By Brad Reynolds
Townsend is referred to by some as “the biggest little town in Montana,” and for those familiar with the charming valley town, it’s no wonder why. The community, though small, frequently draws visitors for its beautiful scenic views and bountiful recreation opportunities. A “stay and play” community, Townsend offers all the amenities a traveler would need.
Like many Montana communities, Townsend’s history is tied to the railroad. Established in 1883, it was named for the wife of Charles Barstow Wright (president of the Northern Pacific) and serves as the seat of Broadwater County, which itself is named for a railroad magnate, Charles Arthur Broadwater. Being a railroad stop on the Northern Pacific line was so crucial in fact to Townsend’s development that in 1905, T.N. Averill wrote in The Townsend Star:
When the Lewis and Clark expedition passed through the Missouri River valley and wrote their first history, [Townsend] was not even mentioned that it might be a good trading post, much less a village or city.
When the early settlers came from various parts of the East and began to build homes within the rocky crests of our mountainous borders, [Townsend] was ‘passed up’ for other points which seemed to possess better advantages for building a village.
But when the mightiest enterprise of the age came rumbling along – first with transit and rod, then with plow and scraper, and afterwards with townsite locating engineers, a brilliant possibility evolved which gave birth to a lasting enterprise – Townsend, village, town, county seat.
Some of the first buildings in Townsend included the Townsend Mercantile Co., The Townsend House (hotel), and Tierney’s Hall, which was used for church services, school programs, dances, and suppers. It was also used as a theater.
Buildings came and went over the decades, some more notable than others. The State Bank of Townsend, for instance, was established in 1899; it remains in use and looking more-or-less the same as it did in 1918. Another historically significant building is the Canton Church which, in 1954, was moved to higher ground from the town of Canton (which is now under Canyon Ferry). It operated as a Catholic mission until the 1980s and was restored by the Townsend community in the late 1990s. The Canton Church remains the second oldest standing Catholic Church in the state. Many events are held here and all summer long it is a venue for various musical, dance, and theatrical performances.
There are many interesting businesses to visit in Townsend today (many of which are featured in the following pages of this magazine). There are places to shop, eat, grab a drink, stay the night, and even get medical attention. The Broadwater County Museum and Historical Library contains intriguing artifact displays. Goose Bay Handblown Glass is another popular attraction. Visitors can watch as the owners turn molten glass into beautiful vases bowls, ornaments, and more.
Recreation is perhaps the biggest appeal of the area. Townsend rests alongside the Missouri River and is just a few miles south of Canyon Ferry Reservoir, one of Montana’s largest bodies of water. The reservoir has approximately 35,200 water surface acres, 9,360 land acres, and 76 miles of shoreline with three marinas. Locals and visitors alike enjoy boating, swimming, hiking, and camping here. The region is popular during hunting season, and year-round fishermen come for the walleye and trout. Photographers come to capture the area’s beauty, with its mountains, water, and wildlife.
There is much to do in Townsend and the surrounding area. The community is very welcoming to visitors so don’t be shy; locals can help if you need directions or advice. Their home is a Western wonderland and they’re pleased to share it with you.