Life in a Railroad Town
By Jill Evans, Administrator of the Stumptown Historical Society
Good times were usually noisy, sometimes rowdy, occasionally boisterous. Probably they needed to be. Life was hard, as Mrs. Motichka makes clear, and it was violent.
The railroad had brought roustabouts, hold-up men, thieves and drunkards to town. There were almost daily robberies. Drunkenness on the downtown streets was commonplace. Accidents on the railroad made injury frequent and death no stranger. There was also hunting accidents and drownings. There was a murder or two, Smallpox, typhoid, and flu epidemics were feared-and fearful. Forest fire was a summertime danger, and other fires a winter hazard. Day-to-day living was never really safe, and women worried or put their trust in God.
There have been only two hangings in Flathead County and neither crime occurred in Whitefish. They were both known about in Whitefish, though, and talked about there.
Calvin J. Christie, alias Charles J. Black, was hanged December 21, 1894, for the murder of Mrs. Lena Cunningham the preceding April 28 in the woods north of Columbia Falls.
Christie had had a long life of crime under several aliases in St., Paul and elsewhere, and had lived in Columbia Falls as a painter under the name of Black. Mrs. Cunningham was a reputable housewife, slain for no known reason while walking home. The crime frightened other women.
Fred LeBeau was hanged in 1909 for the Yoakim murders in nearby Fortine, west of Whitefish. When Riley and Frank Yoakim were found dead in June, 1908, it was supposed that the son had killed his 70-yar-old father and then committed suicide. Joseph Hobbins came forth with other information, saying that he had a certain LeBeau had gone to the Yoakum cabin together, asking for food, and that after he had left, LeBeau had killed both men. LeBeau was hanged, Hobbins was implicated with LeBeau and given life imprisonment. Later he was released.
There were other murders. In November 1907, James Hines, who had worked in the extra gang at Essex, cashed his checks in Whitefish and next day was found dead on the railroad tracks, where a train ran over both legs.
In October, 1908, Brakeman Ray G. Gregory of Whitefish, while on his run from Cutbank to Whitefish, was shot by a tramp; he died the next week of his injuries. The same month Arthur W. Livingstone, a young man married only a little over a year and with a small baby attempted to kill his mother-in-law and injured his wife before he committed suicide near the bridge at the Somers mill on Whitefish Lake. Most Whitefish crime fell short of murder, but there are frequent Pilot references to these lesser crimes. Three items might be call typical:
January 14, 1905: “Constables O’Brien and Hofman this week did a good turn for Whitefish, They rounded up a bunch of toughs and gave them the privilege of leaving town or going to jail. In the gang was Omaha Jack. They all concluded to leave except Chub Casey. O’Brien pulled him in Thursday and Justice Reed sent him to county jail for 30 days.”
May, 1906” “That Whitefish is infested by a gang of thieves, hold-up men, and hoodlums who should be jailed, if possible, or run out of town if necessary, has been shown this week on a number of occasions. Sunday night was particularly productive of law-breaking acts, a hold-up and two robberies occurring on this night, in addition to the usual drunkenness, carousing, and yelling, which has come to be a regular thing…Ike L. Freudenthal last week installed a handsome new safe in his business house.”
July 5, 1907: “Several fights during the past week have helped to keep up the reputation of ‘Hell Roarin’ Avenue.” (Central Avenue, we assume.)
One of the best-known, biggest, and most interesting robberies involving Whitefish, as well as other Flathead law officials, occurred when the Great Northern Oriental Ltd, was robbed near Rondo in Lincoln County in September, 1907, by Charles McDonald and George Frankhouser. Forty thousand dollars was taken. Frankhouser was sent to Leavenworth, where he died in 1920, but McDonald escaped after a Helena jail break in 1909.
Railroad robberies occurred up and down the line and were sometimes serious, like that at Rondo, sometimes a bit on the humorous side. The big depot robbery in Whitefish itself was of the latter variety.
In June, 1904, the townspeople were awakened one night by loud explosions and immediately rushed in the direction of the racket to the railroad. There they found a blown safe on the platform, which had a hole in it, broken windows in the shack that was then the depot, and scattered currency being picked up by assorted trainmen and citizens. Burglars, plainly green at the business, had broken into the depot through J. S. Babcock’s window, removed the outer door of the safe, and then carried the safe to the platform, where they blew it open. Scared off by the blast, the robbers left the money and a gold watch behind. Fortunately a railroad car loaded with “giant powder” that had stood at the depot the previous day had been removed before the robbery. Otherwise the town would have been blown sky-high.