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Talk looks at vanished Montana town that was once America's wickedest

| April 10, 2024 12:00 AM

Motorists heading up Interstate 90, west of St. Regis, will see no sign of Taft. But the former railroad boom town was once billed as America's wickedest. Taft had no churches, no schools and only three residential homes, yet 10,000 men and 500 prostitutes once called Taft home. Taft burned to the ground three times and was rebuilt twice.

John Shontz, Helena lawyer and author, will tell the story of the short-lived town in a presentation April 15 in Kalispell. Everything associated with the "Wild West" happened in Taft — gunfights, murders, robberies, fights and just plain debauchery, he notes.

The town housed the construction crews pushing the Milwaukee Road across the Bitterroot Mountains. The 1906-10 railroad project was an engineering marvel of its time and included a 1.8-mile-long tunnel and multiple trestles. Much of the technology invented for the project is still used across the globe, says Shontz.

Life and safety meant nothing on this project as John D. and his brother William Rockefeller wanted the railroad built as fast as possible.

The presentation is the story of the people who built the railroad — from the board rooms of Manhattan to the thousands of immigrants who shoveled their way across and through the mountains.

Taft vanished in the historic 1910 forest fire, and the Milwaukee Road, which once served every major town in Montana except Kalispell and Helena, ran its last train through the state in 1980.

But its trestles and tunnels live on with the Route of the Hiawatha bike trail that is traversed by thousands of bicycle riders each summer.

The talk is the monthly presentation of the Northwest Montana Westerners, a local history group. It starts at 7 p.m. on the second floor of the Northwest Montana History Museum, at 124 2nd Ave. East in Kalispell.  Cost is $5 for the general public, with members and youths under 16 admitted free.