There’s a lot of ground under Montana’s Big Sky, but not too many people to stand on it. List the state’s 10 largest cities by population according to the U.S. Census
estimates for 2013, and you have to let in some towns with four-digit counts. But those people wrote a colorful story for the origins of Montana’s urban centers.
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1. Billings (2013 pop. 114,773)
The state’s largest city by far, Billings bills itself as “Montana’s Trailhead”
– big-city amenities such as restaurants, sports and nightlife at the jumping-off point to Big Sky Country’s biking, rafting, hiking and skiing. It’s the home of Montana’s major employer, the Billings Clinic hospital system.
2. Great Falls (2013 pop. 65,2070)
Montana’s second-largest city boasts museums from the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art to the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park. Great Falls is the home of the Montana State Fair and the state Pro Rodeo Circuit Finals.
Nearby is Malmstrom Air Force Base, home of the 341st Strategic Missile Wing
and its nuclear-tipped Minuteman missiles.
3. Missoula (2013 pop. 62,157)
Missoula’s where you go to find the University of Montana.
Merriwether Lewis and his party, half of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, stopped through what is now Missoula on the expedition’s return trip in 1806. The first settlement was called Hellgate. The city saw its first airplane in 1911 and its last passenger train in 1979.
4. Bozeman (2013 pop. 43,164)
Montana’s college town, Bozeman’s home to Montana State University
. It’s also home to Montana's American Computer & Robotics Museum
, tracing the history of computing from the ancient Greek Antikythera Mechanism to an original Apple 1 signed by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
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5. (City and County of) Butte-Silver Bow (2013 pop. 30,287)
Butte’s not shy about its tumultuous and colorful history, and there’s a lot listed on the city’s official website. Butte’s the county seat of Silver Bow County, but they count their people together for the Census.
Montana’s first major city began as a gold and silver mining camp, and soon was the largest city west of the Mississippi River between Chicago and San Francisco – by 1920, there were more than 60,000 people in the city itself.
Labor unrest among the miners led to the longest period of martial law in U.S. history – 1914-21 – being declared in Butte.
Two of the more infamous relics of the mining era, the Dumas Brothel
and the Berkeley Pit mine
– the latter now a toxic lake – closed in 1982.
6. Helena (2013 pop. 45,055)
Montana’s state capital was founded by accident, according to BigSkyFishing.com.
Four men from Georgia looking for gold finally found it. Other people heard about it, and Helena was soon a boomtown. With all the miners moving in, it was decided to move the territorial capital from Virginia City, near Montana’s first major gold strike, to Helena.
7. Kalispell (2013 pop. 31,785)
A small city that was growing fast, Kalispell, Montana jumped 40 percent in population from 2000 to 2010
– to 19,927 in the city itself, according to its official website. It’s mostly a tourist town, with Flathead Lake, Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area and Glacier National Park nearby.
8. Belgrade (2013 pop. 13,797)
Founded in 1882 by entrepreneur Thomas B. Quaw looking for land along the railroad, Belgrade was named after the then-capital of Serbia, in honor of the Serbian investors who put money into railroads in the Western U.S. A farming community for some time, Belgrade now boasts on its Chamber of Commerce website of businesses ranging from manufacturing to biotech
9. Havre (2013 pop. 9.657)
Starting out as a railroad supply depot, Havre, Montana went underground – literally.
A series of fires destroyed the town’s hastily-built wooden buildings. Railroad workers and local businessmen moved into their basements, and dug tunnels to connect the parts of their now-underground town. But when the town rebuilt and moved back into the sunlight, the railroad decided to keep its workers – mostly Asian immigrants – underground for “safety.” Today, underground Havre, from laundry to bordello, is open for tours.
10. Miles City (2013 pop. 9,604)
Miles City was founded by bartenders and questionable ladies who, in 1876, were kicked out of Fort Keogh by its teetotaling, upright commander, Gen. Nelson Miles. Was it to honor or to mock the general? According to the Miles City Star, that question “was debated at the time.”
But when the fort was moved just two miles to higher ground, Miles City picked up and followed.
Early Miles City has another claim to fame: Guinness World Records mentions a 15-inch snowflake found by a rancher near Fort Keogh in 1887. But the New York Times says there’s nothing to back up that claim
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