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The Montana Hi-Line

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History of the Montana Hi-Line

Old Farm Building Near Kremlin
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The development of the Montana Hi-Line region traces its roots back to the Great Northern Railway. While some settlers had made their way to this part of Montana before the railroad arrived by a bumpy and seldom used trail, the Hi-Line region of Montana lay virtually undeveloped until the GN railroad arrived.

The Great Northern Railroad was the creation of James J. Hill. Hill had an idea of stretching a railroad across the northern tier of the United States to the Pacific Ocean, with a dream of having substantial trade with the Orient. Hill had been thinking about this creation of the railroad for quite some time and had stockpiled material at rails end, which was then Minot, North Dakota.

Beginning in 1887, the railroad started construction across the Northern Great Plains. The railroad entered Montana for the first time in June of 1887, and averaged 5-8 miles per day in laid track. Initially, the Great Northern Railroad was poised to angle south through central Montana as a pass had not been located in the northern part of the state. But as fate would have it, one of his engineers discovered Marias Pass during the horrible winter of 1887-1888. The discovery of this pass led to the railroad bypassing Great Falls, although a branch line was built to the city.

The railroad arrived in Havre in October of 1890 and in Cut Bank in January of 1891. From there, the railroad continued building, eventually reaching the Pacific Ocean in January of 1893.

Original GN Engine, Now in Havre
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The Great Northern Railroad, not surprisingly, had a huge effect on what is now the Hi-Line region of Montana. The railroad moved thousands of farmers and ranchers into Montana, and then moved out the crops they raised. Numerous towns sprung up along the railroad, acting as a supply point and transportation point for the areas remote farmers and ranchers. How important of a role the railroad played in the development of the Montana Hi-Line is quite evident just by looking on a map of Montana today. On what is now US Highway 2 (built after the railroad arrived and which parallels the railroad closely), there are numerous towns, often less than 10 miles apart from each other. Yet a visitor who heads north or south off the highway finds few towns of any size.

The boom days of the Hi-Line region, like other plains areas throughout the United States, occurred during the 1920’s. During that time, settlers poured into the prairie to start their own farms. The weather also generally cooperated, allowing dry land crops to grow with abandon.

Yet things would soon change. The Depression of the 1930’s caused a dramatic drop in demand for products. Property values fell with the decline of the US economy. If that wasn’t enough, the fearful drought of the mid-1930’s swept through the Great Plains, which hit dry land crops especially hard. All this combined to cause countless farmers and ranchers to leave their farms and move to urban areas elsewhere in the United States. This exodus from the Great Plains of America started the process of agricultural consolidation, which is where farms and ranches became increasingly larger through the acquisition of land from nearby abandoned farms and ranches.

Yet, even though the Hi-Line region was hit hard by the depression and the drought, the creation of Fort Peck Lake as a giant public work project in the 1930’s brought in new people and money, if only temporarily. Other public work projects throughout the Hi-Line region also provided a small benefit to other Hi-Line towns.

James Hill Statute in Havre
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The 1940’s saw resurgence, economically, in the Hi-Line region. World War II and post-war reconstruction led to resurgence in demand for US crops, putting the local farms and ranches on sound financial footing. Additionally, the US Air Force built a large base in Glasgow, which provided significant employment during and immediately after World War II. During the 1940’s and lasting until the early 1960’s, the Hi-Line region, while it didn’t exactly prosper, managed to generally retain and often times grow their economies and population.

Then things began to change. Beginning in the late 1960’s, the agriculture industry began to accelerate the process of consolidation due to difficult economics and advances in mechanization, leading to fewer people working on ever-larger ranches and farms. The town of Glasgow was hit hard by the closure of the Air Force Base. And, as the United States entered a period of stagflation in the 1970’s, the economies on the Hi-Line more or less followed suit.

The 1980’s and 1990’s saw the continuation of agricultural consolidation along the Hi-Line, fed by both increasing mechanization and depressed commodity prices. Moreover, the relentless development seen throughout much of the United States during these two decades essentially passed by the Montana Hi-Line region.

The 2000’s has been kinder to the Hi-Line region than previous decades. The stabilization and then rapid increase in commodity prices have led to an influx of new money into the region. And the fact that the Hi-Line region was “passed by” in terms of development in past years proved fortuitous in one way, as the Hi-Line region of Montana escaped the worse of the housing bubble and the Great Recession that followed. Finally, Havre, the primary city located along the Hi-Line, has especially prospered due to becoming a focal business point for the region.

Well, this is a very short history of the Montana Hi-Line region in general. It is far from complete. But should at least give any visitor to this part of Montana an idea what drove growth in this part of Montana. The rest of the pages in this site will explore what the Montana Hi-Line is like today.                                                      

Well, with that out of the way, let’s get started exploring the Montana Hi-Line.

Next Page : Western Edge of the Montana Hi-Line

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