The Battle of Belton
By Jack Clack
The Montana Supreme Court, in the winter of 1909, ruled on the question of ownership of Sections 16 & 36 within the boundaries of the National Forests, surveyed after the lands were withdrawn for National Forests. Prior to the court decision, the State of Montana claimed these sections for school purposes and the Forest Service claimed them as part of the National Forests.
Section 36, adjoining the townsite of Belton, was one of these controversial sections. In the summer of 1909, the Great Northern Railway Company decided to build chalets at Belton. They purchased forty acres out of this section from the State of Montana. The land adjoined the railway right-of-way, directly south of the Belton depot.
When Flathead National Forest Supervisor Bunker heard of this sale, he notified the regional headquarters in Missoula and requested $200 to fence the area as a visible assertion of the National Forest claim to the land. His request was granted. I took a crew to Belton, fenced the 40 acres, and stationed a fire guard at the spring on this tract of land. Bunker notified the railway company that the land they had purchased from the State was National Forest land.
While traveling from Kalispell to Essex, Bunker read in the SPOKESMAN-REVIEW on September 27 that the Governor of Montana had decided to send a company of militia from Helena to take possession of the controversial area at Belton. War had been declared!
Bunker wrote a note on a page of his notebook and sent it by special messenger to Coram where I was surveying a trail route up the South Fork River:
Sept. 27, 1909
Take Kruse to Belton tonight and the trail crew on No 4 tomorrow. Rustle all the pickhandles, firearms, and ammunition available and use every man to see that no unauthorized person enters the enclosure at Belton. Use force if necessary, but do not shoot unless you have to. Move all night if necessary. Am going to Essex after Bradley and Manary. Make this stick.
When I received this message about 7 p.m., I told the crew foreman to arm all his men with pick handles and to meet me at Coram the next morning in time to take No. 4. In the meantime, Ranger Kruse had hitched a team to a light spring wagon loaded with enough grub to run us for a day. With a couple of rifles and supply of ammunition, Kruse and I started over the old toll road to Belton. In the darkness, we couldn't make fast time. We were likely to find a tree across the road at any place. About 10 o'clock that night, we got to Belton.
I knew that the only train we would have to watch was No. 43, the Burlington, due in Belton about 11:30, westbound to the coast via Great Falls and Shelby. About 11 o'clock, we went down to the gate to the enclosure. From here, we could see the depot platform. We got behind a pile of logs that had been rolled together for burning. With rifles loaded, we waited to stand off a company of militia. The first man to get off the train was an Army officer in uniform. He was followed by a private. "Well," I thought, "Here they come." But no more appeared. And as soon as the train pulled out, the officer and the soldier went to the hotel.
Bradley and Manary had come down from Essex on the same train. They told us they were the only men on the train. I left my rifle with the boys and walked over to the hotel. There I found an Army lieutenant and his "dog robber" planning a trip through Glacier National Park.
We remained at the enclosure fortification the remainder of the night. When I boarded No. 3 the next morning to go to Coram to get the rest of my army, I met Bunker. He said he had wired the Governor asking if he intended to take forcible possession of the tract. The Governor replied that he intended to await the Montana Supreme Court's decision.
So ended the battle of Belton. Not a drop of blood was shed. But there was plenty of excitement for a short time.