The “Wickedest City in America” was the title given to Taft, Montana, by a visiting reporter of the Chicago Tribune.
Before 1910, if a man were looking to fill his appetite for sin, Taft was the place to be. Pimps, prostitutes and murderers could all be found aplenty in the little town.
Taft came to be as a result of the most expensive and ambitious railroad engineering feat in the nation’s history — the construction of the Milwaukee Road over (and through) the Bitterroot Range from the St. Regis River in Montana to the St. Joe River in Idaho. Many little towns like Taft sprung up, literally overnight, along the construction route. Over 70 men gave their lives in constructing the railroad tunnel.
Taft was the biggest and most notorious of the new railroad towns. At its peak, it had a population of over 3,000. Supposedly, the town’s name came as a result of a visit by Secretary of War William Taft. Secretary Taft lambasted the unnamed camp as being a “sewer of sin” and “a sore on an otherwise beautiful national forest.” Either as a joke or as a dig to Taft, the townsmen soon named their community in honor of the future president.
The little town barely spanned a half-mile in length. Even so, Taft had between 20 and 50 saloons, not to mention a plethora of brothels. Along with the railroad construction crews, Taft was also home to other men and women of ill repute. The largest employment was, of course, working for the railroad. However, in a close second was prostitution. And perhaps in third place was the criminal element composed of thieves, robbers, and murderers.
In most places, spring meant the passing of the long winter. However, it had a different meaning in Taft. With the snow melt, came the discovery of bodies of those unfortunate souls who had been murdered during the winter and then dumped into the snowbanks. During one such spring, 17 corpses were discovered. Of course, by the time the bodies were discovered, it was nearly impossible to determine who the murderer was or even if that person was still in town.
Taft was also the site of ethnic tensions. In one infamous incident, the self-proclaimed “king” of a large group of Montenegrin laborers was shot by a railroad foreman. Subsequent shootouts left the foreman and five Montenegrins dead. This was just one of the many skirmishes between members of different ethnic groups who had flocked to the area in search of work.
Back in the day, there were many folks who thought the debauched town of Taft deserved to burn in hell. Well, in 1910, they got their wish when Taft was wiped out by the Big Burn of 1910. To the dismay of forest rangers, the residents of Taft decided that rather than helping fight the forest fires, they’d stay in town as long as they could with the goal of draining the town of its remaining alcohol. Eventually, Taft’s residents were evacuated by train, but the town itself was left to be burned to the ground.
A few of the charred buildings survived until they were finally razed as part of the construction of I-90 in 1962. Now, all that remains of the once wicked town is a freeway exit and a staging area for the Department of Transportation.
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