Glacier Centennial: Caroline Lockhart

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Newspaper reporter, bestselling novelist and rancher Caroline Lockhart (1871-1962) was probably the first woman to go over Glacier National Park’s Swiftcurrent Pass. Working for a Philadelphia newspaper under the pseudonym “Suzette,” she came to Altyn, Montana in 1901 and spent the rest of her life in the West.

At the time, Altyn was a boisterous mining boom town in the Swiftcurrent Valley in present-day Glacier National Park, a town its promoters said would soon become the rich center for gold, silver, copper and even oil. (See my essay about Altyn and the Swiftcurrent Valley in the upcoming “Nature’s Gifts” anthology to be released in March.)

In Cowboy Girl, an excellent biography of Caroline Lockhart, John Clayton writes that “Suzette’s arrival represented major news for Altyn, which had been born less than three years previously, when a strip of land was taken from the Blackfeet Indians and thrown open to mining. Altyn’s prospectors believed that within a few years its destiny would be decided: ‘the richest and biggest camp on earth or nothing.'”

By all accounts, Lockhart was ornery, strong-minded, strong-willed, and outspoken. (She called novelist Zane Grey a “tooth-pulling ass!”) Some suggest that her liberated personality kept Lockhart and her novels–several of which were made into movies–from being better known over the long term. Her novels include Me-Smith, Lady Doc, The Man from Bitter Roots, and The Fighting Shepherdess.

Lockhart owned a newspaper in Cody, Wyoming, where she also served as the first president of the Cody Stampede. Her fight against prohibition would keep Lockhart and her paper in the public’s often-angry eye. Even though she came west as a Phildelphia “Bulletin” reporter, she had grown up on a ranch; she found her dream again when she bought a ranch at Dryhead, Montana near the Pryor Mountains. She increased the size of the ranch and became, in her mind, a true cattle queen. The ranch is now owned by the National Park Service as part of the Bighorn Canyon Recreation Area.

In his article “Project Slows Decay at Lockhart Ranch,” Clayton addressed challenges of restoration–historical authenticity vs. practicality–when he noted that “the research also provides delicious evidence of how characters of the past dealt with hardships. For example, Lockhart had an old-style plank floor in her kitchen. She liked the look of it, but mice could easily creep through its gaps. So she kept two bullsnakes in the house to kill the mice. Today, by contrast, the Park Service uses gravel fill beneath the planks to keep out the rodents.”

Lockhart came west via the Great Northern Railway looking for adventure. By all accounts she not only found it but became a part of it. According to a the National Park Service’s Caroline Lockhart page, the aging liberated lady wrote, “There are no old timers left anymore. I feel like the last leaf on the tree.”

Copyright (c) 2010 by Malcolm R. Campbell, author of two novels, “The Sun Singer” (set in Glacier Park) and “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire” (set in an imaginary Texas town).

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4 responses

  1. Fascinating. Once upon a time I didn’t believe America had history, but there’s so much interesting stuff to learn and read about, and now I’m hooked. Loved reading this.

    • Thanks, Sheila. I had a double interest in this: the fact Lockhart was associated with the park and the Montana ranch, and the question about why her books have largely disappeared from public view.

      Malcolm