By Jim Harmon

As much as I’m drawn to Montana history, I would not have wanted to live in an 1860s mining camp, or anywhere else, back then. I mean, consider what life was like in Montana in the 1860s and 1870s.

First of all, there was the weather. Montana winters are notoriously rough even in modern times with our houses insulated from roof to basement. Back in the 19th century, houses were of wood construction with little insulation and a wood or coal stove as the heating source.

In late January 1875, a local quill driver put it this way: “The oldest aborigine in the country has never seen such weather, and was fearful that some disturbing force had run a new axle-tree through the earth and left us where the North Pole ought to be.”

Bad wind and snow 11-25-74
Bad wind and snow 11-25-1874

“On the 15th of the month, the mercury of the thermometer attempted to crawl into its hole and draw the hole in with it, but only succeeded in getting to 38 degrees below zero.”

However, “it is a consoling thought that this spell of weather cannot continue longer than July or August at furthest. The water works froze up, and the people had to go to the river for water or fall back on whiskey for a beverage.”

Even in the summer months, the weather caused problems – heavy rains in September 1875 collapsed the wood-and-sod roof of the Lent & Osborne stables injuring Mr. Osborne and killing a number of horses.

Roof of two buildings collapse near Montanian office 7-23-1874
Roof of two buildings collapse near Montanian office 7-23-1874

And there were the hazards of streams and rivers. Bridges were a rarity – so, fording some moving water was routine, but dangerous. David Pattee “in attempting to ford the Bitter Root river ... lost his team and wagon ... and came near losing his life.”

Of course, most people didn’t hear about the incident until a week later because – that’s right, there was no Internet – and newspapers, generally, came out but weekly!

On top of that, communication (business and personal) was accomplished by mail – and that was a problem.

Mail bags and eastern newspapers arrived inconsistently and when they did, it might be “from one to three o’clock in the morning,” and the wagon and horses would “immediately turn around for their return trip,” eastward, so there was no chance to reply to an inquiry quickly.

Weekly Missoulian 7-22-1875
Weekly Missoulian 7-22-1875

Don’t even let me start on the deficiencies of medical and dental care.

Perhaps the most influential news report of the day, which thoroughly solidified my feelings that the 1870s were not for me, was the following reminder of the obvious: There were no women to be found in 1874: “Draw poker and whiskey straight are again the favorite recreations of the natives.”

Unfortunately, most of the mine workers lacked the funds to pursue that lifestyle. So during their “winter of discontent,” the majority of the manly mining men “were obliged to fall back upon the cultivation of the fine arts.” And their favorite distraction was dancing.

Men dancing with men 4-16-1874
Men dancing with men 4-16-1874

The local butcher shop provided enough space for a “commodious ball room.” The “lady” wore a “handkerchief tied around his left arm to distinguish her from his partner who was supposed to be of the opposite persuasion.”

An observer “would have been ready to stab himself with a brickbat through envy, if he could have witnessed the grace with which one of our beaux would request of Miss Jack-the-Blacksmith the pleasure of a waltz.”

The writer of the article, identified only as “Scribe, Forest City, April 12, 1874,” admonished readers “not to suspect me of participation in such amusement.”

“As an orthodox church member, I have always been convinced of the immoral tendencies of dancing - a conviction that has been more than confirmed by the experiences of the past winter."

“To see rheumatic old bucks clasped in each other’s close embrace, and threading together the intricate mazes of the plum-gum, is a sight well calculated to disturb even canine equanimity, not to say anything of the effect upon the morals of the rising generation around us.”

The writer concluded, “But the subject is too exciting to be further dwelt upon; so, I will close.”

And so shall I – more convinced than ever that I would not have wanted to live in an 1860s or 1870s mining camp, or anywhere else, back then.

No, I am a man of modern times; a man of modern technology; a man of … what’s that dear? You’d like your toes rubbed? Why yes dear, I’d be delighted, darling.

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