Square Butte, Montana
The most significant of these myriad and diverse subsidiaries was the Western Townsite Company of Montana. Organized, as many of the rest were, on January 18, 1906, and capitalized at $100,000, it's purpose was to acquire, subdivide, promote and sell land in Montana. Although it's separate existence disappeared into the Milwaukee Land Company on November 29, 1909,1 it's successes and failures had ramifications far beyond the profit and loss statements of the Milwaukee Road. Initially, it is sufficient to observe that the Western Townsite Company was responsible for much of the geographical language of Central Montana:
For many towns in Montana's Judith Basin, the grain elevator and railroad siding have long been the heart of the economic life of the area, especially during the months that grain harvests are readied for shipment. The origins and names of many of these towns dates back to the construction of ... the Milwaukee Road.2At Roundup, only a saloon and a post office existed in 1908, but the arrival of the Milwaukee immediately provided the transportation for cattle and grain out of the area, and the arrival of the coal miners -- from the Balkans, Yugoslavia, Wales, Scotland and Cornwall -- created a population boom. At its peak, Mine No. 2 employed over 1,000 miners, and No. 3, nearly 3,000, creating the "Miracle of the Musselshell" as the local newspaper editor called it.3
Some of the places where the Company set down a surveyor and a grid map were not as habitable as others. At little Ingomar, the Company surveyed a town, but located it on an aquifer of alkaline, undrinkable, water. One of the odd rituals of Eastern Montana life, at Ingomar, was the black tank car -- a converted steam locomotive water tender -- which the Milwaukee Road kept filled with fresh water, parked on the town siding, and the citizens loading up their buckets or tanks. The Company kept Ingomar thusly supplied with good, fresh water, free of charge, until the Pacific Extension ended nearly 70 years later.4
Many of the towns that sprung up, like the notorious Taft, were simply construction towns, as "every temporary terminus of track laying became a city, wicked, wonderful and short-lived."5 Other little pioneer towns, "many of them small country villages from stock raising days ... enjoyed a small but short-lived boom, then sank back below their former level."6 The serious railroad towns were, though, meant to bring permanent inhabitants and business to the lands along the railroad line, spur development, and contribute to the revenue of the Company. The transcontinental construction of the Milwaukee Road was the last large scale development of railroad communities in America.
This part of Montana had been named long ago – by the Indians, by the US Army, and by the ranchers ... but the railroad was interested only in the brilliant future that it was bringing to the country, and it scorned the past. It ignored the existing names, preferring to adorn the landscape with bright new coinages of its own – the better to commemorate the historic achievement of the Milwaukee Road in bringing twentieth century civilization to the naked prairie.7
Geraldine, Montana was somewhat typical. Naming the town after William Rockefeller’s wife, the Company bought the land, and Company surveyors laid out a grid pattern. Lots were offered for sale in 1913. The Company built a little depot and celebrated its opening on New Year's Eve of 1913. Farmers waggoned in with their families from miles around to join the celebration. "There was nothing that excited and gladdened the people of the area more than the coming of the railroad. It was the surest harbinger of a prosperous future. Before the year was out, wheat was moving by rail out of Geraldine, sparing area farmers the long haul to [Fort] Benton." By 1915, the town had 400 residents and, serving a wide agricultural area, a prosperous business district consisting of 85 commercial and professional ventures, doing an annual business of over a million dollars.8
For many of these places, the names are reminders of our history. We can drive through Avery, Idaho9 or Geraldine, Montana, and remember that the Rockefellers controlled this railroad, and left the name of William's grandson, and wife, on the landscape. Another Montana branch ended at Winifred, no doubt named after William Rockefeller’s grand-daughter born in 1904. Other places, such as Amherst, Salem and Ware, in Montana,10 or Malden, Washington11might cause us to suspect that an easterner was an officer of the railroad, and his fondness for his Massachusetts childhood translated into Montana place names. We would be right, of course, and the officer was C.A. Goodnow, who would later supervise the electrification project.
Many names were chance selections, such as Kenora12 or Lavender13 in Washington State. In the haste of construction, the reasoning behind many names was lost: Marengo, Washington was named after Napoleon's battle of Marengo, but no one recalled why.14 Laconia, a station at Snoqualmie Pass before the tunnel was completed, was supposed to have been named after a town in the Swiss Alps. H.R. Williams, formerly a general superintendent of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul, then president of the Chicago, Milwaukee & Puget Sound, named many of the stations, and later attempted to trace some of the names for the Washington Historical Society, but, in searching for the origins of Laconia "was unable to find it on a map of Switzerland."15 Williams himself gave the name of Othello to the Company's station in central Washington. Another researcher concluded correctly that "from the names given to adjoining towns -- Corfu, Smyrna, and Jericho -- its seems probable that the misdemeanor was committed by a student of Shakespeare and the Bible."16 Some were simply lost to history, such as Marcellus, Washington, "named for some person in the East whose other name is forgotten."17
Others, such as Loweth or Haugan, Montana were named after railroad men. For such places as Ravenna, Ozan, Soudan, Primrose and Iris, we can only speculate at the literary, geographical, or botanical allusions.
It is true that the Milwaukee Road's role in developing major urban centers along its transcontinental line was "almost absurdly minor."18 Most of the railroad towns developed by the Milwaukee were failures to some extent; many never developed beyond the plat map held in the Company offices in Chicago, and their existence known only by the names on the old Company timetables. The ones which did develop became in many cases the social and market centers of their agriculture areas, and the rails linked these towns, as well as the farmers and ranchers in between, with the "pulse and rhythm of American life"; to a "metropolitan corridor."19 But, even as these towns developed, the railroads themselves began to make them unnecessary.
Most railroad towns were failures. They did not have secure enough standing to survive the technological changes that began making small towns obsolete after 1920; this was especially true of the great numbers of towns founded in the last wave of American railroad building between 1905 and 1915.20