When you think of visiting Montana, there’s a good chance Lewistown probably isn’t the first destination that springs to mind.
That, though, is a serious problem.
One of Montana’s true “treasures,” Lewistown is everything you’d want from a rural escape: it’s beautiful, historic, unique, and packed with people who are proud to live there. The nearby rivers, mountains, and grasslands draw hunters and fishermen in droves. It’s a place where the sense of community is strong and the soul-stopping, arid grandeur of Montana is alive and well.
Plus, it sits in the dead-center of this huge, glorious state.
Every time I pull into Lewistown, something comes over me. I get all moon-eyed at the largeness of the landscape (which, for a Montana native, is saying something). I want to saddle my big blue roan and go loping off into the foothills. I want to be an outlaw with bad teeth and a slit-eyed regard for the world. I even want to be a madam in an old-time brothel, adjusting my bustle and regarding my charges. If none of that will work, I just want to sit down at the Montana Tavern, have a beer, and listen to the cowboys. And then I want to go fishing. I want to absorb every ounce of it through my pores like osmosis. It’s that intoxicating.
Drive past the fairgrounds, turn left at the light to head into town, and you’ll probably feel your heart soar, too.
The main street looks like a sepia-toned postcard or a photograph from yesteryear. Like all the small towns you’ve come to know and love, Lewistown is home to a movie theater, a barber shop, and a diner that hosts the same group of ranchers for black coffee every morning. Spring Creek runs beneath the town for five blocks, and the Judith Mountains punctuate the bluffs in the distance.
Lewistown is also home to one of Montana’s most coveted prizes: Yogo sapphires. Rarer than diamonds and different from other sapphires, which are heat-treated to produce color, Yogo sapphires come out of the ground a brilliant blue.
Lewistown boasts a guitar shop that makes custom pieces for Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse, and, of course, Montana Tavern, which sits over Spring Creek and offers a cut-out hole in the floor so visitors can watch the water flow by.
If you look at Lewistown’s history, it might seem like it was destined to boom, bust, and fade away. But, unlike so many of the tiny Montana towns Richard Hugo immortalized in his poetry, Lewistown refused to die. We should all be grateful.
The History of Lewistown
Lewistown began as the territory of the Blackfeet—buffalo chasers who roamed the plains. According to the 1855 Stevens’ Blackfeet Treaty, which was negotiated where the mouth of the Judith River opens and stretches, the Blackfeet had claim to all of Central Montana.
Despite that treaty, however, they weren’t the only occupants of the land. Throughout the decades, it was home to Crow, riding in from the south, Nez Perce, coming from the West, and Sioux, entering from the East. Spring Creek provided the tribes with water and fish while the roaming herds of buffalo offered food, shelter, and warmth.
Almost 20 years after the 1855 Treaty, the government made an agreement with the Crow. It designated the Judith Basin as their new home. Although the 1873 agreement was never executed, it brought Lewistown into the spotlight.
In 1874, Company “F” of the 7th U.S. Infantry picked the spot to establish Fort Lewis. The fort offered protection for wagon trains negotiating the Carroll Trail, then the most direct route between Helena and Carroll, Montana.
In the years following, gold was discovered in the nearby Judith Mountains, and Lewistown became the site of an all-out gold rush. As the gold rush boomed and died, the men and women who had traveled to Lewistown to try their luck settled in the area and found employment as blacksmiths, teachers, and bartenders.
In addition to being a gold town, Lewistown was also a railroad hub. Home to the eastern terminus of the Montana Railroad, Lewistown played an essential role in the Montana Railroad Line. The area is still home to trestles, tunnels, and rails, some of which are abandoned, and some of which still run trains daily.
A Day Out in Lewistown
For a town of about six thousand people, Lewistown has a wide assortment of things to see and do. Here are a few attractions to check out if you happen to visit this spring:
Ride the Charlie Russell Chew Choo
If you’re in for a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience, do not miss a chance to climb aboard the Charlie Russell Chew Choo.
In case the name didn’t tip you off, this is a dinner-centric train tour (owned and operated by the Lewistown Chamber of Commerce) which takes passengers on a 56-mile (or 3.5-hour) train ride along the historic route of the old Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific railroad in Central Montana.
The scenery includes arid ranchlands, rolling hills, a half-mile tunnel, and, if you’re lucky, one of Montana’s famous sunsets. Passengers also report seeing wildlife like hawks, eagles, antelope, deer, and coyotes.
Drinks are available, the prime rib dinner is tasty, the non-smoking cabins offer live music by local entertainers, and you’re guaranteed a pretty peaceful ride—until you run into the masked bandits, who tend to show up without notice.
The Chew Choo runs from Mother’s Day through early October.
Visit Big Springs Trout Hatchery
Big Springs Trout Hatchery is located just seven miles southeast of Lewistown next to Big Springs. It is the largest coldwater production facility in the state of Montana.
Established in 1922, the hatchery can produce about 130,000 pounds of fish each year, and is also the site of the city’s pure water spring.
In the words of Jim Harrison, “You can’t be unhappy in the middle of a big, beautiful river.” In Lewistown, Spring Creek gives rise (pun fully intended) to dozens of fishing options.
Fly-fishing opportunities abound year-round, and Big Spring Creek is home to six separate public fishing access sites, managed by MT FWP.
What’s not to love about a town that makes it possible to catch a nice rainbow within city limits?
If you’d prefer to fish larger water, Lewistown is just a stone’s throw from the Judith River.
Take a Walk
Lewistown offers several beautiful, well-maintained public parks, including the Veteran’s Memorial Park (right in the middle of downtown), and an extensive trail system.
As you stretch your legs, take a walk through Lewistown’s historic city center, which features brick buildings that date back to the early 1900s and were built by Croatian stonemasons. For an example of their handiwork, check out the Masonic Temple, which sits at 322 W. Broadway and was built in 1908.
Head to a Local Festival
Lewistown has some lively festivals. Depending on what time of year you visit, you can head to the Chokecherry Festival (held the first Saturday after Labor Day), the Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering (August 16-19, 2018), The Montana Winter Fair (usually in late January) or the Central Montana Fair and Rodeo, which falls on July 25-28th this year and features music by Easton Corbin, a demo derby, and a PRCA rodeo. The community pool and ice rink also host activities throughout the year, and Lewistown is home to drag racing at Montana’s oldest quarter-mile drag strip.
Check out a Ghost Town
Within a stone’s throw of Lewistown are several ghost towns, including Kendall and Nelsonville, which was the first tent city in the Judith Mountains. While some of these ghost towns (like New Year) sit on private property, many are on state land and open to exploration.
Live it up in Lewistown
One of the best small towns in Montana, Lewistown has an abundance of everything you could ever want. Land a fly on the glassy water of Spring Creek, take a ride on the dinner train, or just plop yourself downtown and let your fantasies of old-time Montana run away with you. No matter how you spin it, Lewistown promises not to disappoint.