Polson, Montana

One has to wonder, cresting the hill above present-day Polson, Montana, what explorer David Thompson might have thought when he topped that same rise in 1812. Having engaged a guide from a nearby Salish tribe, Thompson rode north and “alighted on the top of a bare Knowl, commanding a very extensive View of the Lake & Country far around.”

Rising in a surprisingly steep and breathtaking cline, the bastions of the Mission Mountain Range capture the deep emerald-green waters of Flathead Lake, stretching off in the distance. At 28 miles long and up to 15 miles wide, with more than 300 feet of depth, the Flathead basin is the nation’s largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.

Fed from wild headwaters deep in British Columbia and high in the Montana Rockies, the Flathead River winds through the Crown of the Continent before pooling against the southern terminus of the Rocky Mountain Trench. That’s the hill where Thompson stood, a vast earthen dam created by the flotsam and jetsam of glacial recession, a Pleistocene remnant that caught and held Flathead Lake.

“A fine sheet of water,” Thompson commented, “…the haunt in all seasons of aquatic fowl.” However, his Indian companion noted different qualities -- mainly the gap to the north, a route to buffalo, abandoned due to Blackfeet presence.

Thus, the first description of Flathead Lake was set down on paper, even though the story of this place was told long ago, and well before Thompson, by nations of aboriginals -- ancestors to today’s confederated tribes of Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai peoples.

In the oral tradition, Salish-speaking tribes describe the southern shores of the lake as “tipi poles above the water,” a reflection upon gatherings that once took place here. When Europeans arrived, a new name was cast –perhaps, as some elders tell it, derived from sign language that described hairstyles -- resulting in today’s geographical moniker of the Flathead Indian Reservation.

With spectacular views, Flathead Lake drew the eye of many settlers, including “Honest John” Dooley who built a boat landing and store on the north end of the lake in 1880. A few years later the first of many steamboats, The U.S. Grant, began trolling the lake, hauling freight and passengers arriving from the Northern Pacific Railroad terminal in Ravalli.

Charles Allard Sr. must have spotted a good business opportunity, for in 1883 he began a stage service from Ravalli fondly known as “the galloping goose.” On the north end of the lake, the Great Northern Railway spiked a new connection in 1885, bringing more settlers into the area.

Many never left. You can’t blame them.

Into the early 1900s, Polson was known as “Pied de Lai,” French for “foot of the lake,” where a ferry was operated by Baptiste Eneas. The construction of Montana’s longest wagon bridge was begun in those years, funded by “popular subscription.”

In 1910, the Reservation was opened to homesteading and, boasting a population of about 900, the town site of Polson was incorporated and named for pioneering rancher David Polson. About a hundred houses were built (at a total cost of $50,000), complete with city water works and electricity.

Manufacturing, at that time, consisted of a saw-mill, cabinet works, brick works, cement blocks and a pop factory, but the shores were also settled by farmers and fruit growers. According to one source: “Its best asset however, is its location for manufacturing purposes…There is a large water power on the Flathead River in the vicinity, having a total fall of about 200 ft., at low water and a flow of 2,500 second feet which would furnish sufficient water power for large factories.”

Thus the headwaters pulsing through the Crown of the Continent from both sides of the border were captured by Polson residents in 1938, when Kerr dam was erected five miles south of the Flathead Lake outlet. Standing 541 feet long and 205 feet high, this installation raised the level of the lake by 10 feet, while generating a capacity of 196 megawatts.

Today, Polson has a population of just under 5,000, and holds all the charms of small-town America. From the local Farmers Market to the Flathead Cherry Festival, from powwow to rodeo, from Mack Days to the Lake County Fair, there’s plenty to do in this vibrant resort town. Recreational activities abound in the many state parks, which provide plenty of fishing access, as well as swimming and paddling experiences.

Local history can be found at the Polson-Flathead Historical Museum, which contains the original Allard Stagecoach, as well as Calamity Jane’s saddle. Displays of Polson’s past include a pictorial history of the Kerr Dam construction. Not to be outdone, the Miracle of America Museum features President Teddy Roosevelt's saddle, along with 150,000 other items. The Miracle of America Museum offers Live History Day, an event that invites participation in the past.

Some might prefer to ponder the mystery of Ice Age glacial recession and its dramatically visible marks on the Mission Mountains; or, perhaps instead, to wander among spring’s annual offering of cherry blossoms along scenic shores, viewing “the haunt in all seasons of aquatic fowl,” just as Thompson saw it.

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Location

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Latitude: 47.6938189 Longitude: -114.1616821 Elevation: 2931 ft
the best travel advice comes from the people who live here
Cate Turner-Jamison

Community Highlights

POLSON FARMERS MARKET (every Friday) Produce, flowers, bedding plants, leather goods, wood crafts, baked goods, jewelry, photography, soap, BBQ and other various foods and much, much, more..... Friday's from 9am - 1pm Masonic Temple parking lot at 1102 4th Ave E, Polson. Contact (406) 883-5017 for more information.

FLATHEAD CHERRY FESTIVAL  (May) From 10am-4pm Directions: Mile marker #18 Hwy 35 East shore Flathead Lake Yellow Bay Community Clubs Annual Fundraising Event featuring Quality Arts and Crafts Venders, Exclusive Bake Sale, Luncheon, Entertainment, Lots of Raffles including a beautiful Queen Size Flannel Quilt as well as a Cherry Motif Runner. Take a drive to see the beautiful cherry blossoms and join us for the festivities. Some space left for more venders. Sponsored by the East Shore Flathead Lake Yellow Bay Community Clubs. Contact (406) 982-3839 for more information

MISSION MOUNTAIN PRCA RODEO (June) Polson Mission Mountain PRCA Rodeo at the Polson Fairgrounds- starts at 8 pm on both days. This event is a two night action packed PRCA Rodeo in a beautiful setting at the Polson Fairgrounds arena. The Fairgrounds are located across the bridge on Hwy 93 north and bordered by the Flathead River with spectacular views of the Mission Mountains and Flathead Lake. Contact  (406) 883-1100 for more information.

HISTORICAL TRADITIONS OF ARTS AND CRAFTS Polson Flathead Historical Museum focuses on various historical traditions of arts and crafts. People who create quilts, woven fabrics, beaded jewelry, Native American objects, art, photography will give hourly presentations. Contact (406) 883-3049 for more information.

STANDING ARROW POW-WOW (July) Standing Arrow Powwow at Elmo Powwow Grounds. Grand Entry at 1PM and 7PM. Contact Gina Big Beaver at (406) 849-6800 or 849-5659 for more information.

LIVE HISTORY DAYS (July) Live History days at Miracle of America Museum. These two fun-filled days feature demonstrations by lace makers, spinners, wheat weavers, quilters, weavers, artists, blacksmiths, bead workers and others who often allow visitors to try their hand at the crafts. Teachers in the 1912 one-room schoolhouse have stories and activities both days for children young and old. Rides are given on many ol’ time vehicles including autos, tractors, train and military vehicles including “the tank.” Numerous old engines and tractors operate equipment including a feed grinder, rock crusher, shingle mill, can crusher, cement mixer and more. Saturday afternoon there is music from the Old Time Fiddlers and another group will play on Sunday. Plenty of food is always available. Kids can don helmets and have their picture taken in a jet or in the tank or in many of the “Kid Friendly” locations around the museum. The museum is open year round, seven days a week. Contact Miracle of America Museum at (406) 883- 6804 or (406) 883-6264 for more information.

LAKE COUNTY FAIR  (July-August) Fair, Friends & Family, a 70 year Tradition. Plan now for your Open Class fair entries!! No cost to enter. Entry Forms due July 15th. Pick up a 2008 Fair Book and/or return entry forms to: Lake County Fair Office, 300 3rd Ave NW, Ronan, MT. Contact (406) 676-8660 for more information.

 

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