Flooding was a fact of life in early Miles City

History Columnist

When you build a town at the confluence of two rivers, you should anticipate flooding. Our founding fathers and mothers sort of did, but they didn’t worry about it all that much. Until the spring of 1881

There was LOTS of snow that year, more than expected. The ice jams started building up on the rivers and the locals started wondering just HOW deep the water could get. It flooded every year but there had only been folks observing the floods at the mouth of the Tongue for three years so no one knew what the worst could be.

Someone apparently looked up at the some of scars ‘way up in the cottonwood trees. They didn’t know the scars are caused by a fungus and wondered, could those have been marks left by ice?

As Sam Gordon, longtime editor of Miles City’s first newspaper, The Yellowstone Journal, wrote in his memoirs,  “Recollections of Old Milestown:”

“The scarred condition of the bark on the old cottonwood trees in the park was reported to be the result of erosion by cakes of floating ice and there were even those who held that the gnarled branches of these trees, 30 or 40 feet up, were further evidences of what Tongue River ice could do “on a bet.”

Icebergs 40 feet above the ground sounded very, very scary,

The town fathers knew what to do. In order to save their wives and children and other females and less sturdy folks from the threat of a 40 foot wall of water, they would move all the women and children to high ground.

A camp was set up on Carbon Hill. Today Carbon Hill is smack in the middle of Haynes Avenue and doesn’t exactly seem far out of town but in 1881, the town only extended from Riverside Park to about Seventh Street. 

Plus the transportation was a bit slower in those days, as anyone who has taken a ride in one of the Stevenson and Sons wagons from Haynes Avenue to downtown can testify. It was even slower when roads were rutted dirt and wheels were iron-wrapped wood.

Still, the men evacuated the women — although, from what happened later, I often wonder if a few of the ‘ladies’ stayed behind — to Carbon Hill. They had to abandon their cozy log cabins for canvas tents and give up a hearth or even an iron cookstove for campfires. 

Also from “Recollections” comes the description: “Because of the dire anticipations based upon the evidence of the old cottonwoods, about 200 people, mostly women and children, vacated their homes in favor of tents pitched upon the inhospitable sides of Carbon Hill, where they lived a cheerless life for about a week while the town fairly rioted in the new sensations.”

The men stayed watched, prepared to rescue valuables or flee in a hurry should a huge wall of water and ice come flowing up the Tongue River Valley.

As anyone who has lived in Miles City for a few decades knows, the water that came up the Tongue wasn’t 40 feet deep. More like 40 inches deep. At most.

Still, one never knew when the flood waters would rise so the families remained safe on Carbon Hill. 

Loren Hoopes, M.D., in his book “This Last West,” which is an index of Miles City history no local historian should be without, has this entry for floods: 

“Each spring, Tongue River and Yellowstone River rampage, overflow banks, puts Miles City under three feet of water; not all bad, since boys turn out to rescue each other, don boots, man boats, etc.; general critique at each saloon, helps settle jangled nerves from overwork and exposure.

L.A. Huffman took several famous photos of the “Great Flood of 1881.” Which should have been titled the kind-of-not-so-great-but-merely-annoying-flood of 1881.

The photos, which also appears in Hoopes’ book, show crowds of men braving the flooded streets. Based on the photos, the waters appears to be somewhat less than two feet deep. In one picture, a crowd of men are gathered on a boat in the middle of Main Street, with several stout fellows manning the oars.

Off to the right is a man on horseback. The horse’s knees aren’t wet. There is a crowd on the board sidewalks on the left side of the picture and those boardwalks were mostly less than two feet off the ground.

Still, the street IS a sheet of water. No doubt very cold water. And no doubt that after the pictures were taken, everyone adjourned to their favorite “resort,” as saloons were referred to, to settle their nerves.

Sam Gordon described it like this:

“Unprepared as we were by experience for the first flood, 24 hours had not elapsed before we had as numerous a navy as the conditions demanded, including one big flat-boat that would carry 100 passengers, which made frequent trips up and down Main Street under the pretense of rescuing some marooned castaway, but as these were always found in the vicinity of a House of Cheer, the presumption was admissable that rescue-work was not the main reason for leaving a safe harbor and braving the terrors of the deep.”

Eventually, the stranded wives and children demanded to be brought back home. The husbands were probably happy to have their helpmates at their sides again and never again was the city evacuated to Carbon Hill.

Again, Sam Gordon in “Recollections:” 

“The first flood was a water-carnival pure and simple, and few there were who did not join in the unusual festivities. This custom was followed in all succeeding floods and the first indication of an overflow was the signal for all good men and true to don their old clothes and their hip boots and to sally forth to the rescue of the distressed.”

Gordon noted in his memoir, published in 1918, that there had never been a loss of life in a flood at Miles City. A century later, that still holds true. Except for a few animals, no one has ever drowned in a Miles City flood and while the damage has been extensive and really, really, annoying, there has never been a major property loss either.

Just lots of flooded basements and low-lying houses and adjournment to a “House of Cheer” to recover.

(Amorette Allison is a local history columnist.)