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for people who care about the West

The Second Second City

A native Chicagoan who now lives in Montana discovers New Chicago, Mont.


A few minutes before midnight, four days after the Fourth of July, I exit the sole terminal of the Missoula airport with a black backpack full of books, a blue plastic trunk, duct-taped shut to protect my worldly possessions, and the last decent bagels I'll see for six months. I know no one in Montana and nearly nothing about the state itself -- only on the flight out, reading the map in the in-flight magazine, for example, did I learn that it bordered Canada. I'm 24 years old, and I want to live somewhere I can see the stars.

I meet Nick and Crow my first Saturday in town at a fairgrounds demolition derby. In this setting, Nick comes across as reserved, apologizing for bumping shoulders as everyone around us stomps and hollers. Crow, the untamed spirit, has packed his own air horn. Nick majored in classical guitar at Northwestern University; Crow taught snowboarding in Jackson Hole, Wyo. They're both home bottlers, but Crow brews beer while Nick makes a mean Kahlua. Both are also, like me, Midwesterners, born on the former flat tallgrass expanses the French explorers, lacking a word for such stuff, called prairies, or "large meadows," now long since shorn, filled, raised and paved. They both crossed the Continental Divide to become wildlife biologists. Nick studies bighorn sheep. Crow, appropriately enough, researches ravens.

A friendship forms. In the company of my fellow immigrants, I can confess how stupid I feel about what everyone else here takes as common knowledge. In my hometown, Chicago, I once looped three of the world's 10 largest buildings on a single bike ride. Yet it takes me more than a month in Montana before I realize I should change gears to go uphill. Eating out, I can order eggplant in Spanish, Italian, Chinese and Hindi, but I can't tell carrots from potatoes in the rows of a farm, much less identify the needles of a ponderosa pine, the call of the common snipe, or a single constellation save the Big Dipper. Hours I should spend working or finding work, I waste watching clouds more decorated than Wrigley Field float past my window in battalions of 10 and 20 dozen. When deer muddy my lawn at night, I'm not even experienced enough to be annoyed. There's a sense of place here, I say, but I still sense more than I can place.

In response, Nick and Crow tell me where to hike and where to hunt, how to identify birds and how to avoid bears, when the water will be warm enough to swim and when the snow will be solid enough to ski. Following their example, I purchase wool socks and work pants, hiking boots and binoculars. They will make me a Montanan yet, they promise. Even as they say it, though, I realize that what I cherish most about them is the degree to which they are Midwesterners still.

* * *

In the summer and fall of 1673, Father Jacques Marquette, a French-born missionary, and Louis Jolliet, a Canadian mapmaker, traversed Illinois Indian territory near the southwest shore of Lake Michigan. Swarms of mosquitoes attacked them in the "unbearable" heat. Abundant bison herds, whose flesh and fat comprised "the best dish at (their) feasts," pushed through grass five or six feet high to nearby riverbanks. After the Revolutionary War, the United States erected Fort Dearborn to guard the strategic portage the Frenchmen called Chicagoua, an Indian name meaning "the place of the wild onion." "The village," a traveler wrote in 1823, "consists of but few huts, inhabited by a miserable race of men. … Their log or bark houses are low, filthy, and disgusting." The most prominent hotel keeper was a Creole fiddler and father of 23 children, Mark Beaubien. He often gave land away to people he liked, but admitted he "didn't expect no town."

* * *

No winter colder than winter in Chicago; no winter sooner than winter in Montana. Summer fire warnings barely end before I see the first new snow. White, wafer-thin, the flakes float as they fall in the lazy manner of light objects. As soon as they touch the grass, they melt. I hug my hands under my armpits for warmth and think: Now I don't have to water the lawn.

In late October, I come down with the flu. For three days, I mope around the house in my pajamas, a box of tissues and a stack of library books from the "detective and adventure" shelves my constant companions. Walking to the bathroom, I trip on the phone book, and, for the first time, notice the alphabetical list of area communities on its cover: Alberton, Bonner, Clinton; Greenough, Huson, Iris; Lolo, Missoula, New Chicago.

New Chicago?

Like Chicago? I think. But new?

* * *

In the summer of 1805, two Virginians, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, led their 45-person exploratory party through present-day western Montana. The abundance of grizzly bears impressed Lewis, who called them "a most tremendous animal" in a journal entry. "It seems that the hand of providence has been most wonderfully in our favor with rispict to them," he wrote, "or some of us would long since have fallen a sacrifice to their farosity." Instead, along the banks of the Missouri River, 10 grizzlies fell to the muskets of the expedition.

In 1841, Father Pierre-Jean De Smet founded the Montana Territory's first mission, St. Mary's, in the Bitterroot Valley. In 1847, about 100 miles northeast across the Continental Divide, on the Missouri River, the American Fur Company built Fort Benton. In 1859, Congress gave Lt. John Mullan $100,000 to build a 624-mile road between Fort Benton and Fort Walla Walla, another fur-trading post in Washington, opening the Northwest to soldiers, settlers, miners and traders. By 1870, Montana prospectors and cattle ranchers numbered 20,000. On July 4, 1872, John Featherman, William Dingwall and Allen McPhail -- merchants and cattlemen -- founded New Chicago, Mont., on Mullan Road, as a commercial trade and transportation center along the probable route of the newly formed Northern Pacific Railroad.

* * *

Ten in the morning on the last Saturday of October, as I steep my umpteenth ginger tea of the week, Nick and Crow make their entrance. "Big field day," says Crow.

"Gonna find all my sheep," Nick says.

"Gonna test my new rifle," says Crow.

"Got to do it all before hunting season," Nick says.

"Get out of town," says Crow. "Way out."

Their plan is to start east along I-90, climb south at Highway 1, wind west at Highway 39, and finally circle back to Missoula in a large loop tied by Highway 93. Nick wants to find the sheep he's studying, and Crow wants to field-test a rifle he's using in his raven research, so they'll spend at least as much time off road as on. My runny eyes shoot from my friends to the phone book a few feet away. I have no idea where, if anywhere, New Chicago, lies along the way. Surely, however, an all-day adventure can accommodate at least one dramatic detour.

"You coming?" asks Nick.

"He's coming," nods Crow.

I pull jeans on over my pajamas, throw on a stained sweatshirt, and exchange my slippers for hiking boots. I toss two water bottles, a box of tissues and a library copy of Tarzan of the Apes in the back of Nick's Isuzu. The guys observe in silence.

"C'mon." I utter my first words outdoors in 72 hours.

"Let's go."

* * *

Despite Mark Beaubien's doubts, in August of 1833, 150 Chicago settlers gathered at his hotel, the Sauganash, to sign papers of incorporation. By the end of the year, the town population numbered closer to 250, including newcomers drawn in anticipation of the Potawatomi Indians' forced cession of 5 million acres to the federal government, as well as a state-sponsored canal connecting Chicago with the Mississippi River. Three howitzer blasts from Fort Dearborn opened groundbreaking ceremonies July 4, 1836.

Chicago survived the 1837 financial panic as a shipping and supply center for Western homesteaders. In January of 1848, the first telegraph line reached the city; in March, the Chicago Board of Trade first convened over a flour store near the river to trade grain and livestock; and in November, the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad delivered its first trainload of wheat. When the Union Pacific met the Central Pacific in 1869 in the Promontory Mountains of northern Utah, Chicago's first mayor, William Ogden, now president of the Union Pacific, hammered in the "Golden Spike."

* * *

We parallel the cold waters of the Clark Fork River upstream past Milltown Dam, a local political flashpoint. "REMOVE THE DAM, RESTORE THE RIVER," reads one popular local bumper sticker. "REMOVE MISSOULA, RESTORE THE VALLEY," reads another. Railroad tracks emerge between the road and the river. The rough curves of the Garnet and Sapphire mountain ranges gather the sky like a bowl. For a few miles, the highway jogs south. Pickup trucks and 18-wheelers blast past at 75 mph in the slow lane. We pull over, Crow takes out his birding binoculars, and Nick sets up his equipment. What looks like a car battery wired to a television antenna buzzes with static.

Nick holds the antenna higher. More buzzing. He shakes his head. For this stuff to work he had to spend a month the previous spring hiking up and down avalanche chutes, finding and collaring bighorn sheep. "They're not here," Nick says.

Crow, meanwhile, spots his subject here as he has every couple miles along the route. "That's why it's so great to study ravens," he says. "They're everywhere."

* * *

New Chicago soon included two hotels, two stores, a flour mill, several livery stables, a blacksmith and a stage station. A contemporary photograph shows the main street crowded with almost two dozen horse-drawn covered freight wagons, part of a regular caravan from Salt Lake City. Inhabitants enjoyed a post office, of which John Featherman was the postmaster, a telegraph station, and a Wells Fargo branch. Complementing these were two saloons and a Methodist Episcopal church. In 1874, the village invested $1,000 in a white schoolhouse to serve pupils from "6 years to 6 feet."

* * *

On the road again, we pass domesticated buffalo on a checkerboard range of high yellow grass and brown-black excrement. A metal bridge carries us over a stalled Canadian Pacific engine linked to what looks like two oil tanks. We turn left up a dirt hill where the radio signal range will be greater, stopping before an abandoned power-line post the height of a basketball hoop, topped with frayed wires tangled in knots by the wind. Bunchgrass and knapweed cushion us from road noise. Nick turns on the telemetry equipment and adjusts its settings. Tinny beeps echo slowly from inside the leather case.

"I hear them," Nick says, "but they're far away."

He decides to backtrack. Hay farms recede in the distance, then cattle, a lone tree, and a Winnebago with Colorado plates. At the wooden sign, planted high on a dusty dirt mound, "Community Church of Drummond/Christ Centered," I clear my throat. Still, my voice cracks when I speak.

"Guys," I say. "I want to go to New Chicago."

"Like Chicago?" Nick asks.

"But new?" asks Crow.

We pull off into Drummond, refuel at the Sinclair, and study Nick's road atlas.

"I can't believe it," Crow says. "You're not going to believe it."

"What?" I ask.

"Where is it, man?" says Nick.

"Drummond is the closest city to New Chicago," Crow says. "Of all the random places in Montana" -- a state three-quarters the size of Spain -- "you picked one that's a few miles, max, from this gas station."

Fifteen minutes later, we're there.

* * *

Chicago, soon the leading railroad city in the world, grew from just over 20,000 residents in 1848, almost 75,000 a decade later, and 110,000 in 1860, to nearly 300,000 in 1870. Two out of every three residents lived in rundown shanties without sewers, sidewalks or paved streets. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 slowed neither the city's growth nor its growing pains. The next year, Union Stock Yards workers butchered, scraped, cleaned, washed, cut, split and cooled twice as many hogs as in 1870. A year after that, amidst a fresh financial panic, unemployed poor thronged outside the offices of the Relief and Aid Society, chanting, "Bread or death." By 1880, the population exceeded 500,000. Of Maxwell Street, the first stop for most new arrivals, the Chicago Tribune wrote, "The street may be singled out of a thousand by the peculiar, intensive stench that arises from pools of thick and inky compound which in many cases is several feet deep and occasionally expands to the width of a small lake. Almost at every stop a dead dog, cat or rat may be seen, … the poor creatures (having) undoubtedly died of asphyxiation."

* * *

Windows down, we roll into New Chicago. Even by rural Montana standards, the settlement is hardly a city. New Chicago is a dirt road, three clean one-story homes, one Halloween pumpkin, a silo, two sheds, two dump trucks, a granary and a cemetery. In 1883, the newly opened Northern Pacific Railroad bypassed it by three miles.

Nick stops. Crow takes a picture. I laugh. Here I am, 4,000 feet in elevation -- three Sears Towers tall -- in the ghost of a major metropolis that never was. I'm getting used to Montana, used to it all, yet what remains strange, by and large, I cherish. Recurrent surprise is the closest I come to my initial awe.

The 1890 census recorded 1.1 million Chicagoans, again more than double that of the previous decade. Today, the city population hovers at just under 3 million souls; every year, Chicago hosts 32 million visitors. New Chicago, I think it's safe to say, can count only three. Here at night, however, you can see the stars.

A man appears in the distance, standing on the front steps of the house farthest from us. He wears a worn red baseball cap. He waves.

I wave back. The American dream includes open space as well as skyscrapers, freedom to roam as well as money to build. I know Chicago, I love Chicago, but I don't want to live in or near it anymore, and our country hardly needs a second second city, especially not in Montana, not in the 21st century.

"Is this what you wanted?" Nick and Crow ask me.

"It is," I say. "Onward."