TAFT, Mont. — 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.
Now, thanks to technology and a 77-year-old miner’s keen memory, a team of researchers believes it has found Taft’s long-forgotten “Boot Hill,” shedding new light on the story of one of the West’s last frontier towns.
These days, the eerily dark, cool, and abandoned railroad tunnel and the adjoining Route of the Hiawatha trail are part of one of the most popular bike pathways in the United States. There are no monuments or gravestones marking the nearby cemetery, where the last burials occurred more than a century ago.
The recent rediscovery involves a US Forest Service archeologist, railroad historians, and a team of archeology graduate students who have embarked on a research project that may take five years to complete. The biggest mystery and challenge: Who is buried there?
One published account said those interred included “Swedes, Italians, Chinese, Australians, boys seeking their fortunes, gamblers, farmers, prostitutes, disappointed miners from the Alaskan gold rush, wastrels, college men, uneducated laborers, the last of the Old West gunmen, Minnesota lumberjacks and French-Canadian woodsmen.”
Paid $1.80 to $3.50 a day, their hard work for the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul railroad established a cross-country rail link that helped develop the West in the early 1900s and played a vital role in moving soldiers and equipment during both World Wars.
The work commenced simultaneously westward from the Montana side of the mountain and eastward from the Idaho side. When the two sides met up in 1909, the separate bores were only slightly off, historical accounts say. The Taft Tunnel, also called St. Paul Pass, received rail traffic the following year.
The engineering feat was undertaken by a private contractor who recruited laborers far and wide, ultimately hiring 1,000 immigrants from Montenegro known for their hard-rock mining skills. The Northern Pacific Railway brought supplies by rail.
Taft, which only really existed from late 1906 to 1910, did not have a church or school. Many of its buildings were destroyed and rebuilt after smaller fires broke out in the town in August and November of 1908.
The town was named for William Howard Taft, the nation’s 27th president and a chief justice of the Supreme Court. As secretary of war, he visited the then-unnamed railroad town in 1907.
Two years later, Taft was a rough-and-tumble place where written accounts say many disputes were settled by fistfights, knives, and gunfire. One of the town’s reported 500 prostitutes was said to have a parrot trained to proposition men.
Other than a handful of magazine articles, a book, and hundreds of old photos, there is little documentation of the town’s history. Carole Johnson, now a Forest Service supervisor whose ranger district encompasses the site of the rediscovered cemetery, remembers a woman who spoke to her high school history class in Superior, Mont., in about 1969.
The speaker recalled that the Northern Pacific passenger train she was riding as a child with her mother was stopped by a snow slide in Taft in 1908 or 1909. She remembered seeing “arms and legs of corpses sticking out of snowbanks” piled high outside a saloon.
“She told us they were killed in a bar fight or whatever, and because of the deep snow in Taft, they were just pitched out the door into the snow drifts to be buried in the spring,” Johnson said. “Now we know where they buried them.”
The inhabitants of the cemetery are said to include a Montenegrin — known by his fellow countrymen in Taft as “The King” — who was fatally shot in 1907 by an irate railroad foreman. The foreman himself was buried there after he was murdered in revenge, according to an account in the only known book about Taft, “Doctors, Dynamite and Dogs,” published in 1956. The author of the personal memoir, Edith May LaMoreaux Schussler, was the widow of an orthopedic surgeon who worked at the Taft hospital before it was sold for $25 and torn down in 1909.
Last year, John Shontz, a retired lawyer and a railroad history buff who lives 212 miles away in Helena, Mont., decided to research the old Milwaukee Road tunnel and those who built it.
He initially found little to go on beyond ghost-town lore. The Forest Service had no written records of the cemetery or its precise location.
As part of his research, Shontz said, he became fascinated with trying to figure out the location of the cemetery and the identities of those buried there.
His queries sparked interest in the search and, in short order, he was joined in an on-the-ground site search by Forest Service employees, rail historians, a weekly newspaper reporter, and a video crew.
The volunteers initially spent days looking in the wrong location, only to be set straight by a retired miner and local historian named C.A. Jacobson who contacted them after reading the reporter’s article about the search.
He came forward with old photos and his own recollections of the area, leading the searchers to the correct location on the tree-studded hillside.
The search team in 2018 was able to zero in on the site, matching historical photos with geological landmarks to pinpoint it.