Heron, Montana was started as a railroad town on the Northern Pacific. The community of Heron has survived 125 years of booms and busts. The railroad reached Heron in 1882. Within a year Heron had about 400 residents, 3 stores, 6 saloons, 2 hotels, 2 restaurants and a town water system. In January 1884 Heron’s first post office was opened. In September of 1884 the first school district was created.
By October 1888 the water source for the steam engines dried up and the railroad terminal moved to Hope, ID. The post office closed before Thanksgiving and Heron was almost wiped from the map. People left in droves. A few stubborn folks hung in here and eventually a new wave of in migrants arrived, lured by out of region promoters. This cycle repeated itself many times over the decades.
Heron has been rebuilt and reinvented numerous times. Lured by the promise of something better, homesteaders, farmers, trappers, miners, loggers, business owners continued to arrive. Some endured. Many moved on when the extolled riches never materialized or were burnt up in the frequent fires or lost to the spring floods.
The first few decades were the years of timber. Vast stands of cedar, white pine and larch succumbed to crosscut saws to provide ties, poles, cedar shakes for a growing nation. The 1910 fire destroyed mills and millions of board feet of timber. The timber industry moved on.
The 1930's brought in families fleeing the dust bowl east of the mountains. Farm equipment, livestock, and household goods were loaded into freight cars for the westward journey. Heron's green trees and grass were a welcome change from the prairie drought. Fires had cleared thousands of acres and there was enough grass for small dairy herds.
The construction of the huge hydro projects at Cabinet Gorge and Noxon Rapids after World War II brought hundreds of workers to the valley. Most moved on to other construction projects, but some bought land and stayed.
The 1970's saw military retirees and back to the landers arrive. They were searching for a quiet place off the beaten track. The 1980's witnessed hard times and many folks, tired of Heron's grey skies, lack of culture and social opportunities, packed up and moved on.
In the past decade a surge of urban/suburban refugees has discovered the Heron area. A new boom is underway. Recreation property is now the big draw. Beautiful scenery, mountains and lakes are the current natural resources utilized by newcomers. Real estate prices are reaching speculative levels and out of region promoters are once again luring new folks into the lower Clark Fork selling the current version of their dream.
Life along the lower Clark Fork has never been easy, but with a little bit of luck and lots of hard work families thrived and the community survived. Only time will tell if the newest wave of incomers will lose interest in a few years and move on leaving behind a community that will once again have to regroup to survive.
Heron is located just off Highway 200, about 4 miles from the Montana/Idaho border.
Photos: District No. 3 School in 1910. Courtesy of The Library of Congress. Northern Pacific Railroad Depot at Heron, Montana (circa 1890s.) Courtesy Elizabeth Larson Weber collection.
Logging at Heron, Montana, circa late 1890s. Courtesy Elizabeth Larson Weber collection.