When it comes to real estate, urban gentrification seems easy to spot: old buildings are remodeled or razed, rents rise, and commercial spaces become occupied with shops that seem less than necessary, if not trend-indulgent (those dedicated to artisanal mayonnaise or hand-crafted molasses are obvious indicators).
However, gentrification may seem harder to recognize beyond the cities and the suburbs. Sure, it’s easy to spot where cow pastures have been plowed under for condos in the Flathead Valley. But in a manner of “backwoods” gentrification of sorts, important places – and entire towns – have disappeared from the Flathead historical landscape.
Indeed, there are many bygone towns throughout the Flathead Valley, such as Demersville, Holt and Java just to name a few. But perhaps none was more of a hell-bound railroad boomtown of the West than McCarthysville – also known as McCarthyville, the “seething Sodom of Wickedness,” and “Death Valley” just the same.
McCarthysville is the namesake of Eugene McCarthy, who also served as mayor (perhaps resembling the only wholesome thing about this former rough-and-tumble town). McCarthy took a contract with the Great Northern Railway as a timber-cruiser, scouting the area for timber to make railroad ties and telegraph poles as tracks were being laid west. McCarthy partnered with Bill Hardy and set up camp near Marias Pass ahead of the railroad survey crew. On September 29, 1890, the area was platted and the Town of McCarthysville was founded in honor of McCarthy.
Like many other railroad boomtowns, McCarthysville seemed to double every evening in size, population – and notoriety. And a tough place is perhaps best described with tough words, as Charles M. Russell once described McCarthysville as “a construction camp for the Great Northern, an’ there ain’t a tougher one on earth …”
And while saloons, houses (and tents) of ill-repute were aplenty, Russell explained that “the most prosperous business men in McCarthysville was the undertakers. They kept two shifts at work all the time, an’ every mornin’ they’d call at the hotel an’ saloons to carry out the victims of the night before. No one asked no questions.”
There was also trouble along tracks and in the tents in and around McCarthysville, where men often turned up dead. The Great Northern Railway paid men in gold. So it was not uncommon the morning after payday to find workingmen shot dead along the tracks, or robbed and left for dead in their tents (after a gambling somehow went awry).
Likewise, outlaws and fugitives, such as Sam Shermer and Jack Chipman, didn’t run from McCarthysville – they fled to it, knowing they’d fit it in well among “the citizenry” or find someone willing to offer food, shelter, or a horse (or gladly furnish same at gunpoint).
Some 18 months after it was founded, McCarthysville faded as the Great Northern headed West. And what little was left of McCarthysville was destroyed by fire in 1921 (except for a cemetery and a few log cabins).
Nowadays, places where outlaw shootouts and gambling gunfights took place now stand just yards from the Ole Creek Trail and the Fielding Picnic Area. And the main thoroughfare of McCarthysville near the bend along Bear Creek, lies ironically hidden just beyond the highway along US Route 2 (near the Bear Creek Ranch and Slippery Bill Road).
Indeed, McCarthysville, “the toughest town in the world,” once busy with saloons, gunslinging and prostitution, now has more to do with snowshoes, guest cabins and picnic-baskets – much like some peculiar kind of back-woods gentrification of sorts – and a kind that makes the Flathead Valley quite unlike any other place.
Jaix Chaix is a columnist and author of Flathead Valley Landmarks and other local history books that are available for sale at the Flathead Beacon at 17 Main St. in Kalispell.
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