Harmon’s Histories: Snowbirds have long departed wintry Montana for warmer climes
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
It’s a birdwatcher’s paradise this time of year.
The annual southern migration of the “Northern Snowbird” is underway to destinations like Palm Springs, California; Destin, Florida; Phoenix, Arizona; and numerous locations in Mexico, Costa Rica and Hawaii.
And it’s not just retirees heading south. These days, the southbound flocks include much younger birds still in their peak earning years, but who can conduct business anywhere offering high-speed internet.
Back in the 1800s, the “Northern Snowbirds” were flightless, but they were very adept at boarding trains, and the railroads were quick to offer bargain trips.
The Northern Pacific Railroad advertised “low roundtrip rates to Pacific Coast points,” adding “These California tickets are good until April 1894, and are good for stop-over under certain conditions.”
The San Francisco trip cost $80.50 and the Los Angeles discounted fare was $90.
There was an added incentive to consider the San Francisco option. 1894 was the year of the “midwinter fair ... second only to the world’s fair just closed.”
The Union Pacific and the Southern Pacific railroads joined in as well. “Time was,” they said, “when the glorious climate of California did not attract tourists. But year after year, the tide of travel sets in stronger every fall and winter toward this favored region.”
“There is no climate like it on this continent for a winter resort, and the usual fine service on the Union Pacific system and the Southern Pacific Railway has this season been brought to a degree of perfection which leaves nothing to be desired.”
In the winter of 1894, Missoula Judge Frank Woody boarded a train to Helena with connections to San Francisco. From there, he used steamers to continue heading south “to Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego.”
Judge Hiram Knowles had too many obligations to head south, but his wife and four children were able to get away and “bask in the sunshine of southern California.”
“Mrs. Miles Mix (wife of a Missoula hotelier) and her son Wallace” departed to California in January 1892. She planned to spend the winter there, while her husband headed to Ohio to be with his aging father.
In Butte, well-known “Upper Main street grocer” A.F. Bray and his wife departed for the warm climes of California, too.
W.W. Johnson of Billings was the P.T. Barnum of travel agents, promoting sunshine to the “more fortunately situated mortals.”
“It’s not necessary for us, like the English, to go where a foreign tongue is spoken when we wish to escape winter. Our own South holds hundreds of delightful resorts, where flowers bloom and birds warble while the sources of the Mississippi and Hudson are sealed with ice.”
“Most of these charming places,” he added, “are easily reached by railroads.”
For those left behind, there was still plenty of entertainment like “dances, card and dinner parties, skating, and sleighing.”
The Missoula Weekly Gazette reported the “ice at the rink has been in beautiful condition, and the sport has been indulged in as much as previous engagements would permit.”
1892’s Missoula “leap year party” was attended by about 40 men and 40 women, and was declared “probably the most notable social event in the history of the city.”
Still, the sunshine and warmth of the South had, and still has, its appeal. After the deep freeze of the past week or two, I’ll admit: I’m ready!
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.