The pristine silence of the Pend Oreille River Highway was broken by the soft, rhythmic sounds of paddles entering and pushing the canoes eastward through the valley. The voyagers–fur trappers and traders–ascended the river that Meriwether Lewis would rename Clark’s Fork. As their keen eyes observed their surroundings, they took it all in—the narrow valleys where the bare bedrock kissed the river’s edge; the grassy deposits high above the bedrock; and slide rock reaching toward the shore. All evidence of Glacial Lake Missoula and the wide alluvial deposits dropped by its raging waters when the ice dam broke.
Lake Missoula was about the size of the combination of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. That volume of water rushed at about 50 miles per hour draining the Lake in less than a week. The wider valleys along its course benefitted from the rich soil that it scoured from the valleys through which it raged. It formed rich, arable soil deposits where the river eddied, ultimately forming the rich farmlands of eastern Washington with the remaining soil it deposited.
As their eyes were drawn upward, they faintly saw an Indian trail on the north side of the river—the Trail to the Buffalo—the route the native tribes used to cross the Rocky Mountains to reach their ancestral buffalo hunting grounds. These tribes had been displaced to the west by the warlike Peigan tribe of the Blackfoot Nation as it assumed the territory east of the Rockies.
The river became a lifeline for the native people as they followed the salmon to the confluence of the Two Rivers that we know today as the Flathead and Clark Fork just upriver from Paradise. It was natural for David Thompson, arguably the most well-known and respected of the fur traders and explorers, to establish trading with the Salish people. He built trading houses and posts along many of the rivers he explored including the Saleesh (sic) House near present day Thompson Falls.
While there, he sent his man, James McMillan, with a small group, upriver to the confluence to build a small trading post where the Salish people wintered and dried their salmon for a winter food supply. This small trading post was the site of the first Christmas celebration in the territory now called Montana in 1813. Although the presence of the log buildings is no longer there, the ground still yields artifacts—arrowheads, scrapers, and other evidence of a commercial venture’s presence. A rusted gun of that era, trade beads, and coins have been found in recent years.
In the United States in the mid-1800’s industry and commerce were booming. A network of railroads crisscrossed the eastern United States. Progressive thinkers in Congress began to advocate a transcontinental railroad joining the two coasts. As usual, decisions reflected the politics of the day. In 1833, Congress authorized five surveys between the 32nd and 49th parallels at about 5 degree intervals. The survey teams were organized under the auspices of Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis.
A team commanded by Isaac Stevens, then Governor of Washington Territory, commanded the surveyors of the northernmost route. He led the team surveying westward from St. Paul while George B. McClellan led the team surveying eastward. The two planned to meet near Colville, WA. Lt. John Mullan was a member of the eastern team. He would later build the first wagon road from Ft Benton, MT, where the Mississippi Riverboats ended their journeys upriver, to Walla Walla, WA. The road that bears his name would pass just south of the divide between the Clark Fork and St. Regis Rivers. Travelers turned north along a primitive trail to cross into the fertile Plains Valley via Combest Creek.
Stevens explored the country in depth looking for the best route across the mountains. In 1855, he submitted his route. He recommended that the route avoid the Bitterroot Range and instead turn north to Lake Pend Oreille thence to Spokane and points west.
In 1862, Congress discarded his recommendations and instead chose the route that followed the route of the Oregon Trail, the southernmost route that Jefferson Davis favored from the beginning. The Central Pacific and Union Pacific subsequently met at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869, joining the country east to west.
When Congress approved the land grant for the CP and UP, northern senators tried, but failed, to get authorization for a northern route also. With the death of General Stevens in the Civil War, the northern route had lost its last champion. Proponents would have to wait until Josh Perham arrived on the scene. He made friends with Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, Republican Chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee—the most influential man in Congress.
Perham had advocated selling stock in a northern route to raise funds. In 1864, he requested a charter for the Northern Pacific Railway Company to run from Lake Superior to Puget Sound. The House approved the bill and just over a month later, on July 2, 1864, with the Senate having followed suite, President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill into law. So on December 7, 1864, the NPRR Co. was officially organized with Perham as President and his brother Charles as Secretary. Financial problems plagued the railroad for decades and it underwent a series of officer changes until 1879 when Frederick Billings became President and reorganized the railroad’s finances. The Northern Pacific was finally economically stabilized.
Enter Henry Villard in 1877. Villard was a successful railroad financier whose Oregon Railway and Navigation Company was the most successful in the nation. He was elected President of the Northern Pacific in 1882. Construction pushed toward conclusion and on August 23, 1883, east met west about 55 miles west of Helena near Gold Creek where the ‘Golden Spike’ was driven. The spike, however, was not golden. It was the first spike that had been driven at Thomson’s Junction in Minnesota nearly fourteen years earlier. The spike had been pulled and became the ‘Golden Spike’ to be driven at Gold Creek.
In 1869, John Walker Patrick traveled the Mullan Road, turned north and crossed the divide into the Plains Valley. He built the first ferry across the river at that point providing for travelers and freighters who wanted to reach the Plains Valley by traveling the Mullan Road.
In 1871, James Laughlin and his family settled in Paradise Valley. In 1882, Sutton H. Draper filed on 80 acres west of Paradise. In 1883, the railroad reached Paradise and the first Northern Pacific Station was built there. In 1884 Martin Quinn arrived in the area, discovered the hot springs that bears his name and homesteaded. In 1888, the two Taylor brothers, Joseph and Charles, homesteaded near the railroad bridge. In 1890 Henry Edgar, discoverer of gold at Last Chance Gulch, Helena, arrived and homesteaded on the east side of the Clark Fork River above the confluence. This was known in later years as the VanDerhoff Place.
The Taylor Brothers both had families and they sent their children to school. The only problem was they had to cross the river in winter every day to do that. They sold their places—the winter’s cold was too much for them.
A. Dupont settled on and worked a place known by most today as the Stephens’ Paradise Valley Farm.
Mr. McLeod acquired the area originally homesteaded by the Taylor Brothers. Currently that property is known as the Hermes’ property. Virginia Hermes recalled that in 1904 Mr. McLeod walked to Missoula and brought back nursery stock in his packsack. He started the original orchard. Many of those trees still bear fruit.
W. B. Russell was the ‘sawmill man’ from Eddy. He purchased the Dupont Place near the confluence of the rivers and took 12 million board feet of lumber from that property. At one point, he controlled more than 15,000 acres along the Clark Fork, which he logged.
When the railroad reached Horse Plains, a boxcar was taken off its trucks (wheels) and became a depot until 1887 when a permanent building was built—the first regularly scheduled depot in Missoula County. Horse Plains also had a section house for the accommodation of repairmen and other employees. It also had a telegraph office and a telegrapher. Horse Plains had become the temporary terminus of the Northern Pacific. Chinese workers had provided the majority of the labor building the line in the area.
In 1883, Paradise was reached and a section house was built along with a Chinese house and a car house near a siding. As the crews moved eastward from Paradise Station, Chinese labor was replaced by Mormon crews from Utah who not only had experience in building in mountainous terrain but they also lived a lifestyle that did not involve vices of the other gangs. The Chinese disappeared from the construction crews. Many thought they were lured to the rich mineral strikes in the Coeur d’Alene Mountains while others thought they may simply have returned to their families with the pay they had earned.
John Rhone, Editor of The Plainsman from 1900-1905, relates in his book, Wild Horse Plains, that the NP wanted or needed to build more facilities, but they weren’t able to come to terms with the landowners in Plains, so the Northwestern Improvement Company went upstream about 6 miles and bought all the land they needed. In the fall of 1907, Martin Trosper and Ed Bradbury sold their property to the NP so that they could build the town and terminal. Surveyors employed by the NP Subsidiary moved in immediately, surveyed and built the railroad bridge, a roundhouse, the Cliff House, hotel and homes of 2 styles. The construction crew numbered 70.
Railroads designed and built towns all across Montana and the west. They platted and promoted the towns along their routes. They needed towns—economic centers to keep their railroads working, towns to provide stops to fill the tenders with coal and water to power the steam locomotives across the rails to the next stop for refueling—usually about 10 miles.
The Northern Pacific Subsidiary was the Northwestern Improvement Company, a New Jersey Corporation that developed the land and property of the Northern Pacific. They built towns to house their operations and workers. Every 200 miles they established a division point where crews changed on the trains and where they built a repair shop. Every 100 miles there was a subdivision shop of smaller size. They also purchased the Eastern Montana property that contained vast holdings of Rosebud coal that they mined and used to power the Northern Pacific locomotives.
In April 1908, they platted the town of Paradise, setting aside parcels for two churches—one Protestant and one Catholic–, and they provided property for a school. In doing so Edward Elliott, President of both the Northern Pacific and the Northwestern Improvement Company, named the town of Paradise in his Certificate of Dedication that accompanied the survey plat filed in the recently established county seat of Sanders County. His Dedication said in part, “To be known and designated as “Paradise”, said Paradise being an unincorporated town in Sanders County, Montana, and that the land included in all streets, avenues, and alleys, shown on this plat are hereby granted and dedicated to the use of the public forever. Dated this sixth day of June, 1908.” Thus, Paradise began its existence. The County Recorder filed the Plat a week later.
Farming was flourishing in Paradise Valley. In 1896, A. Dupont had baled 70 ton of timothy hay and shipped it eastward by rail. A. J. Lansing’s steam thresher spent two weeks working in the valley. Mr. Sutton Draper would raise vegetables and flowers for the tables of the North Coast Limited when the Vista dome coaches began rolling as the flagship passenger trains of the Northern Pacific.
Except for the railroad, Paradise was isolated. The river guarded the southwestern boundary of the valley until finally, in 1900, Joe Taylor, his neighbor, Augustin Mercier, with six other strong men stretched the 1,100 ft. cable for the Paradise Ferry, and the people of Paradise could move freely across the river. Joe Taylor volunteered to serve as ferryman during its first years of use.
Two years later, the County Commissioners in faraway Missoula, the county seat, decided to build a road toward St. Regis. Henry Edgar volunteered to supervise the project and the St. Regis citizens volunteered to put a ferry in free of charge to the County. Martin Quinn volunteered to supervise that phase of the project.
Before 1902, the only way to the County seat was to take a train or to take the Trail to the Buffalo, across Camas Prairie, and cross the river with Antoine’s Ferry at Perma and take the county road from there. All of that area was still a part of Missoula County and doing business at the county seat was difficult.
During the week of January 20, 1905, the legislature considered a bill to create the 27th county in Montana from a portion of western Missoula County and to name it “Paradise County.” The bill made Thompson Falls the county seat since it was most centrally located. Montana was not void of political influences during that time, but only one major change was made in the bill—the new county would be named Sanders in honor of Wilber Fisk Sanders, an attorney who prosecuted the vigilantes and who served the State of Montana as one of its first two senators when statehood was granted.
1906 was a building year in many ways. The NP built the ‘low line,’ the river-level railroad line from Paradise to St. Regis that would join the Wallace Branch from the Silver Valley of Idaho that culminated in Missoula via DeSmet.
The Northwestern Improvement Company built houses. Two styles were built, a one-story cottage for the workers and larger two-story houses for the executives. Many of those homes survive today with their floor plans virtually unchanged.
Building continued in 1907 when the crews came in and constructed the NP Tie Treating Plant that ran for the first time in the spring of 1908. The NP had two Tie Plants for the entire line, one in Brainerd, MN. and the other in Paradise. During that first year, the plant treated in excess of 370,000 ties. The plant employed many men. At its peak, the crew numbered 45.
Paradise also became the Division Point where crews changed on the trains. However, another important change took place there too—the time change from Mountain Standard Time to Pacific Standard Time. Many stories are still told about living in a town where the father might work according to one time zone, while the children would go to school according to the other, and mother would live in two time zones so no one would be late.
Paradise had the designation of Milepost 0 in the Idaho Division. The mileage designation was posted where the two main lines merge, east of the Depot. Mileage designations ran from east to west. The Idaho Division crews would replace those of the Rocky Mountain Division going west and vice a versa. During their layovers between runs, many would rent rooms or apartments from local people and pass their time reading or writing letters or frequenting the pool hall that had a card room in the back.
Other building that was done was primarily for the crews, a 45-room hotel, a smaller hotel—the Cliff House—west of town where the engine crews stayed while their locomotives were being serviced in the roundhouse and most popular of all was the Beanery where some of the best food was available. The Beanery ran 24/7 and was the go-to place for late night suppers when all the other establishments were closed.
The first house built by a private citizen in Paradise was a cottage Elizabeth Willis ordered from Sears and Roebuck, a design of Frank Lloyd Wright, and it was delivered by boxcar. Its carefully numbered pieces were joined together on site. The house exists to this day—now owned by Mrs. Betty Steele Meyer, granddaughter of one of the early Paradise Ferry ferrymen.
Just as a great many of the ‘Paradise kids’ did at the outbreak of World War II, Betty distinguished herself by joining the United States Women’s Army Corps. She joined her brothers and others making a total of fourteen from Paradise who served their country. Marjorie Likes made a flag with a blue star on a while field for every one of those serving and it was dedicated with pride in a church service presided over by Rev. B. V. Edworthy who served the Methodist Church from 1942-1957. Paradise was proud of her young people.
Paradise had become an important town for varied reasons and continued to thrive until February 1970. Plans to merge railroads were proposed for 50 years or more, but on July 15, 1960, the Northern Pacific; Burlington; Spokane, Portland, and Seattle; and Great Northern formally announced their plan to merge. At the stroke of midnight leading to March 3, 1970, the ‘day that lives in infamy,’ as it was, and still is, referred to by many NP veterans at 12:01 a.m., all operations became Burlington Northern.
The decades of the 70’s and 80’s saw the end of passenger service, the hotel and beanery were closed, the tie plan burned—never to be replaced. Paradise ceased to be a division point and BN petitioned the EPA to clean up the creosote ditch. In 1987, BN sold the old Northern Pacific line from Jones Junction east of Billings to Spokane, WA. where it rejoins the BN line to Dennis Washington owner of the Washington Companies. He established the regional railroad, Montana Rail Link with its headquarters in Missoula, Montana. MRL has become a line that consistently receives accolades for its operations.
BN’s request to the EPA led to the Tie Plant Site becoming a Superfund site. Land farming was used successfully and the creosote was naturally removed from the surface areas. The underground deposits were pumped out and reused. The plume that still exists still keeps pumps running as additional creosote becomes available for collection and reuse. The site is monitored and will continue to be monitored for 30 years after the closure of the land farm operation. No carcinogens were identified and to date there has been no contamination of either the aquifer or the Clark Fork River.
Through all its history, the town of Paradise has remained resilient. The good people who lived in this beautiful valley were as wonderful as the valley. Paradise continues to exhibit those breathtaking views as the seasons change in ‘Montana’s Banana Belt’ just as in the 1890’s when the valley was first called ‘Paradise’ reflecting the source of Edward Elliot’s choice of an officially declared name in 1908.