Libby’s early history is tied to the Kootenai River. For centuries, the Kootenai Tribe used the river as a travel corridor between Idaho’s lowlands to the south and British Columbia’s Tobacco Plains to the north. While it is believed that no tribe made a permanent home in the Libby area, the Kootenai people often canoed, hunted and fished in the area. They also visited Kootenai Falls, a sacred site used for spiritual purposes.
In the early 19th century, David Thompson, a British-Canadian explorer who has been described as the “greatest land geographer who ever lived,” arrived in the area through his work for Hudson’s Bay Company. He navigated the area using Native American game trails and markings. Shortly after his explorations, fur trappers and traders arrived to exploit the various animals living along the Kootenai River and its many tributaries.
Prospectors first flocked to the upper reaches of Libby Creek, one such tributary, in 1866. Five hundred hardened miners braved the trying journey into the most remote of Montana’s wild lands in hopes of striking it rich. But they found deposits to be shallow, and most of the group left in search of more promising prospects within a year of their arrival. The Kootenai was allowed to return to quieter times.
In the following years, only small groups of prospectors passed through in hopes of discovering an El Dorado missed by earlier miners. Some of these visitors stayed to make the beautiful area home, especially drawn in by rumors of the Great Northern Railroad coming. They built homesteads and mills along the river and creeks, started ranching and built The Kootenai’s first wagon roads in the 1880s.
Just as these small, family mills began to pop up in the area, the Great Northern arrived at the young village that was constructed of green lumber with streets full of larch stumps. Initially named Libby Creek by the railroad, the town was mainly saloons and boarding houses that catered to prospectors. The railroad meant easy, economical access to the area — described as seemingly endless forested valleys with unlimited opportunity — for many more people to live and work.
Timber & mining
A group of families from Wisconsin built the first large mill here in 1906. Known as the Dawson Lumber Company, this mill on the banks of Libby Creek operated until 1910 when it was purchased by the J. Neils Lumber Company. Over time the mill expanded until it became one of the largest lumber mills in Montana. Generations of Libby residents worked in the mill’s vast operations. In the 1960s, more than 1,500 people were employed by the one company.
During the timber industry’s early growth, vermiculite deposits were located by prospectors. This unique mineral expands when heated, but at first was thought to be useless. In 1919, E.N. Alley bought these deposits’ claims along Rainy Creek and started the Zonolite Company. This would become the longest-running mine to operate in the Libby area because of Alley’s keen marketing skills. Vermiculite was utilized for insulation, fireproofing and soil conditioning.
Libby experienced its greatest growth during the Libby Dam project. Built to control flooding and for recreation and power generation, the Libby Dam forever changed the small town in the Kootenai Valley. At the height of construction in 1970, more than 2,000 workers were employed to build the dam, relocate the Great Northern Railroad’s path and construct roads and highways around the newly formed reservoir, Lake Koocanusa. Libby grew along with the dam project as new housing developments, businesses and schools were built to handle the associated boom. Following Libby Dam’s completion in 1975, Libby returned its traditional economy of lumbering and mining.
The mine, purchased by W.R. Grace and Company in 1963, was the exporter of 80 percent of the world’s vermiculite. Operations continued until 1990 when the mine closed due to the presence of asbestos in the ore body. Fortunately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency replaced W.R. Grace as the number one employer in town, as work to clean up Libby began.
After 15 years of intensive cleanup, Libby continues full speed ahead without the lulls of past transitions — just a few too many souls know how good this place is for it to be abandoned now. As the EPA prepares to complete the cleanup in 2020, the economy is already transforming with budding infrastructure and a drastic influx of technology. New businesses are growing and Libby’s economy is diversifying like never before.
Libby’s future is starting now.