- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 3, 2002

By Bonnie Christensen
University Press of Kansas, $34.95, 312 pages, illus.

Red Lodge, Montana, is a typical Western town in that it developed over a century and a half in a series of predictable stages. Whether it's Telluride, Colo. or Park City, Utah, or Jackson, Wyo., the story is essentially the same: Ranching and mining gave way to tourism and suburbanization. Bonnie Christensen's "Red Lodge and the Mythic West: Coal Mines to Cowboys" is a good primer for readers seeking to understand the boom-bust, and homogenous-to-heterogeneous West.
The first inhabitants of the Red Lodge area were Crow Indians. A large clan of "Mountain" Crows had split off from their more numerous Plains cousins. To differentiate themselves from the latter, the Mountain Crows smeared vermilion red paint on their teepees, hence "Red Lodge."
The 1830s Mountain Men frequented the region as the streams flowing off the nearby Beartooth Mountains teemed with beaver. Jim Bridger, Joe Meek and Osborne Russell all passed through, with Russell describing Rock Creek (the watercourse modern Red Lodge is on) in his "Journal of a Trapper." Western figures such as Buffalo Bill Cody and Calamity Jane later visited the newly settled town, with Cody whiling away hours drinking and playing poker at the Pollard Hotel, still standing and recently renovated. And one early resident was Jeremiah "Liver Eatin'" Johnston, the model for "Jeremiah Johnson," as portrayed by Robert Redford in the 1972 movie.
The Northern Pacific Railroad came through in 1887, essentially founding Red Lodge, which was incorporated in 1889. The railroad made possible the first economic boom, that from coal mining. For the next two generations, the self-described "Coal Metropolis" would have twin mines ("Eastside" and "Westside") employing hundreds of Irish and Eastern European immigrants who had flocked in for the steady if dangerous work, and who turned Red Lodge into an ethnic stew whose descendants still reside there today. The Smith Mine in nearby Bearcreek was the site of Montana's most notorious mine disaster, an explosion that took the lives of 74 miners in 1943.
The phrase "Mythic West" in the subtitle of the book refers to Red Lodge's ranch culture. Following neighboring Cody, Wyo.'s example, Red Lodge invented its own "cowboy myth" when early boosters saw the economic value of "dude ranches" as a tourist magnet. From the beginning there were cattle ranches scattered around Red Lodge, but they were a marginal contributor to the local economy when compared to the coal mines, which in conjunction with the railroad literally built Red Lodge.
At the behest of the Chamber of Commerce everyone in town bankers, doctors, lawyers, barbers began wearing cowboy hats and boots because tourists wanted to see cowboys rather than coal miners. Or as the author puts it: "Celebrating the Old West through rodeos, parades, dude ranches, and rustic storefronts reinforced the glamour of that mythologized past and made people proud of themselves and their place."
Red Lodge early on realized the true value of its environs. It is nearly surrounded by the spectacular Beartooth Mountains, and is on a major route to Yellowstone National Park, 70 miles away. The town was popular with sportsmen (Ernest Hemingway once passed through while on an elk hunt), but it wasn't until 1936 that the recreation boom really began. In that year the 70-mile Beartooth Highway was completed.
It was a direct connection to the northeast entrance to Yellowstone, and was a stunning feat of engineering that crested 12,000-foot Beartooth Pass by a series of switchbacks offering stunning views of the mountains all the way. The journalist Charles Kuralt drove it and called it: "The most beautiful road in America."
As mining and ranching declined in Red Lodge as it did across much of the rural West in the 1960s and '70s a new demographic phenomenom emerged, the arrival of what the author calls the "neolocal." These folks moved in not for a particular employment opportunity, but because they wanted to live in a place of great natural beauty. The neolocals were usually hippie liberals who stood in stark contrast politically and culturally to their conservative multi-generational neighbors. They lived unconventional lives: Colorado "ski bums", for instance.
Neolocals arrived in a town before it was "discovered," when rents and home prices were cheap, and it was possible to live on just a part-time job. There were a few years of bucolic bohemia before gentrification, that is, before the movie celebrities and nouveau riche technocrats showed up and drove up real estate values. Soon the neolocals couldn't afford to live in towns where they may have been for decades. Aspen, Vail and Sun Valley were typical of this, as was Red Lodge to a lesser extent.
Red Lodge nowadays is a ski town. It's nearby eponymous mountain resort opened in 1960, has expanded over the years, and completed the town's transformation from a regional center for the "extractive industries" to one as "nature's gateway" to "recreational amenities," the latter two phrases almost cliches when describing much of the New West. And in the last decade, Red Lodge has experienced the typical Western growing pains of suburban sprawl, as ranches turned into subdivided "ranchettes," and an almost exclusive service economy based on the wants and needs of newcomers and tourists developed.
Dotcommers have replaced coal miners, those fenced-off and boarded-up mines are only relics of passing historical interest, and the visitor has no trouble finding cappuccino, a good bottle of wine in a tony restaurant, or locally microbrewed beer.
Bonnie Christensen's is the best recent book one can think of that explains the history of the West in easily understandable microcosm. Though many readers may be disappointed to learn that the Mountain West was settled by the likes of Irish railroad workers, Polish coal miners and Basque sheepherders, rather than John Wayne types riding stout horses and wearing ten gallon hats, the book is a chronicle of a "Real West."

Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyo.

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