Lincoln, Montana—Base Camp to the Crown of the Continent
A limited human presence, single main street, towering ponderosa pine trees reaching up toward snow covered peaks, a lumber jack atmosphere, and a ranger station is what someone from the east might envision when asked to describe a Montana town. This is Lincoln in reality!
Steeped in History
The Nez Perce called the Blackfoot River Cokahalishkit, which means “river of the road to the buffalo.” For thousands of years in the spring and fall, many Native American tribes camped and traveled through the Blackfoot Valley. Before crossing the Continental Divide to the prairie, time here was spent in preparation for hunting the all-important beasts and for possible skirmishes with the dreaded Blackfeet.
On their return trip from the Pacific Coast in 1806, at their camp called Travelers’ Rest at Lolo, Montana, the captains formed two parties. While Clark and his men followed part of their original route to the Yellowstone River, Lewis and his crew took the advice of the Nez Pierce and headed north and then east to explore a short-cut to the great falls of the Missouri.
Using a well-worn trail along the Blackfoot River, Lewis noted geographic landmarks, such as “praries of the knobs,” and sites of Native camps. Northeast of Lincoln, on July 7, 1806, they trekked up the Alice Creek drainage. In his journals, he described “much appearance of beaver many dams” and noted that the “bottoms not wide and covered with low willow and grass… deer are remarkably plenty and in good order.” Walking“through a handsome narrow plain” they came to “the dividing ridge between the waters of the Columbia and Missouri rivers.” Looking northeast, Lewis immediately recognized “Fort Mountain” (Square Butte), which he estimated to be only “distant about 20 Miles.”
Today, the Alice Creek Historical District is preserved to give folks a sense of what Lewis experienced. A short 1.5-mile hike follows the explorer’s footsteps to Lewis and Clark Pass (Not sure why Clark gets named as he was busy searching for lost/stolen horses in the Big Hole Valley 239.7 miles away as the crow flies).
Like many Montana towns, it was gold that brought the first white settlers. In 1865, David Culp and Thomas Patterson staked a claim in what they designated Abe Lincoln Gulch in honor of the recently assassinate president. Word broke out, gold-seekers descended upon the area, and a small community soon formed at the mouth of the gulch with the abbreviated name—Lincoln. After numerous starts and stops, a continuously operating post office was finally established in 1887.
At first, the pick, shovel, and water method of placer mining was easy pickings. But, once it played out, large-scale hard rock lode mining and the big stamp mills needed to extract the gold from the quartzite moved in.
Logging companies and sawmills proliferated in order to meet the demand for building materials. Mines in Butte had in insatiable appetite for wood to shore up their countless miles of underground shafts and tunnels. Logs, covering the Blackfoot River from bank to bank, were floated to the Anaconda Company mill in Bonner. By 1960, logging was the main economic driver.
The success story of mining entrepreneur Owen Byrnes embodies the assorted growing pains of the valley. By purchasing neighboring claims and railroad grant lands, in 1927, Byrnes had turned his 1908 160-acre homestead claim into the historic 2,050-acre-Silver King Ranch. Originating as a mine, the land grew and so did its uses…logging created meadows, hay fields fed cattle, barns were erected for breeding Clydesdales, and outfitting brought in hunters.
Leonard Lambkin is a name of prominence in Lincoln. In 1919, with an eye to actively promoting tourism and outdoor recreation, he bought a large section of land and a log building serving as the Lincoln Hotel. In 1929 after completing cabins, he tore down the old structure and built a new two story 23 room establishment. He and his wife Mary believed in a bright future for Lincoln and promoted it as “Camp Lincoln in the Rockies.” The couple was instrumental in many aspects of this growing community and are credited with being leaders in expanding Hwy 200 across Rogers Pass to connect Missoula and Great Falls.
Nestled in the curve of the Continental Divide, encircled by the fabled Crown of the Continent Ecosystem, and neighboring the Blackfoot River, Lincoln wins the real estate trifecta of location, location, location.
The Crown of the Continent is part of two nations, two Canadian provinces, and two Native American reservations; it encompasses two national parks… and one international peace park, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. Politically, environmentally, and scientifically important in today’s world, the Crown is a healthy, intact, biologically diverse ecosystem with uninterrupted connectivity for wildlife.
In 2019, a University of Montana survey determined that the southern perimeter of the Crown should include 496,164 acres of the wildlands south of the Blackfoot drainage. As a result, bordered on all sides by the world-renowned wildlife corridor, Lincoln became… the Base Camp to the Crown of the Continent.
More than 500 hardy souls thru-hike the 3,028-mile Continental Divide Trail (CDT), which forms a semicircle around Lincoln. Since most folks traverse from south to north, the town serves as the last taste of civilization before they enter the vast Bob Marshall Country. An official Continental Divide Trail Gateway Community, the first in Montana, it welcomes trail-weary travelers with an opportunity to rest, resupply, visit the post office, eat a warm meal, and check the weather for the days ahead.
With legendary wildlands in all directions, modern-day Lincoln is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. Three mountain passes are not far from town: Stemple (6,384 feet), Flesher (6,131 feet), and Rogers (5,610 feet.) Recreational pursuits include snowmobiling, fishing, riding ATVs, mountain biking, hiking, and remote backcountry excursions.
But Lincoln wasn’t always an epicenter of protected wilderness and outdoor recreation. Tension between extractive industries and conservation efforts has undergirded much of this idyllic town’s history.
As the acreage of protected wild spaces increased, so did division between people with very different ideas for the future of Lincoln.
Reminiscent of an old west storefront, a painted sign above the wooden porch reads “The Garland Girls.” Here, on the main street, Teresa runs the gift and flower shop and her sister Becky owns the real estate company that brings new life to the community.
In their own ways, both women are actively committed to maintaining and enhancing their hometown’s unique charm.
They come by it naturally…the Garland surname runs deep in Lincoln.
Their father, Cecil Garland, spearheaded an effort to establish the nation’s first citizen-initiated wilderness area, which was approved by Congress in 1972. As a young boy growing up in North Carolina, he saw nearly all of the virgin timber in the Smoky Mountains logged. Opening a general store in Lincoln, he feared the same fate would befall the pristine backcountry lying just north of town.
Cecil made a point of befriending Montana state legislators like Lee Metcalf and Mike Mansfield and lobbied on behalf of protecting the wild lands near his home. In the legislation brought before Congress, Garland’s experience hearing elk calls ring across what is now the Scapegoat Wilderness Area was described in detail:
“All through the frosty fall air the calls echoed back and forth and I knew that I had found wilderness. I would not sleep that night, for I was trying to convince myself that this was really so; that there really was wild country like this left and that somehow, I had found it.
But all was not at peace in my heart for I knew that someday, for some unknown reason, man would try to destroy this country as man had altered and destroyed before.”
While Garland’s efforts to protect the Lincoln backcountry came to fruition, the establishment of the Scapegoat Wilderness Area also sowed division in the community. Many of the town folk at the time were employed in the timber industry. They saw Garland’s conservation efforts as a direct attack on their livelihood, and a barrier to putting food on their tables. The response of the loggers: a boycott of Garland’s Town and Country Store.
The conservation community showed up in force, bussing into Lincoln from Missoula, Helena, and even out of state to patronize the store.
Cecil Garland’s legacy remains in the ongoing conservation efforts of today’s townspeople. The Lincoln Prosperity Proposal (LPP) is a successful five-year collaborative effort that would benefit recreation, wilderness, and forest management for 200,000 acres of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest lands that frame the town. Input and decisions came from the US Forest Service, volunteer fire departments, loggers, fishermen, mountain bikers, snowmobilers, outfitters, hikers, ATV advocates, conservation organizations, hunters, and more. At this time LPP is pushing for legislation to cement the agreements.
“It started as people getting together to talk about Lincoln’s public lands, but now it’s turned into so much more,” said Karyn Good, Community Coordinator for the Wilderness Society and the main organizer of the Proposal.
“We’re trying hard to be a more welcoming community,” Good said, “to put Lincoln on the map as a place that’s friendly to hikers, bicyclists, and more.”
Recreation, Art, and Activities
To entice the public to stay for more than an hour or a day, in addition to the Proposal, Envision Lincoln is working on an interactive online map of the trails in the Lincoln area, considering a trail system through town that gives pedestrians and cyclists a safer alternative to the shoulder of Hwy 200, and has finished over nine miles of single-track for mountain bikers just two miles from town.
On the east edge of town, playing hide and seek in a forest of ponderosa pines, are thought-provoking, grand-scaled art installations. Sculpture in the Wild, the brainchild of local knife artist Rick Dunkerley and Irish sculptor, Kevin O’Dwyer, presents national and international artists’ interpretations of the environmental and industrial heritage of the Blackfoot Valley. Building an open-air art gallery of these proportions takes manpower, and the townsfolk came to the rescue. Becky Garland is one local who freely gives time to promote, market, and act as a docent for the park.
“The sculpture park has been a blessing in the way it’s brought those living in Lincoln during very different times together,” Becky said. “It’s where our community gathers.
Good and Garland both agree that outdoor recreation tourism offers what could provide Lincoln with long-term sustenance.
With a nod to the trading posts of years gone by, west of Lincoln and sitting on the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, the Hi-Country Snack Food and Trading Post brings history alive. Along with offering a multitude of gifts and nourishment, a world-class big game display, and trophy fish, it hosts the story of Meriwether Lewis’s journey through the valley in 1806.
The famous prelude to Alaska’s prestigious Iditarod dog sled race, the 350-mile Race to the Sky officially starts at the Post. From there, it a takes a northwest heading through the rugged mountainous and challenging Montana backcountry. Passing Seeley Lake to the turnaround at the Owl Creek check point, the teams then retrace the course and upon completing a mandatory six-hour rest at the White Tail Ranch check point, it’s a mad dash to the finish line at the Trading Post.
Duck behind the Post and you take a step into the past. Wander through the Upper Blackfoot Valley Historical Society’s Museum featuring artifacts, homestead cabins, buildings, and the first ranger station in the valley.
For more than 60 years, the weekend closest to the 4th of July finds cowboys and cowgirls arriving for the Lincoln Open Rodeo and assorted festivities. The celebration begins with a colorful parade down main street. Then comes the full-fledge rodeo with a boot race and chicken chase for the kids.
And every July 4, to celebrate the nation’s Declaration of Independence, a magnificent fireworks display lights up the Lincoln night sky.
Lincoln is well-known for snow sports. Snowmobiling…with over
250 miles of groomed trails, there are many events and races scheduled throughout the winter. Stemple Pass is great for x-country skiing. When the dry season comes, the Copper Creek area attracts ATV users, as does the Bartlett and Sandbar Creek Off-Highway Vehicle Trail systems.
Something a little quieter, as the Blackfoot River flows west of Lincoln, a fly fisher can happily spend hours chasing brown trout in some of the wildest, most beautiful scenery around. This is a blue ribbon trout stream and the farther downstream you venture, the better it gets. Looking for brook trout, give Alice, Beaver, Copper, Cottonwood, Landers Fork, or Nevada creeks a shot.
Lincoln is a town that doesn’t sit still. Throughout the year, there are art and music festivals, Fly-Ins, ATV poker runs, motorcycle rallies, vintage car shows, concerts, theatrical plays, and charity events to entertain and amuse folks.
For those seeking a rustic overnight experience, there are four different US Forest Service “cabins” nearby. One rental, the Granite Butte Lookout Tower, sits on the Continental Divide about five miles west of Stemple Pass. Available year-round, it is accessible by a four-mile hike, bike, ski, or snowmobile ride.
Despite division in the past and a series of booms and busts, the town is full of renewed energy and pride. With ongoing community engagement and new projects in the works, the future looks bright for Lincoln.