Gamblers, Wastrels and Lumberjacks: An Old Cemetery Gives Up Its Secret HistoryBreaking News
tags: cemetery, western history
More than 110 years ago, as the West finally was being tamed, the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad rushed to build a transcontinental rail line to the Pacific Coast. Standing in the way, though, was a formidable peak in the middle of Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains.
The railroad’s solution in 1907 was to recruit thousands of laborers, many of them immigrants, who spent two arduous years boring through hard rock to create a landmark 1.7-mile tunnel connecting the states of Idaho and Montana deep inside the mountain.
The massive undertaking gave birth to a boomtown, later named Taft, that a Chicago journalist once called the “wickedest city in America.” By the time the tunnel was completed, an estimated 72 people had died from construction accidents, deadly diseases, gunfights and other violence. They were buried in a makeshift cemetery outside town.
Any remnant of where they lay was erased when the wooden crosses marking their graves were turned to ash in the historic Big Burn of 1910, the deadly fire that incinerated 3 million acres of forest in western Montana and northern Idaho. The raging fire also destroyed the town of Taft — its wooden saloons, brothels, construction buildings and sawmill — and scattered its itinerant laborers.