Long before the first settler ever laid eyes on Whitefish Lake, a handful of native American tribes inhabited the area, most notably the Kootenai, the Pend d’Oreille and the Bitteroot Salish. Archaeologists say the Kootenai have lived in the area for more than 14,000 years, inhabiting the mountainous terrain west of the Continental Divide, and traveling east of the divide for occasional buffalo hunts. The Salish people occupied territory in Washington, Idaho and western Montana, and shared hunting and gathering grounds with the Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille tribes during the 1800s.
In the mid-1850s, a group of trappers working the Flathead Valley’s rivers, lakes and streams for beaver and other pelts came upon a group of Indians pulling a native fish species—Whitefish—from a long, narrow lake... and suddenly, after tens of thousands of years, the lake had a name!
Though trappers, traders and waves of westward immigrants passed through the area during the second half of the century, it wasn’t until 1883 that the first permanent settler—John Morton—built a cabin on the shore of Whitefish Lake, just west of the mouth of the Whitefish River. Morton was joined by the forefathers of the local logging industry—including the Baker and Hutchinson brothers—in the early 1890s. Logging crews “boomed-up” their logs behind a dam built at the river mouth by the Boston & Montana Commercial Company, which, when opened, created a rush of water that helped float the logs down the river to Kalispell.
Crews laying track for the Great Northern Railway entered the Flathead Valley from what is now West Glacier in 1891, and initially followed a route through Columbia Falls and Kalispell, then west through Idaho and Washington to the Pacific Ocean. But the route west of Kalispell included a difficult climb over the Salish Mountains...a steep and tortuous grade winding slowly up one side, then just as painstakingly down the other.
It wasn’t long before the railroad’s survey team was sent back to Montana, charged with finding a new—and easier—route out of the Flathead Valley. And that’s when the two most important decisions in the small settlement’s short history were made: the decision to re-route the Great Northern Railway north to Eureka before heading west to the coast; and another to locate the railroad’s regional headquarters at the south end of Whitefish Lake.
The new Whitefish Townsite was surveyed and dedicated in June of 1903. Land was acquired, the rail yards were constructed, and a town was platted. Timber clearing and construction began in earnest, with most of the materials and supplies being hauled-in on a spur line built from Columbia Falls to the new townsite. The “cut-off” connecting Whitefish and Columbia Falls was completed in August of 1904, and the first passenger train arrived at the Whitefish Depot on October 4, 1904. In April of 1905, the Town of Whitefish was incorporated and held its first official Town Council meeting.
Timber, farming, ranching and the railroad were the backbone of the town’s economy—and culture—for the next 50 years. In time, summer cabins began popping-up along the shores of Whitefish Lake, and the strength of the logging industry began to wane. Modern technology (and equipment) led to a severe downsizing of the railroad’s workforce. The economy was on a downward skid, but changes were on the horizon for Whitefish. A nine-hole golf course and clubhouse were built in the 1950s, and in the early ‘60s another nine holes were added. By the mid-1990s, Whitefish Golf Course had grown to 36 holes—the largest (and best!) in the state.
Meanwhile, a few adventurous Whitefish folks had been bitten by the downhill skiing “bug” in the 1930s and ‘40s, and began hiking to the upper reaches of Hellroaring Mountain so they could ski back down an open slope into the Hellroaring Basin. In 1947, the first lift was built at what became Big Mountain Ski Area, these days known as Whitefish Mountain Resort, the cornerstone of our area’s winter tourist trade.
Whitefish is still a working railroad town. More than 400 workers are directly employed by Burlington Northern/Santa Fe, and hundreds of families rely on the highly-skilled—and high-paying—jobs that BNSF creates. Amtrak passengers arrive twice daily at the historic Whitefish Depot, and dozens of freight trains pass through the BNSF railyards every day, en route from Chicago to Seattle and all points in between. And the farms and ranches that surround our town continue to produce enough beef, pork, fruits and vegetables to feed the Flathead—and then some!
In recent decades, tourism has risen to the top of Whitefish’s economic food chain. The Whitefish area has gained international recognition as a recreational and retirement haven—a special place to get away from the rat race, raise a family, run a business... and make a difference!
The Stumptown Historical Society saved and owns the iconic Great Northern Railway station in downtown Whitefish, and operates small museum there focusing on the history of Whitefish and the surrounding area. Visit them at 500 Depot Street.