Wednesday, August 08, 2018


Resource development near the East Slope expanded quickly after the Civil War, partly because the war-depleted government wanted money.  In 1883 Paris Gibson, a sheep man who went broke in Minnesota, came to establish a new ranch on the Missouri River.  Hearing about the series of waterfalls upstream and having a history in New England where water was a conventional source of power, he understood at once that though this obstacle to navigation seemed like a handicap, the energy in falling water could capture enough electricity to support major industry.

"The current course of the Missouri River essentially marks the southern boundary of the Laurentide ice sheet. . . As the ice retreated, meltwater from Glacial Lake Great Falls poured through the Highwood Mountains and eroded the mile-long, 500-foot-deep (150 m) Shonkin Sag—one of the most famous prehistoric meltwater channels in the world.[40]
Great Falls is also situated on a fall line unconformity in the Great Falls Tectonic Zone, as well as atop the Kootenai Formation, a mostly nonmarine sandstone laid down by rivers, glaciers, and lakes in the past." (Wikipedia)

Government subsidies and low-cost free grass attracted William G. and Charles Conrad, teenaged brothers who had been members of their father's controversial "Mosby's Raiders" which was transgressive in a time of war chaos.  The boys, fourteen and sixteen, began as part of what was an early version of a trucking company, except with teams and wagons following two-tracks to forts and settlements, bringing materials.  And booze.  By 1873 (earlier than Gibson) the boys, with their third brother John, had a controlling interest in the Baker Company and were operating eight trading posts spread out clear to the Arctic Circle.

William started out with a sheep outfit and quickly moved to cattle when the great herds were moved up from Texas on foot.  The invention of refrigerator cars for the railroad around 1860 meant a great increase in profitability because it meant sales to the east where demand was high, moving meat quickly instead of driving living animals.  

Mounties closed down whiskey trade to Canada in 1874.  The buffalo were gone in 1883.  Joe Kipp, James Willard Schultz, Hiram Upham and Charles Conrad ran Fort Conrad until 1885, then sold it to a rancher.  In 1878 the three Conrads put a half-million dollars into cattle.  Their strong driving force was looking to the future where they saw railroads and coal, but at the time William developed the Conrad Circle Cattle Company, with the Block Hanging Seven ranch that included Valier.  Also, William founded Conrad, which is why when the irrigation system was developed, Conrad got its water from Lake Francis while Valier was dependent on wells.

At this point Charles Conrad crossed the Rockies to the Flathead where he founded Kalispell and built a mansion that appeared in the movie "Heavensgate".  Thus he leaves the East Slope and enters a series of family events more colorful than most movies.  By 1890 he was involved with James J. Hill, the railroad mogul, and helping to get the tracks to cross through Marias Pass.  (  April 27 and 28, 2005)  John Conrad went to Alaska where he created a mine and had adventures but ended badly.

Barbed wire was invented in 1874, which ended the open range practice, along with weather so severe that domestic animals had to be much more closely managed and provided with hay for the winter.  Now that ranching wasn't so profitable, the entrepreneurs lit upon the idea of irrigation to use the natural engine of gravity flowing down from the Rockies.  At the turn from the 19th century to the 20th, irrigation projects were undertaken across Montana.  One of the biggest stretched in and out of Canada to feed the HighLine far to the east.  The water begins at Lake Shelburne at Glacier National Park, flows through the St. Mary Canal to the Milk River where water is stored at Fresno Reservoir outside of Havre and then at the Nelson Reservoir between Malta and Saco.

On the East Slope, heads got thinking at their favorite "thought spot," the little saloon next to the chapel in the cluster of buildings called "Robare."  Both establishments had been forbidden the rez by Major George I. Steell, the agent, because of a new US policy to clean up corruption on reservations by assigning them to religious institutions: the Methodists won the Blackfeet rez.  The men at the table were Steell, Hiram Upham, Joe Kipp, and a man named Barron.

The key was Steell, who was married to a Blackfeet woman, Annie Dias or "Last Calf", but deeply into Montana money politics.  "Major" was an honorific, since he had no military service.  (The long version of this story is on this blog at February 1, 2014.)  On 1905 Anna Steel sold her land to the Conrad Irrigation Company.  At first when Swift Dam was built, she dug a ditch to irrigate her land for raising timothy hay.  The ditch took water to Sheep Creek, then to Dupuyer Creek and finally to the Conrad land.  In 1892 a surveyer called it "the Kipp and Upham Ditch."  It was on the reservation as was the eventual Swift Dam.  

No formal legalities had been closely observed.  All of this was the result of Washington DC rules about developing water, mixed with the protection of being so remote.  Few inspectors had enough drive to get to the area on the train, then proceed up into the mountains.  One still doesn't want to travel up there without a reliable vehicle.  

The water fed into Birch Creek, the reservation boundary.  Business minded people on the "white" side were quick to develop by creating Lake Francis with horsedrawn "scrapers" and an earthen dam, in order to feed a complex of irrigation that today supports vast fields of wheat and alfalfa.  The railroad was pleased when elevators rose to store the grain and then ship it to the West Coast for loading onto sea-going ships that feed whole nations.  Since food is one of the most effective ways of waging war (much easier to withhold sustenance than to pay for industrial invasion) this dynamic also pleased the United States government.

But much of what was happening went over the heads of the people living on the north side of Birch Creek.  Their agent was hardly inclined to inform them that they were now potentially part of a global network.

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