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Harmon’s Histories: Remember Tom Murphy and the politics that caused his drowning

As you cross over the Kootenai River bridge at Libby, northbound to Eureka or Canada, you should remember a young man named Tom Murphy and “The Kootenai Prayer: “How Long, O, Lord! How Long?”

The prayer was a banner headline in the Libby Herald newspaper on May 30, 1912 – an editorial fusillade at those who had been trying to delay construction of the bridge at Libby.

Tom Murphy, a 34-year-old man, had just become the latest to drown in the Kootenai.

The Libby Herald,  May 30, 1912

He was part of a crew trying to attach a rope to a partially submerged ferry. The ferryboat had become entangled in its “anchoring tree” after the tree toppled into the river a few days earlier.

“Shall Tom Murphy’s death go unheeded? or shall it be a warning that may save the lives of others?” asked the paper.

“That the brave, honest Irish lad came to an untimely death is lamentable, but if it will serve to touch the hearts of those who would prevent the completion of the bridge across the Kootenai, it will not have been in vain.”

“How long, oh how long, must we submit to the dangers of the majestic Kootenai, to satisfy the personal animosities of a few citizens of Lincoln County?

The Libby Herald,  May 30, 1912

The paper laid the death of Tom Murphy directly at the feet of two “narrow-minded men” by the names of Weil and Reid, from the northern part of the county, whose “petty bickerings and jealousies” (in the form of a lawsuit) had delayed road and bridge work in the county.

“If this wicked litigation had not been started, the bridge here would have been completed before high water came and Murphy’s life (would have) been spared.”

It blasted the two “malcontents of Eureka” for standing in the way of progress with their “dog in the manger attitude” and their “harassing and useless litigation.”

Of course, it’s important to remember that there had been bad blood between the residents of Eureka and Libby for a long time.

Years earlier, the two towns had convinced the state legislature to let them break away from Flathead County and create their own county. Ever since, they’d been at each other’s throats, mostly because Libby was designated the county seat, and Eureka was not happy about it.

Returning to the bridge issue, the Libby paper called the proposed span at Libby “an absolute necessity to protect life, as well as to serve business.”

The Libby Herald,  June 06, 1912

For the Libby Commercial Club, it would be the culmination of a year-long effort to develop roads and bridges connecting all the communities of the county from Trego and Fortine to the Tobacco Plains and the Yaak.

It was “not an idle dream,” said the Commercial Club, in an interview with the Libby Herald. Such roads were practical. “The settlers and farmers and merchants in the several towns would get the benefits.”

“Hundreds of people would then pass through our county where scarcely dozens go now.” Lincoln County, they predicted, would become the “Scenic Attraction of America.”

Tourists “would stop by the wayside and buy a basin here, build a shop or home there, and return after going further to settle among a people so far-sighted and business-like as to build good roads and good bridges.”

Estimates were about $20,00 each for bridges at Libby and Troy. A Rexford bridge would cost $33,000.

The Commercial Club’s “good roads initiative” finally resulted in a 1911 bond election for funding of roads and bridges to link the towns in the county, as well as provide a link to other counties. The county’s voters approved the $125,000 needed by a two-to-one margin.

Despite that margin, Trego, Fortine and Eureka overwhelmingly voted against the proposal. Eureka’s tally was 156 “against” to 6 “for.”

The Libby Herald newspaper believed the north county communities had been misled. “There are always in every community those who, either for personal reasons or from selfish motives, are opposed to any advancement.”

“But now that the election is over, let all join in the movement that will open our county to all newcomers and will develop our natural resources more than any one method.”

The bridge bids were opened in December 1911, with the Coast Bridge Company of Portland, Oregon, winning the contract to build the three spans across the Kootenai for a total of $82,100.

But even then, there was controversy.

The Spokesman Review newspaper reported, “Sheriff W. B. Brockman at Portland has arrested W. B. Whitlock and C. W. Raynor, president and structural engineer, respectively, of the Coast Bridge Company of Portland, on Lincoln County indictments alleging attempts to bribe county commissioners.”

The Libby Herald, June 6, 1913

That’s right. The Coast Bridge men apparently offered each commissioner two hundred bucks under the table. The three commissioners immediately alerted law enforcement, and Whitlock and Raynor were arrested. Their bonds were set at $3,000.

Despite all of this, the Libby span was successfully completed in 1912, along with the Rexford and Troy crossings, although the Rexford span was washed out a year later.

Just a thought – but looking back at all of this, perhaps Libby officials might consider attaching a name to the Kootenai crossing. Something like “The Tom Murphy Memorial Bridge.”

That has a nice sound to it.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.