by JB Chandler
In 1890, progress came to North Central Montana on railroads, and from every direction. The Great Northern Railway was planned and plotted and heading west from Havre to eventually cross those Montana Rockies, but before GN could cross the great plains, another north-south railroad was in the midst of being built: the Great Falls and Canada Railway. This eventual junction of steel roads became known as the Crossroads. Shelby, Montana today sits at this grand crossroad.
To start, the Canadian coal market hit rock bottom in 1888. To increase demand for their product, the Galt coal company in Lethbridge built a railroad to the burgeoning industrial town of Great Falls. Built in 108 days, the railroad mirrored earlier trails in the area, like the Whoop-Up Trail. The steel bridge crossed the Marias River near the old Fort Conrad site, so the railroad commemorated this by placing a concrete marker near that crossing. The oldest maps of the area marks the spot of a giant red rock on the north side of the Marias, which was the sign for Blackfeet hunting parties to cross the river.
By the end of 1890, shipments of coal were heading south, and Great Falls vacationers were enjoying their ten-dollar, overnight journey to the ski lodges in Banff. Meanwhile, the Great Northern Railroad lay just off the horizon to the east. When the two railroads finally met, a train car was pushed off the track, and it became the new depot of Shelby Junction. Shelby is aptly named for a railroad magnate, Peter O. Shelby, who ran the Montana Central Railroad. The junction of railroads proved an effective economic force, and even today, agriculture and the railroad remain the heartbeat of this rural community.
Now successive years of drought in 1918-19 had driven out many homesteaders, so by the time oil was discovered in 1921, the population of Shelby was only 527. In two short years, the failed farmers became oilmen and Shelby was a bustling boom town of 3,000 people and growing. Shelby sought to become the next major oil city in America – the New Tulsa, Oklahoma. The town lay at the head of a large valley, so the city had much room for growth. The mayor of Shelby brought in the heavyweight fight of 1923 to put Shelby on the map in a tourism sense, but the ulterior motive was land speculation.
Imagine a world before TV, or even radio, so all advertising would be in newspapers. Airplanes and automobiles were tooling around Montana, but trains were the premier mode of transportation in 1923. Shelby lay on an attractive line (100 miles from Glacier National Park!) so Shelby was expecting the rich and famous from across the country to travel and see the most popular sport in the world, featuring a championship boxer who hadn’t fought in two years. With so many well-to-do visitors, perhaps a few would invest in this little town. Unfortunately, bad management and newspaper headlines doomed the event, so only 14,000 people showed up to witness the great heavyweight fight, and only half of them paid! The rest snuck in, and the event went as bust as the oil boom invariably does, but the railroad’s steady drive allowed Shelby’s population to remain steady in the coming years despite the event’s failure.
Of course, the new crossroads of Shelby are the highways. Interstate 15 winding north of Great Falls closely mirrors the Great Falls and Canada railway, cutting even closer to the old Blackfoot hunting trail across the Marias. Highway 2 travels beside the old Great Northern, now BNSF railway, for almost its entire journey across Montana. The intersection of these highways has created a new crossroads that now powers Shelby’s economy.
What began as dirty ruts for moccasins and wagons, turned into twin lines of steel running in every cardinal direction. Times change, and while steel roads give way to concrete, the importance of the crossroads remains intact. The openness of automobile travel has made us forget of a day when railroads fostered an element of connectivity across our giant nation. As the promotional poster for the 1923 heavyweight fight promised in big bold letters: All Roads lead to Shelby.