(as written by Eva Stober and updated by Karl Koontz)
The community of Belt was founded on coal in the late 19th Century. An entrepreneur and freight man named John Castner staked the first coal claims in the valley in 1877. Castner is a fascinating historical character. Born in Western Pennsylvania, he became a frontier businessman in the mid 1870’s. He ran a freighting operation on the Mullan Road hauling supplies from Fort Benton to Helena by horse team. The advent of rail traffic changed the climate of commerce in Montana, so Castner diversified. In addition to coal claims, he opened a hotel in Belt and was a partner in a local grocery. His wife is equally interesting. Mattie Bell was born into slavery in 1851 in North Carolina. She left the South after the Civil War, and ended up running laundry businesses in St. Louis and Fort Benton. For the first two decades, mining was carried out by small, individually owned companies to provide fuel for the shipping town of Fort Benton, Montana’s oldest city. The first post office and school were both built in 1885, but the camps population was only a few hundred people. In the early 1890’s, two beehive coke ovens were constructed to process raw ore into the more industry friendly coke.
Things changed for Belt in 1895 when the giant Anaconda Copper Mining Company purchased most the mining claims in order to provide coke for its smelters in Great Falls and Anaconda. The camp became a company town over night and the population soared. The company owned everything in town from the mines to the houses to the general store. Coke was shipped at a rate of 2500 tons per day and mountains of slag remained behind for decades as a reminder of Belt’s formative days. In the early years of the century, the slag pile caught fire and burned for years. ACM erected a total of eleven “beehive” coke ovens on the south end of the modern town site. In addition, ACM built coal crushers, and washers to process the ore. Mine shafts extended for miles around the valley. Mining employed about 1,000 workers directly, the total count of citizenry numbered over 3,000 and the village boasted nearly forty saloons. On the west creek bank a bustling red light district flourished (as the story goes, the first money donated to the school fund came from the local madam). Immigrant miners settled in ethnic pockets around town including; Finlanders, Slavs, Italians, and Irish. School enrollment rocketed to 390 students (kindergarten through 10th grade) during those boom years. Belt incorporated as a city in 1907 and the first improvements were made to the primitive roads. In 1921, the city employed water overseer was the highest paid municipal employee, earning $240 per annum.
Train traffic came through Belt in 1895, primarily to haul coke off to Great Falls, where the Anaconda Company built a smelter, and on to the town of Anaconda. The tracks in use today were installed in the early teens, as the old line required too steep an ascent for the larger coal trains. The west end of the valley still bears the mark of that first track, about one hundred yards above the current rails. A few photos exist of the old line and its archaic wooden trestles can be seen in the Belt History book (written in 1978 by Eve Stober) and at the Belt Museum located in the old jail on Castner Street. The three room jail was also constructed in 1895, and its typical occupants were local denizens who had spent a little too much time in one of the bars. It was easy to do, as Belt boasted over three dozen saloons designed to quench the thirst of over one thousand miners and about 2,500 citizens. Faro and straight poker were the games of choice at card tables around town and an active “red light district” occupied the creek bank on the west side of town.
Large scale coal production came to an abrupt halt in 1899 due to a few factors. Alternative sources of coke became more readily available elsewhere and when ACM was purchased by the Amalgamated Copper Company (owned by Standard Oil) the economic good times ended. Amalgamated was one of the incredible monopolies of the late 19th Century, bankrolled in part by John D. Rockefeller. Coal mining in Belt operated on a smaller scale for several years with a temporary upturn during WWI, but by 1936 commercial production was done. Individuals actually continued to mine a minute quantity of coal as late as 1963 for residential use. Belt’s economy remained in flux through most of the 20th Century. Agriculture replaced mining as the staple, but as time progressed this industry provided fewer and fewer jobs.
The Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 brought settlement to much of the arid western states, as 320 acre claims became the norm under the new law. While many 160 acre homesteads were proved up under the original 1864 act, the larger spreads proved more enticing still. Farming and ranching on these larger plots seemed viable for the first few years, but drought in the middle and late teens left many old homesteads empty. The nationwide depression of the 1930’s hit Montana a decade earlier, with blowing dirt, bank collapses, and unemployment. A pattern emerged in Montana agriculture whereby small agricultural operations couldn’t survive. Modern tractors covered far more ground than did a man and a mule, chemical farming required less time than till methods, and CRP (Conservation Reserve Program, which took acreage out of production beginning in the 1980’s) reduced exponentially the number of farm hands needed to run a farm. The number of farms decreased radically, while the average size of farms and ranches increased proportionally. In the 21st Century, most residents of Belt receive income from non-agricultural sources. Belt’s proximity to the Great Falls economy has sustained the population through commuting. That has saved Belt from the epidemic population decline experienced in many Eastern Montana communities of similar stature.
Belt’s first school board assembled in 1895 at an unused card table in one of the local establishments with John Castner acting as chairman. They raised money for a new school, a brick structure called the Central School (also known as the Custer School) located near the railroad depot. The first city government in the valley was organized in 1907. Not surprisingly, Castner was elected the first mayor. The initial laws included a posted speed limit and a limit on the kinds of gambling that were allowed in the saloons. Belt’s population fell to just under 1,000 by 1921. The drought of the late 1910’s and early 1920’s reduced the city’s population further and by the 1930’s the number stabilized near where it is today at about 650. This depopulation reflected a Montana-wide trend, as massive bank failures changed the economic landscape of the entire state. The current school enrollment stands just under 300 in grades kindergarten through 12th grade. Belt’s only Superintendent of Schools for the first three decades was S.A. Remington, who retired in 1922 to take over the position of editor of the Belt Valley Times. Remington ran the paper from then until 1945. The newspaper was operated from its inception in 1894 by Ralph H. Bemis prior to Remington assumed the reins.
There were a couple schools built before the turn of the 20th Century, the first of which was a sod roofed one-roomer. In 1897 a stone school building called either the Custer or Central High School was erected by the train depot on the hill. In 1915, an auditorium was built on the east side of town kitty corner from the modern Methodist Church. By the mid 1940’s a new school was needed and work began on the current facility. While construction was under way, the Central School burned due to a boiler failure. In 1949, the current school building opened its doors. The school was remodeled in 1965, adding the cafeteria and music room, and the new shop appeared in 1970. The new gym was added in 1998. Belt’s current enrollment includes about three hundred students in grades K-12, and the town’s population stands at a little over 600 souls.
For the first decade students attended school for three months a year and only through the eighth grade. In 1902, Montana adopted a set of curricular standards to which Belt adhered, achieving accreditation in 1907. The first high school commencement was in 1913. Like all little town, high school sports is a big part of Belt’s history. The Huskies fielded boy’s and girl’s basketball teams throughout the teens, but the ladies version was dropped in the 1920’s, not to resurface until 1972 as a result of federal Title IX legislation. Going back further, Montana high school athletics were only divided into two classifications through the 1920,s and 30’s. Belt competed in the smaller “B” division. When the four classes were created in the late 1960’s Belt played in the smallest class (“C”), but in 1974 was moved to “B”. The Huskies played in “B” until being moved back to “C” in 1987. There have been several notable teams over the years, including undefeated football squads in 1945, 1962, 1971, and 1994 (only the ’94 team claimed a state title though as prior to 1976 class “C” schools only competed as far as the divisional level). The boys garnered state championship honors on the basketball court in 1976 and 1995, and the girls captured their lone Montana hoops crown in 1991. The girls also bested the rest of the state in track and field in 1988 and 1993 and won six consecutive state cross-country titles from 2006 through 2011.
The local environment has been greatly impacted by industry over the course of its one hundred and twenty five years. The coal operations left scars still visible today in the form of rust colored rocks in the stream that drains through the old mining works. In addition, silver mining upstream in Neihart dumped arsenic into Belt Creek near its headwaters. For decades a mountain of old slag stood watch over the Coke Oven Flats, just south of town. That land was reclaimed in the 1990’s, and continued state and federal efforts target cleaning up Belt Creek.
Belt has felt the effects of economic and political change over the decades, but Mother Nature has presented challenges as well. The community’s first natural disaster occurred in 1908, when Belt Creek topped its banks and flooded the town. Castner Park (known simply as the Big Park to avoid confusion with the Little Park in the town’s center) was inundated and lost scores of cottonwood trees. Rip rap work along the stream staved off the next flood for nearly fifty years, but in 1953the creek again swelled beyond its boundaries. The west side of town took the brunt of this second flood, including the new school which was only four years old at the time. The last time Belt Creek flooded was in 1981, causing property damage on both sides of Belt.
On Friday, November 26th, 1976, a disaster of a different sort struck Belt. The day after Thanksgiving, twenty four cars on a Burlington Northern freight derailed at the viaduct at the bottom of the Belt grade. The derailed cars crashed into above ground fuel storage tanks, causing a massive explosion and fire. Two people died in the initial blast, 72 year old Charles Pimperton and 17 year old Tim Ostlie. Eleven others were treated for injuries they incurred. Nearly one dozen homes and businesses were destroyed along the way. A second explosion a few hours later was the result of an overheated fuel tank. The fire burned for over two days, but a large snow storm the day before almost certainly prevented a much greater toll on persons and property.Modern day Belt is experiencing the challenges felt throughout small town America and Montana. Belt has transformed into a commuter community, relying on job opportunities in Great Falls. There are some real estate sub-divisions in the immediate area which attract residents seeking a more rural life style and a small town education for their children. Over the past one hundred and twenty five years, Belt has demonstrated the ability to adjust to changing times and stands poised to move forward in the 21st Century.