My Forty Years Scribblin's
Historical Accounts
Stagecoach Stories

1996 and published in the September-October 1996 issue of The Montana Journal. Ed McClain, Allan Chaffin's uncle, was one of many early day stage drivers.


Not all stage coaches had a guard "riding shotgun." Some had troubles enough just getting passengers and cargo to their destinations.

From 1907 to 1911, the Anaconda Company, better known as the ACM, kept two supply wagons operating from Bonner to Seeley Lake through Fish Lake, Woodworth, Sperry Grade, and Clearwater. The latter, since faded into oblivion, was located on the Blackfoot River between the present Clearwater Junction and Sunset. For lack of other transportation, a few travelers caught rides on these conveyances.

Missoula to Seeley Lake

By 1922, there was semiweekly stage service from Missoula to Seeley Lake. Then, in 1925, a motorized stage made the trip daily. One of the Seeley Lake drivers, Tex Baker, reported that he hauled "just about everything along with his passengers including a crate of chickens." People set their cream cans beside the road for him to pick up, and he took orders and shopped for his customers for "anything from groceries to matching thread for the ladies." He always carried chains for mud and often shoveled his way through snowdrifts.

Ovando to Helmville

Bert Eldridge, who operated a freight route from Ovando to Helmville, took over the stage route in 1908, but he found it a hard route to travel. In winter, the stage had to be replaced with an open sleigh, since fierce winds obliterated the tracks, and a new road had to be broken each time the sleigh went out.

Ravalli to Polson

Memories are gems to be treasured, and memories of Dunchan McDonald's stage station at Ravalli were recounted by Mrs. Mary Finley Niles when we visited her at St. Ignatius way back in 1967. Mrs. Niles was 90 at the time. The McDonald stagecoach carried passengers from Ravalli to Polson around the turn of the century, struggling with alkali mud, choking dust, winter winds, and snow drifts. They employed a nice little Chinese cook. "We called him John Smoke," she said. "He wore a queue as did most Chinese in America at the time, and we scared the wits out of him!" Mrs. Niles and another girl were waiting tables and helping in the kitchen, and they decided to see how fast John Smoke could run. "I grabbed a big butcher knife. 'Now we're going to cut off your tail!'" He put both hands over his head. "No-no-no-no!" Mrs. Niles paused for a laugh. "We found he could run pretty fast," she remembered.

The Allard family took over the stage route and operated it for several years. Then came the Polson branch of N.P. railroad—and the automobile. The harness hung unused in the stable for many years, a silent reminder of another time, another way of life that still lives in our memories.

Over on the Lemhi

Not much is known about the Leesburg stage except that it operated "over on the Lemhi," at the turn of the century with Ed McClain in the driver's seat. The story goes that a young man came to teach at a country school, also over on the Lemhi. The man of letters was well versed in books, none of which had told him how to handle an ax. He asked the school board to furnish him a load of wood, which they did—but it was delivered in pole lengths. The teacher was at least resourceful. He turned the stove around and poked the pole through the door and into the stove. He got a dandy fire going, but the stagecoach came by, making up some lost time, and ran over the end of the pole, upset the stove, and burned the schoolhouse down.

No, I can't swear that it was Ed McClain's stage coach that burned the schoolhouse down, but how many stagecoaches were over on the Lemhi at the turn of the century? I'll always have to wonder.