Some Early History of the Flathead National Forest

By F. J. Neitzling

On June 1, 1898, Gust Moser at Ovando, Montana, received his appointment as Forest Supervisor of the northern division of the then Lewis and Clark Forest Reserve through J. B. Collins Forest Superintendent, Missoula, Montana, Department of the Interior, General Land Office.

One of the most colorful Rangers appointed for seasonal work that year was William H. Morrison, better known locally as "Slippery Bill." He provided his own headquarters at Summit, Montana, and was responsible for the Middle Fork of the Flathead River drainage.

In those days, the Forest Supervisor made wet impression copies of all letters in a 500-page, thin paper book. A few of these books have been preserved. Entries show such names as Tom Danaher, an early Ranger (Danaher Meadows) who homesteaded about 20 miles above Big Prairie and grazed 400 cattle in the upper South Fork. Other Rangers' names and their assigned Districts included A. R. Babcock (Babcock Creek), B. B. Holland (Holland Lake), and J. B. Seely (Seeley Lake).

Forest Ranger Moser commented in his letter of May 1, 1901, to Superintendent Collins, "In making this list and selections, I have been careful to submit only such names as I know will make first class Rangers." Included is the name of W. H. Morrison—seventeenth on the list of 23 men recommended for 21 appointments.

Grace Hansen, in "History of Flathead County—Great Northern Landmarks," wrote:

Long before the railroad came to Montana, a man named William H. Morrison held a squatter's right to a small piece of land at Summit. When he heard that the Great Northern was extending its tracks through the Marias Pass, he installed a rosewood bar in his shack and was soon doing a flourishing business. The construction crews moved; but "Slippery Bill," as he was known, remained.

Bill was about 84 when he died, but before his death he gave his small piece of land as a site for the obelisk in memory of Theodore Roosevelt. This monument, we hope, will be a landmark for many years to come but we also hope that someone will keep alive the memory of the man who felt it was an honor to give the government the land on which his shack was built, as a site for the memorial honoring the father of modern reforestation.

Bill acquired "squatter's rights" to 160 acres of land at Summit. In the early 1930's, he donated this land to the Forest Service. Near the Roosevelt Memorial a large native boulder now carries a bronze plaque commemorating Morrison. He acquired the nickname "Slippery Bill" as a result of his astuteness in about 1890 during a poker game in a railroad construction camp at McCartlyville, now a flag station called Fielding, on the Great Northern Railway in the Middle Fork of Flathead River country. Bill won heavily. In the late hours of the game, it appeared unwise to leave with so much money, knowing he might be followed by his gambling associates and robbed of his winnings on his way home. Pocketing most of his money and leaving a small sum at his place at the card table, he excused himself, saying he would return in a few minutes. Once outside the room, he hurried away and didn't return, thus earning the title, "Slippery Bill."

Morrison Creek and Slippery Bill Mountain, a few miles south of Summit on the Flathead National Forest, are named after this Forest Service pioneer.

Another incident attributed to Morrison is that quite late in his life, while at Summit, the trainmen would thoughtfully give him a daily newspaper and chat with him. He was a tall, stately old man with long, white beard. Morrison became well known as a rustic philosopher. On the depot platform, passengers would promenade while the train made a 10-minute stop to take on water and undergo routine inspection. An eastern woman approached old Bill and inquired, "How do people make a living in this unpleasant, wind-swept, God forsaken place?" Bill replied, "Lady, most of us make a comfortable living by minding our own business."

F. J. Neitzling
Forest Supervisor, 1945-1962

Kalispell, Montana
January 28, 1960