TAFT, Montana - High in the Bitterroot Mountains, 100 miles from Spokane and just east of Lookout Pass, a long-forgotten Old West legacy “boot hill” is sparking new interest.
The Taft Cemetery – the only remnant of one of the West’s last lawless railroad boomtowns – was rediscovered in recent months, thanks to the keen memory of a retired 78-year-old Idaho miner and modern metal-detecting technology.
Now the site is destined for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, giving it Smithsonian recognition and protection under federal law. The last burials at the cemetery were 110 years ago, the final resting place for as many as 72 men who helped punch a 1.7-mile tunnel through a rock mountain straddling the Idaho-Montana border for the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad.
The Taft Tunnel, also called St. Paul Pass, took two years to dig. Completed in 1909, it helped establish a transcontinental rail link.
Today the tunnel serves a different role. With the adjoining Route of the Hiawatha, the tunnel is now part of one of the most popular bike pathways in the United States. But there are no monuments or gravestones marking the nearby forgotten cemetery.
The wooden crosses marking the graves were turned to ash during the historic Big Burn of 1910 – the deadly fire that killed 87 people and incinerated 3 million acres of forest in western Montana and North Idaho.
The historic, raging fire also destroyed the town of Taft – its Spokane Saloon and almost two dozen other bars, brothels, construction buildings, barns and a sawmill that made ties and timbers for the railroad. Before the smoke cleared, the town’s itinerant laborers, many of them European immigrants, some from Spokane, moved on.
The recent rediscovery involves a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist, railroad and state historians and a team of archaeology graduate students involved in a research project that may take five years to complete. Their biggest mystery and challenge: Who is buried there?
One published account says the population of Taft included “Swedes, Italians, Chinese, Australians, boys seeking their fortunes, gamblers, farmers, prostitutes, disappointed miners from the Alaskan gold rush, wastrels, college men, uneducated laborers, the last of the Old West gunmen, Minnesota lumberjacks and French-Canadian woodsmen.”
Those believed buried in the cemetery include a Montenegrin “king” fatally shot by an irate railroad foreman whose body also was placed in the cemetery after he subsequently was murdered in a revenge killing, according to published accounts.
Paid $1.80 to $3.50 a day, the immigrants drilled and blasted their way through a rock mountain, working from both ends with amazing accuracy and creating a tunnel that became the rail link between Chicago and Seattle and Tacoma in western Washington. A spur near Plummer, Idaho, eventually brought the Milwaukee Road to Spokane.
The boomtown of Taft only really existed from late 1906 to 1910. Described by a Chicago journalist in 1909 as the “wickedest city in America,” Taft was a colorful, rough-and-tumble place where written accounts say many disputes were settled by fights, knives and gunfire. Contagious diseases took many lives.
Some of the town’s buildings were destroyed and rebuilt after fires in August and November of 1908. The Northern Pacific Railroad, extended westward from Missoula, brought supplies by rail to Taft for construction of the boomtown.
Other than a handful of magazine articles, one book and hundreds of old photos, there is little cultural documentation of Taft.
Carole Johnson, now a U.S. Forest Service supervisor whose ranger district encompasses the site of the re-discovered cemetery, recalled a woman who spoke to her high school history class in Superior, Montana, in about 1969. The speaker recalled the Northern Pacific passenger train she rode as a child with her mother was stopped by a snow slide in Taft in 1908 or 1909, and she saw “arms and legs of corpses sticking out of snowbanks” piled high outside a saloon.
“She told us they were killed in a bar fight or whatever, and because of the deep snow in Taft, they were just pitched out the door into the snow drifts to be buried in the spring,” Johnson said.
Johnson said she has had a long-standing interest in trying to find and locate the Taft Cemetery, “but I just never really had the time to dive into it.”
“Now, it’s very rewarding to see this discovery and the work that’s underway,” Johnson said.
Taft reportedly was named after William Howard Taft, the nation’s 27th president and later chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. As secretary of war, he visited the then-unnamed railroad boomtown in 1907, admonishing its unruly residents, who mockingly responded by naming the town after him.
The community was home for 2,000 or more itinerant laborers who had a reported fondness for whiskey, gambling, dog fights, rowdiness, prostitutes and lawlessness. The only law in town was a helpless, and outmanned, part-time sheriff’s deputy. One of the town’s reported 500 prostitutes had a parrot trained to proposition men.
Its last remaining building, the Taft Hotel and Saloon, rebuilt after the 1910 fire, was razed to make way for the Interstate 90 in the early 1960s. Then, the nearby 60-year cemetery was not even a roadside afterthought.
In the years since the legendary Big Burn of 1910, the mountainous landscape was redesigned by nature – taken over by towering coniferous trees and vegetation.
A sign on I-90, about five miles from the Idaho-Montana border, alerts eastbound drivers they’re approaching the “Taft area.” The only thing that exists now at the site is a highway department sand shed, reconfigured freeway topography and an access road to a parking lot for the Route of the Hiawatha, the popular rail-to-trails route visited by 59,500 bicyclists last year.
In 2018, John Shontz, a retired attorney and railroad history buff who lives 200 miles away in Helena, Montana, decided to research the old Milwaukee Road tunnel and those who built it. The elongated community of Taft was comprised of two developments known as “Saloon Town” and “Powerhouse Town,” the latter closer to East Portal.
He initially found little to go on beyond ghost-town lore. The U.S. Forest Service had no written records of the cemetery or its precise location.
As part of his research, Shontz said he became fascinated with the location of the Taft Cemetery and the identities of those buried there.
As his research began in the summer of 2018, he said he knew there were “72 souls somewhere.”
The retired attorney’s efforts sparked interest, and, in short order, he was joined for an on-the-ground search by Forest Service employees, rail historians, a weekly newspaper reporter and a film crew from Montana Public Broadcasting.
The eager volunteers initially spent days looking in the wrong location, only to be set straight by C.A. “Butch” Jacobson after he read a weekly newspaper article about the cemetery search.
“They were about 400 to 500 yards too far west,” said Jacobson, a retired miner, police officer and historian who lives in nearby Mullan, where he’s president of the Capt. John Mullan Museum. It was his memory, photos and directions that ultimately led the searchers to the correct site in the western-most edge of Montana.
As a teenager in the mid-1950s, Jacobson learned of the location of the Taft Cemetery when he and his father stopped in the Taft Hotel and Saloon after a successful elk hunt. His father knew the saloon operator, who pointed out the location of the cemetery on a nearby hillside, Jacobson said.
After hearing about the search for the cemetery, Jacobson made a series of calls, eventually speaking with U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Erika Karuzas, assigned to the Lolo National Forest.
In no time, the search party was guided by Jacobson to the correct location in September 2018, and, within minutes, a high-tech metal detector operated by the Forest Service archaeologist began getting hits. The screen on her computerized detector displayed readouts indicating the underground existence of belt buckles, buttons, nails and bullets.
“It was pretty awesome,” said Karuzas, who is heading the research project. “We knew the town was out there. What was left, we did not know.”
The federal archaeologist said the retired miner’s information was “vital” in leading the researchers to the rediscovery of the cemetery.
That was underscored by Shontz, the railroad historian: “Butch Jacobson was a key person in finding the cemetery,” he said, emphasizing there is still much research and field investigative work to be done.
The searchers returned to the site several times last year, as recently as early October. The team was expanded to include archaeology graduate students from the University of Montana in in Missoula.
Initial field work has identified about 40 possible grave sites, based on the “hits” of the metal objects underground. Additional work, now suspended by winter snow, will include identifying and marking the corners and boundaries of the cemetery.
The Forest Service archaeologist said the site is “really important” historically because it is associated with the building of a transcontinental railroad, boosting its national historic nomination.
“At this point, I don’t know exactly where the gravesites are up there,” Karuzas said. “I know we are in the cemetery, but I’m not 100 percent positive of where the gravesites are located and how many are there.
“We know from written records that there are supposed to be 72 people buried there,” she said. “We do not have the exact location of each grave.”
At its annual convention this past summer in St. Paul, Minnesota, the Milwaukee Road Historical Association pledged $1,900 for cemetery boundary markers and a large boulder that will be engraved with the name of the cemetery.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service has registered the cemetery with the Montana State Historic Preservation Office – a preliminary step to get the site listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The ongoing research effort has been expanded to include a historian with the Montana Department of Transportation and anthropology graduate students at the University of Montana.
Those students have visited the site and are attempting to identify those buried there, poring over microfilm copies of old newspapers, searching for names of those killed or buried in Taft. They reportedly have identified 35, or about half, of those interred in the cemetery.
With much more to be done, the researchers may turn to an aerial form of mapping called light detection and ranging technology, or LIDAR. It fires millions of laser beams onto the landscape, creating a 3D map that strips away vegetation and may show depressions suggesting graves.
Botanists also may be asked to study various forms of vegetation at the site, searching for non-indigenous perennials planted at the gravesites.
The cemetery was located not far from the former Taft hospital, built by the railroad and staffed by contract physicians hired to care for laborers injured while engaged in the grueling task of drilling and blasting the tunnel.
With the track and tunnel work completed in 1909, the railroad locked up its hospital and sold the building for $25 to a purchaser who quickly tore it down to repurpose the lumber in other structures. In the process, the hospital records, including the names of those who died in the facility, were lost or destroyed, according to rail historians and published accounts.
Some of the death certificates of those buried at Taft apparently were filed with the Missoula County Clerk and Recorder and forwarded on to the state’s Office of Vital Records.
The state office that retains death certificates will release copies only to requesters who provide the decedent’s name, date of birth, place of death and other personal information, complicating the graduate students’ research.
Between 1907 and 1910, when the last burials occurred, the cemetery was in sprawling Missoula County. In 1914, a new county, Mineral County, was created, encompassing the cemetery site on U.S. Forest Service land.
Very little, it appears, has been written about the rowdy, colorful history of Taft, located not far from the Idaho Panhandle and its equally legendary hard-rock mining towns of Mullan, Wallace and Kellogg.
Some of the best insights into Taft come from a 1956 book, “Doctors, Dynamite and Dogs,” written by Edith May LaMoreaux Schussler, who was married to Otto F. Schussler, an orthopedic surgeon. The couple lived at Taft for about two years when he was one of five physicians contracted by the railroad to staff the company’s 75-bed hospital and nearby 40-bed contagious disease bunkhouse.
Edith Schussler and her husband left Taft in 1909 aboard the first commercial westbound Milwaukee passenger train heading for Seattle.
Besides gunfights, drunkenness and violence, Taft townsfolk fell victim to typhoid, influenza, scarlet fever, erysipelas, smallpox, mumps and measles, the author wrote.
She also told the story of an estimated 1,000 Montenegrin immigrants, recruited for the tunnel work by Stanislaus Filipovich, a self-described Austrian “count.” The Montenegrins, known for their hard-rock drilling skills, were led by their “king,” Milosh Kolezich, who “wrote letters to their loved ones and had charge of the proceeds of their labor, and well-fulfilled that trust,” the author writes in her book.
In the early fall of 1907, tunnel foreman Reddy Hayes got into a shouting match with the Montenegrin king, whom Hayes alleged “was surly and his whole crew refused to work.”
“He pulled his gun, but I beat him to it, and he fell dead,” the book quotes the foreman as saying.
After relating that version of events to Dr. Schussler and his wife, the foreman immediately jumped an eastbound Northern Pacific train for Missoula, where he would claim self-defense and be acquitted of murder.
The killing of their leader led to an immediate work stoppage by the Montenegrins. The following day in Taft, with tensions high, a delegation of Montenegrins, accompanied by “Count Filipovich,” called upon Dr. Schussler and asked if their “king” could be buried in the cemetery above the hospital.
With white streamers and lighted tapers, an estimated 1,000 Montenegrin workers, dressed in their colorful, traditional garb, were in the funeral procession the following morning, the author writes. Leading the procession was the Austrian count, a prayer book in one hand and a coil of rope in the other, followed by six pallbearers carrying the homemade wooden casket, covered with black calico.
At the gravesite, with the casket opened, each mourner “kissed the wounds of their dear ‘King.’ Then, holding their right hand aloft, each swore that he would kill the man who had killed his brother,” the book says.
The rope was used to lower the casket before the mourners took turns shoveling dirt into the grave.
After the funeral, some of the armed mourners wanted to attack and destroy the hospital, but the Austrian count intervened, reminding the Montenegrins that Schussler and the hospital staff had treated and cared for many of them, the physician’s wife wrote.
The following spring, early 1908, Hayes returned to Taft, initially greeting the hospital staff and expressing an interest in returning to tunnel work, believing the Montenegrins had moved away from the work camp.
He walked to the tunnel site; Edith Schussler said that 15 minutes later, she heard multiple gunshots ring out.
Less than an hour later, a procession of men came down the trail carrying stretchers with the bodies of Hayes and three Montenegrins he shot in a blazing gunfight. The bodies of two more Montenegrins fatally shot in the exchange were found months later in the nearby woods.
“Again, there was a procession up to the hospital cemetery. Four black-covered caskets were borne along this time, but there was no line of mourners,” the author wrote.
Nothing was known about Hayes’ background or family connections. And with their cultural leader buried in the same cemetery, no one could provide names or information about the dead Montenegrins, identified with an ethnic slur by white laborers.
Edith Schussler wrote that it occurred to her “ this tragedy could have been averted if, instead of herding these men together in a way that rendered them suspicious and made them sure every ‘white’ man was an enemy, they had been treated as brothers.”
Jacobson has re-read “Doctors, Dynamite and Dogs” many times. The local historian said the re-discovery of the cemetery is one of his greatest personal achievements.
He walked the cemetery site once again on a cool, sunny day last fall, reflecting on the happenstance that put him in contact with the research team. Without that, he said, he believes the exact site of the cemetery may have been lost forever. “It would be erased. Yes. Yes.”
“It was amazing to me,” he said, glancing at the green flora of the cemetery site. “I mean, I feel proud that somebody else is going to do something to save this history.”
Bill Morlin is a freelance journalist, semi-retired after a 37-year career with The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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