork of the Flathead River was being surveyed.

In September, a man tried to drive the town’s first automobile from Spokane but was stymied because of all of the burned out bridges.  The car had to be loaded onto a train to Plains and when they unloaded it, the clutch was broken.  Waiting for the part took a while and everyone was anxious to see what the new machine would look like.

Whitefish survived the year of the Great Fire to face a very harsh winter of 1911.  However, Whitefish was on the map to stay.


Chace, James. 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs—The Election that Changed the Country.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Crutchfield, James A. It Happened in Montana. Helena: Falcon Press, 1992.

Johnson, Dorothy M. When You and I Were Young, Whitefish. Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 1982.

Schafer, Betty and Mable Engelter. Stump Town to Ski Town: The Story of Whitefish, Montana. Whitefish: Stumptown Historical Society, 1973.

Smith, Norma. Jeannette Rankin: America’s Conscience. Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 2002.

Toole, K. Ross. Twentieth-Century Montana: A State of Extremes. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972.

August 2004. Written to contribute to the Montana Heritage Project’s Expedition to 1910.

Posted by on 12/02 at 11:02 AM






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