A Brief History of the Area Called Powell County
(The First and Still the Last Best Place)
Previous to European settlers, Native Americans traveled through the area to reach their hunting ground to the east. They camped and rested here for this was neutral ground for all tribes.
In 1806, Meriwether Lewis returned home to St. Louis via the Blackfoot River. Later, in the 1830s, trappers for the American Fur Company and The Hudson Bay Company plied the area’s streams for beaver.
However, it was the allure of gold, FIRST discovered in Montana at Powell County’s Gold Creek in 1852. But it was not until about 1860 that people began the rush to the area. Mining camps, some of which became towns, sprang up overnight, and many disappeared almost as fast. Gone are the communities of American Fork, Pioneer, Blackfoot City, Finn, Champion and Danielsville.
A decline in gold and an increase in transportation moved the economy of the county toward ranching, though ranching was important in the mining era to feed the miners. In fact the Montana cattle industry actually started in Powell County, another one of our FIRSTS.
In 1860, the Mullan Road opened. This road linked Fort Benton, Montana, to Walla Walla, Washington, and passed through the heart of Powell County. Later, in 1883, the FIRST northern transcontinental railroad, the Northern Pacific, was completed with the driving of the “Golden Spike” at Gold Creek. Much later, the famous Yellowstone Trail, a road from Boston to Puget Sound, passed through Powell County.
Local government started in the then Territory of Montana in 1864 when Deer Lodge County was created. The City of Deer Lodge was the county seat. The configuration of the county changed several times, and ultimately, on February 2, 1901, the portion called Powell County was created. Again, the City of Deer Lodge was named the county seat.
Education has always been important to the people of Powell County. The FIRST college in Montana, the Collegiate Institute, opened its doors to students in 1880 in Deer Lodge – again, we were FIRST.
The next FIRST for Powell County was the 1870 decision to locate the Montana Territorial Prison in Deer Lodge. The prison facility was to undergo many changes over the years. It was finally closed in 1979 when a new state prison was built 3 miles southwest of Deer Lodge.
Today Powell County boasts 7,200 residents; large and small ranches; and an economy geared to agriculture, other natural resources, government and health care. Many of the ranches are owned by fourth and fifth generation residents. Sun Mountain Lumber Company provides work for both loggers and mill employees. The government sector includes state, county and city employment, and a new hospital is being built in Deer Lodge.
The City of Deer Lodge is the county’s only incorporated community and the seat of Powell County government. Over the years it has been known as Spanish Fork, Cottonwood, LaBarge City and Idaho City. Other unincorporated communities in the county include Ovando, Helmville, Elliston, Avon, Garrison and Gold Creek.