48 Degrees North

The Founder of Columbia Falls

James A. Talbot opened a bank, built a schoolhouse and hotel and even gave the state land for the Montana Veterans’ Home

By Justin Franz
A mural along Nucleus Avenue in Columbia Falls. Beacon file photo

On the edge of Columbia Falls, not far from the Flathead River, lies Talbot Road. For most people driving or walking down the road, it’s just a street name. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll discover the wild and unbelievable story of James A. Talbot, the founder of Columbia Falls. 

Talbot was born in Ohio in 1838. He moved to Missouri when he was 12 and a few years later became an overland freighter to California. On the West Coast, he started moving mail between Yuma, Arizona and San Diego, through the parched Death Valley. Not long after starting his rugged mail run, he imported some camels and, according to a newspaper story from 1923, it’s believed that the descendants of Talbot’s animals were still running around the desert decades later. Talbot mined gold in California before joining up with the infamous Gen. William Walker, a mercenary who led several private military invasions into Central America, including one in 1856 when he and his men overthrew the government of Nicaragua. Walker was later overthrown himself by a coalition of neighboring armies, and Talbot escaped on foot to South America where he set sail for Australia in search of gold. Amazingly, all of this happened before he was 25. 

In 1863, he landed in Montana in search of more riches. After first living in Alder, he moved north to a growing little community on the Flathead River. In what would eventually be established as Columbia Falls, Talbot opened a bank, built a schoolhouse and hotel, supported the local church and even gave the state land for the Montana Veterans’ Home. Although Columbia Falls wouldn’t formally be established until the early 20th century, there is no doubt that Talbot was instrumental in its early development, so much so that many have bestowed the title of “founder” on him. He died in 1923 and is buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery. 

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