Saturday, October 30, 2010

10. Carbon County

While I don't have the details to back it up, I'd argue that Carbon County is the highest in Montana--speaking strictly of elevation. Created in 1895 from parts of Yellowstone (3) and Park (49) Counties, Carbon County is on the Montana/Wyoming state line where the Beartooth Mountains rise to the highest point in Montana, Granite Peak at 12807 feet. The peak itself is actually just outside Carbon County, in neighboring Park County, but the mountain range runs along the entire southern edge of the county. U.S. Highway 212 connects Carbon County's county seat, Red Lodge, with Cooke City in Park County just outside the North East entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Along the way the highway crosses Beartooth Pass at 10,947 feet and briefly enters Wyoming before crossing back into Montana. I have seen it snow every month of the year in Montana, but my July snowfalls were on Beartooth Pass. The highway is known locally as the Beartooth Highway, the Red Lodge-Cooke City Highway, and the Top of the World. I have slides my father took on the fourth of July where the snow at the pass was several feet deep. The late CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt named US Highway 212 as "the prettiest road in America," and while I would assert that there are many gorgeous drives across Montana, it is certainly true that the Beartooth Highway offers many extraodinary mountain views. I would add that the west-bound traveler had better not be acrophobic as the mountain drops steeply at the edge of the road.

Red Lodge, the Carbon County seat, sits at an elevation of 5,568 feet, second only to Madison County's (25) seat, Virginia City which sits at 5,761 feet. Red Lodge is home to Red Lodge Mountain, a four-season resort catering to skiers and golfers alike. It is also home of the annual Festival of Nations where this city of immigrants honors their ethnic heritage each August. Many's the time I've driven to Red Lodge to don my kilt and ghillies and dance for Scottish Day at the Festival. An excellent history of Red Lodge can be found on the Festival of Nations website.

The Carbon County Courthouse
Justitiae Dedicata

The courthouse was built in 1899, four years after the formation of the county, and in my opinion is still one of the prettiest courthouses in Montana. Of course as a student of language and literature, I'm swayed by the Latin motto "Justitiae Dedicata" (dedicated to justice) on the building's fa├žade. Just down the street is the former Carbon County Hospital and Sanitorium, now used as additional county office space. The Montana Historical Society plaque on display by the building states:

When prominent local physician and surgeon Dr. Samuel Souders built this magnificent hospital in 1909, it was considered "state-of-the-art." Amenities included a central heating system, wide doorways and hallways, an elevator, and private telephones in patients' rooms. The operating room featured white enameled walls and a white marble tile floor, then considered the best surfaces for sterilization. The Craftsman sytle facility follows a domestic floorplan common in period hospital construction and could accommodate thirty to fifty patients. Although a large classical style front porch, balcony and covered ambulance entrance were removed in the 1940s, the splendid building endures as a significant element of the district.

The Former Carbon County Hospital

Carbon County covers 2,062 square miles and the 2000 US Census counted 9,552 residents. By 2009, the estimated county population was 9,756 folk, for a gain of 2.1% over the 2000 figures. Red Lodge itself had 2,177 residents in 2000. Other named places in the county include the towns of Bearcreek, Bridger, Fromberg and Joliet, and the communities of Belfry, Boyd, Edgar, Fox, Luther, Roberts, Rockvale, Roscoe, Silesia, Warren, and Washoe, thus answering the question posed on bumper stickers seen around Montana, "Where the Hell is Roscoe?" The county extends from the Wyoming state line in the south to the Yellowstone River in the north, and borders the Crow Indian Reservation (and Big Horn County, number 22) on the east. As is so often the case in U.S. History, the Crow nation was originally "given" land that extended west as far as Red Lodge, but when coal and later gold were discovered in the area, the Crow were forced to cede their land now in Carbon County to the white settlers.

The Roberts United Methodist Church

It was coal that gave Carbon County its name, and coal that brought most of the European settlers to the area. The 1920 U.S. Census showed 15,279 county residents, more than double the 1900 figures. This is what gave Carbon County the clout to be listed as number 10 on Montana license plates. Most of the coal fields lay between Red Lodge and Bearcreek, less than seven miles by highway west of Red Lodge. On February 27, 1943, there was an explosion at the Smith Mine #3, the largest of the mines still in operation at that time. Of 77 miners working, only three escaped alive and one rescue worker was killed. This is the worst mining disaster to date in Montana history, and the mine never reopened. Today Carbon County is primarily a tourist destination, known best for its outdoor activities. Because of the proximity of northern Carbon County to Montana's largest city, Billings, it also serves as a bedroom community for people commuting into Billings for work. Some of my earliest "outdoor" memories are firmly set in the mountains and lakes of Carbon County where family friends had a cabin. I highly recommend visiting.

The Beartooth Mountains, Montana's highest

You can learn more about Carbon County by visiting its web site and the City of Red Lodge has several sites, including and, both of which cater to the tourist and business traveler, and many other sites that give lodging information, Chamber of Commerce information, weather, and even a webcam.

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