My memory isn’t completely shot after 89 years; however, it does get a little blurry at times. Please excuse a possible slip this week. A real history-loving character I have coffee with on a regular basis asked me a question sometime back. Don’t remember how long ago. He wanted to know what I knew of early Columbia Falls pioneer Mike Berne. Maybe I dug out the information at that time. Maybe I didn’t. It is far too interesting not to run again ... just in case.
We have Berne Park in the Bad Rock Canyon and Mel Ruder used to do stories about this interesting Flathead pioneer. Mike Berne was interviewed by Agnes Cada when he was 87 years old and his recollections have to be a vital part of Flathead’s “early days.”
When he was 21 in 1890, Mike and his Irish parents were in Butte and Mike recalled, “There were two trappers by the name of Emerson who came to Butte telling of ‘a wonderful valley north of a big lake.’ Mike came here and homesteaded near LaSalle.”
Coal veins in the North Fork led Pat Welch and six other men to file squatters rights up there. In 1891 the Great Northern railway was building into the Flathead via the “Old Tote Road” through Bad Rock Canyon, planning on obtaining the coal up the North Fork. According to Mike, “Frank Langford, a clerk working in a Great Northern office learned of this fact, so along with A.G. Davis and Mr. Talbott organized the Northwest International Improvement Company and bought the seven squatters out for $7,000 each.
“...to retain rights with the least amount of work or investment, Langford and company induced an old prospector who was partially blind to pan for gold. As he panned, some of the members of the company carefully ‘salted’ the prospector’s pan with gold nuggets imported from the Helena diggings and the old gent ‘swore evidence’ so the claims were listed as placer. Incidentally, a nugget was lost in the process.
“Langford’s dealings so enraged the Great Northern Railroad they built a one man depot at Brent, and 1 1/2 miles east of Columbia Falls townsite and bypassed the town on their way to Kalispell.”
Mike also told of the ill-fated project where in Talbott’s townsite company built a steam boat to haul coal out of the North Fork. On its first trip, “it turned over and debris, including the boiler were still in the river below Blankenship for many years.”
Another story from the Berne-Cada papers.
“Interesting neighbors of Mr. Berne’s in the early days included Jack Reddon and Charlie Batchman who both homesteaded near his pre-emtion claim. Jack was a large hot tempered man who had a woman named Bronco Liz living with him. One season Jack went back to Butte to work in the Silverbow Mine leaving Liz on the homestead. During his absence Liz and neighbor Charlie Batchman sold both homesteads and were busy celebrating at Ashley when Jack came home. Batchman ‘bored’ Jack, but a soldier stuffed cotton into the holes the Jack was all right in two weeks.”
Jack and Liz led exciting lives: “Bronco Liz had earned her name through her efficiency in riding broncs and shooting ... another time Jack was winding the clock instead of listening to her so she shot the ‘winding hole’ right out of the clock. Jack had a philosophical comment, “One less job for me.”
Liz eventually married “the Ranger at Fortine Creek,” but she was killed by a train while walking the tracks to get the mail. Mike met Liz’s husband at Ashley and was crying because he didn’t have enough money for a funeral. Berne loaned him $50 then said he “...rounded up some pallbearers; but one, a real estate dealer, had to be ‘gently’ persuaded.”
(This information us all from the ‘Sagas of Our Pioneers’ a fascinating collection compiled by the Flathead County Superintendent of School’s Office with over 30 volunteers in 1956.)
This column was done for Ron Beard. Life is good.
G. George Ostrom is an award-winning columnist. He lives in Kalispell.