area history EUREKA Montana
Images courtesy, TVIA Board of History
At the turn of the 20th Century the Tobacco Valley had scarcely been discovered by cattlemen and a few homesteaders. For centuries before it had been one of the main habitués of the Kutenai Indians. Although there were some minor incidents, for the most part the Kutenais settled peacefully on reservation land immediately north of the International Boundary.
The Great Northern Railroad pushed through to the west coast in 1892, but they chose a route far south of Tobacco Plains country. In 1904 they rebuilt over a longer, but easier route through the Tobacco Valley and the town of Eureka was born.
Prior to the coming of the railroad the only ways in were by an ancient Indian trail or a treacherous trip up the Kootenai River by sternwheeler boats. The railroad changed everything. Not only did it enable homesteaders to easily reach the valley, but it provided a means of exporting products.
Some dreamed of producing various agricultural products. Others combed the mountains looking for minerals. But the only product that ever left the valley in profitable amounts was lumber.
Founded in 1906, the Eureka Lumber Company thrived for the next 18 years. Initially they floated logs down the Tobacco River from logging camps around Trego and Fortine. When the easy to access timber along the river was exhausted they built a railroad up to Frank Lake around 1918.
The coming of World War I coincided with growing labor problems with the loggers, river drivers, mill workers and lumber company officials. The IWW attempted to organize the workers and federal troops were called for in the spring of 1917 to protect infrastructure. Patriotic fervor blunted the IWW’s efforts to organize, though discord continued after the war until 1924 when the mill closed and the IWW was no longer a factor in the area’s economy.
It was about this time that roads were built into the Tobacco Valley and people had another way to travel in and out. Some of the first to take advantage of these new roads were the rumrunners and bootleggers. With Eureka’s proximity to Canada where there was a readily available supply of alcohol and with homesteaders who were skilled in the making of moonshine, the era of prohibition contributed significantly to area history.
Things quieted during the 1930s and the local economy became almost dormant. The coming of World War II saw many young men leave the peaceful little valley for once-in-a-lifetime adventures in Europe and Asia.
Following the war, the lumber industry, now fitted with machines that enabled loggers to reach previously inaccessible timber, took off again. Another new industry also flourished. In the regrowth that followed the logging of the previous decades came an abundance of Douglas fir trees that found a market as Christmas trees. Through the 1950s and 1960s Christmas trees left the valley by the train load, so many that Eureka became known as the Christmas tree capitol of the world.
The next change to be wrought on Eureka and its surrounds was the flooding of the Kootenai River Valley by Libby Dam. The railroad now reaches Eureka as a spur line and though the production of timber flourished into the first years of the 21st Century, the major mills eventually closed. Eureka and the Tobacco Valley now depend largely on the influx of tourists who come to enjoy its relatively unspoiled environment.
Gary Montgomery is a local historian and publisher who found a home in the Tobacco Plains country some 37 years ago. For the last 18 years he has published The Trail, a quarterly magazine that features interviews with old-timers, vintage photographs, diaries and other tidbits of northwest Montana history. His book, "Tobacco Valley", recently appeared as part of the Images of America series by Arcadia Publishing. Visit his website at www.THETRAILMAG.com.