Stillwater County History
The county's earliest residents were Crow Indians. Southern Stillwater County was part of the Crow Indian Reservation from 1851 to 1892. Crow Agency was formerly located less than two miles south of the present town site of Absarokee. The first recorded appearance of white explorers was in 1806 when Captain Clark, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, separated from his party in Three Forks and traveled east down the Yellowstone River. Trappers and traders, such as Manuel Lisa, Jim Bridger and Isborne Russell also traveled through this area in the 1800's. With the beginning of trading in the area, famous trails such as the Bridger and Bozeman Trails and Bozeman - Miles City Stagecoach Road crossed through the county.
Stillwater County has a rich mining history. There has been exploration and mining activity in its southern portion of the county since 1870. Most of the mining centered around the upper Stillwater Valley, above Nye, in a highly mineralized area, 28 miles long and 3 miles wide, named the Stillwater Complex. Nye City was built in the 1880's as the base for a gold mining operation in the area. During this decade the town boomed to a population of 500, but by 1890, Nye City was virtually a ghost town.
By 1883, the Northern Pacific had extended their railroad line along the lower Yellowstone Valley. As the railroads were constructed, access became easier. The railroad companies, to increase their business, actively promoted settling in the west along its lines where land was available. The railroads had received 40 alternate sections of public land for each mile of road built within the territories, thus they could raise capital by promoting settlement and selling land. Settlers from the east came by the thousands to farm what they were told was land with unlimited fertility. In 1918, the Northern Pacific built a railroad spur through the northern part of the county into the Lake Basin, terminating and creating the town of Rapelje.
Prior to the 1890's, some cattle grazing occurred in this area. With the passage of the Homestead Act, the prospect of free land and independence added a great incentive for people to settle lands in the west. It was possible to acquire 160 acres by living on the land and working it for five years. Most of the valleys and irrigated lands were thus settled. People homesteaded in the Stillwater County area between 1892 and 1913. The passage of the Carey Land Act in 1902 made it possible for individuals to obtain 320 acres by living on it seven months each year for three years. This act spurred additional people from the east to settle in the west. Many were the honyonkers, or dryland farmers. Between 1900 and 1920 over 1300 farms, mostly dryland, comprising nearly 670,000 acres were established in Stillwater County.
Numerous large irrigation projects were also started in the region at the same time railroad access and homestead land became available. The Big Ditch, Butcher Creek and Rosebud Ditch, Yellowstone Ditch, Flaherety Ditch, Garrigus Ditch, Gilbert and Tunnel Ditch, Italian Ditch, Mendenhall Ditch, Merrill Ditch, Old Mill Ditch, Phelps Ditch, Reed Point Ditch, and Shane Ditch were all constructed between 1882 and 1898. The Columbus Irrigation Project, Cove Ditch, and Kem-Mulherin Ditch were developed later between 1906 and 1914.
Stillwater County formed in 1913:
Stillwater County was formed from parts of Yellowstone, Carbon and Sweet Grass Counties, by petition and election in 1913. The name of the county was taken from the Stillwater River. It was organized with the Town of Columbus as the county seat. The county boundaries were later changed in 1915 when 84 square miles in the northeastern part were added to Sweet Grass and four townships in southeastern Sweet Grass County were given to Stillwater County. Town sites were platted as people moved into this area. Park City was platted in 1884 and Columbus (formerly Stillwater) in 1891 for the Northern Pacific Railroad. Absarokee was originally platted in 1905 and Reed Point was platted in 1911. Fishtail was platted in 1913; Molt, Rapelje and Springtime were all platted in 1917; Nora was platted in 1918 and later expanded with the Wheat Basin plat in 1919. Beehive, Dean and Nye are better described as a composite of various surveys rather than platted town sites. There were 22 post-offices in the history of the county, but only eight are active post-offices today.
A sandstone quarry operated north of Columbus between 1890 and 1910. During its peak period, the quarry employed 72 miners and masons. Many local buildings are constructed of the course-grained sandstone as well as a wing of the State Capitol Building in Helena, the federal buildings in Butte and Helena, the original federal building in Billings, hotels in Forsyth and Havre, the Missoula and Havre high schools, and the Masonic Temple in Missoula. The quarry craftsman also supplied elaborate cemetery monuments and headstones to 40 Montana cemeteries including Columbus cemetery. Since 1910, there has been no further activity at the quarry, although the Petosa Monument Co. worked sandstone pieces for 30 years after the quarry closed.
The great depression began to affect this area in 1919, as several years of drought occurred, devastating crops and bankrupting many farmers. Many gave up and left the area, while their land was bought by larger landowners. The population in the northern part of the county declined and is only a fraction of what it had been in the homesteading years. The rate of decline in population slowed down by 1940. After the drought, farmers and ranchers began to diversify. In addition to grazing cattle, they raised wheat, hay, oats, barley and sugar beets.
Interest in the Stillwater Complex began in earnest around 1917 in response to the demand for chrome during World War I. Production did not start until 1941 and was terminated by 1943. The Anaconda Company, as agent for the Defense Plant Corporation of the Federal government began production of ore at the Benbow, Mountain View, and Gish properties. A mining town was built at Lake Camp above Horseman Flat to house miners. Production from the mine declined when the war ended and chrome was no longer economical to mine. The new mining town was later abandoned. Another war-induced shortage of chrome during the early 1950's resulted in the reopening of the Mouat Mine. In 1952 American Chrome Company contracted with the Federal government to stockpile chromite at Nye. Over 900,000 tons of concentrate, averaging 38.5 percent Cr2O3, was mined from the Mouat mine between 1953 and 1961. Chrome production ended in 1961 and a stockpile of ore was left near the mine. The most recent exploration activity in the Stillwater Complex began in the 1967 for platinum and associated metal potential. Platinum and palladium mineralization was first discovered by Johns Manville Corporation in the early 1970s. The rising price of platinum group metals resulted in development of the Stillwater Mine in 1985. Stillwater Mining Company is currently operating the only platinum/palladium mine in the United States.
Schools and Special districts:
Development efforts have continued around the county with the formation of school, fire, sewer, solid waste, light districts, cemetery districts and other community facilities/services since 1893. There are eight elementary school districts in the county serving Absarokee, Columbus, Fishtail, Molt, Nye, Rapelje, Reed Point and Park City. There are also five high school districts serving Absarokee, Columbus, Rapelje, Reed Point and Park City and a portion of the Broadview High School district in Stillwater County. Sewer Systems were built in Absarokee in 1950, Park City in 1968 and Reed Point in 1995. Private water user associations serve Absarokee since 1953 and Rapelje since 1962. Absarokee Fire District was formed in 1954, Park City Fire District in 1956, Broadview Fire District in 1967 and the Columbus Rural Fire District in 1990, Rapelje, Molt, Nye and Reed Point also have volunteer fire departments. Street light districts were created for Reed Point in 1919, Park City in 1953 and Absarokee in 1960. Cemetery districts were created for Park City in 1951, Rapelje in 1956 and the Rosebud Cemetery District for Absarokee in 1956. The County Solid Waste District was formed in 1975 and later revised collection and disposal methods in 1994 to comply with changing federal and state laws.
Development of Transportation System:
The transportation system in the county began as overland trails and has been developed over time into the present road system. The Stillwater Road was initially developed in 1893, and then rebuilt in 1915 and 1935 from Columbus to Absarokee. Reconstruction began on the section through Fishtail to Nye in 1994. U. S. Highway 10 replaced the Bozeman - Miles City Stagecoach Road and was rebuilt in 1931. Interstate 90 was constructed through the county during 1968 to 1971 time period. Most of the existing county roads were petitioned, surveyed and declared public roads between from 1882 and 1920.
Electrical and telephone service was established in the county in the early 1900's and a gas distribution system was constructed in the 1930's. Construction of the Mystic Lake dam and power plant was completed in 1925. Cable television lines were installed in the early 1970's and fiber optic cables were installed in the late 1980's and early 1990's.
A city-county planning board was formed in 1967 and a county planning board was formed in 1995. A comprehensive area plan was adopted in 1970, a Hard Rock Mining Impact Plan was approved in 1985 and amended in 1988, an Overall Economic Development Plan was adopted in 1989, and a Road and Bridge Plan was prepared in 1990. Subdivision activity in the county was extensive in the 1970's and has continued through the 1990's. Subdivision regulations were initially adopted in 1970 and have been amended as recently as 1995. Flood plain maps and regulations were prepared in 1975 and revised in 1984. One citizen petitioned planning and zoning district was established in 1979 for an area in the West Fork of the Stillwater drainage.
The history of mining, ranching, farming, development of town sites with community facilities and services, and more recently recreational development in the county are evident in the 1990's. This diversity provides the socio-economic base of Stillwater County and will likely continue to influence the culture of the area for years to come.