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Continuing Montana’s Energy Production

In Montana, energy for transportation didn’t start with fossil fuels – the first energy production was firewood for steamboats traveling the Missouri.  I recall the name “Peter Koch” from my years at MSU – not from any history class, but because his name designated a high rise apartment complex in married student housing.  I no longer recall whom (that I knew) lived there, but I recognized the name of the early energy entrepreneur when I read excerpts from his diary, chronicling the life of a woodcutter at the mouth of the Musselshell:

Oct. 4.  Commenced chopping.  Blistered my hands and broke an ax handle.

8.         Twenty five years old and poor as a rat.  Cut down a tree on the cabin.

20.       Cutting while Joe is on guard.  Snow tonight.

24.       Killed my first buffalo.  He took 7 Spencer and 6 pistol balls before he died.  River full of ice.

Nov. 7 A Gale of wind.  Those Arapahoes who camped abt 10 days at Jim Wells woodyard have moved down the river after shooting into his stockade.

15.       Chopped hard all day.  BM says 3 cords.  Fred came back all wet.  He started in a skiff with Dick Harris, both drunk, and upset at squaw creek.

25.       Fred and Olson started out wolfing.  We stopped chopping on account of shooting and shouting in the hills.  Joe and I found 4 wolves at our baits.

Dec 10 Sick.  No meat.

11.       Sick yet.  Bill, Joe and Mills went to Mussellshell, said Indians had attacked and stolen 3 horses and mule but lost one man.

24.       Christmas eve.  No wolves.

Jan 16  Awful cold.  Froze my ears.

17.       Too cold to work.  Went up to Musselshell.  Froze my nose.

24.       Thawing heavily.  Mills drunk.

Mar 22 Saw three geese.  Martin sick.

Apr 29 Sixty Crows went up the river after Sioux to avenge killing of 29 Crows.  They were all looking dreadful, had their hair cut off, their fingers and faces cut, with blood left on their faces.

May 9  One hundred  and seventy cords on the bank.  We put fire to the brush piles.  The fire spread and burned up 50 cords.  We played out before we got it checked.  Nothing to eat.

13.       Wind turned and started the fire again.  About 20 cords burned.

22.       The ‘Nick Wall’ passed about 2 o’clock in the morning without stopping.

23.       40-50 Indians showed themselves at Musselshell on the 20th.  The crazy Frenchman started toward them and was badly beaten when firing started they turned and ran.

24.       Raining.  The ‘Ida Reese’ passed by about daybreak without our knowing it.

28.       Sold ‘Deerlodge’ about 10 cords of wood.

June 13            The ‘Sallie’ passed after midnight and took on 15 cords of wood.

16.       The ‘Ida Stockdale’ passed without stopping.  We threw 6 cords back from the bank to keep it from falling into the river.

No more steamers bought wood from Koch and his companions; he gave it up in the fall, headed southwest toward the Big Belt Mountains, became an Indian trader and surveyor, and, eventually a director of Bozeman’s First National Bank.

At the same time, Liver-Eating Johnson was partnered with X. Biedler in another firewood business – their operation was described by a traveler who came upriver on the ‘Huntsville’:

“Along the brink of the riverbank on both sides of the landing a row of stakes was planted and each stake carried a white, grinning, Indian skull.  They were evidently the pride of the inhabitants, and a little to one side, as if guarding them, stood a trapper well-known throughout eastern Montana by the sobriquet of Liver-Eating Johnson.”

(taken from pp 176-181 The Old West Rivermen 1975, Time-Life books)

If my recollections are correct, Liver-Eating Johnson filed water rights on Ashley Creek, over in the Flathead. 

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