Recollections of Old Milestown was published in 1918 by Samuel Gordon, Miles City, Montana.
PART III: THE VIGILANTE DAYS

IT WAS the incoming of the railroad that called the turn on our primitive life and introduced the manners and customs of the older civilization into our little world, deflating or inflating the currency -- we never could decide -- which, for while it gave to the "quarter" the power to buy two drinks where it only bought one before, there were those who denied this increased power and applied the cold logic that while we were getting more liquid for the money we were not getting any more whiskey -- and in other ways disturbing the settled current of events. For one thing it brought in a new class of tough, the city rough-neck and booze-fighters, whose kind we had not had because of the splendid isolation we had enjoyed. It was out of this contingent that grew our first and only lynching.

The railroad -- the Northern Pacific -- had been coming for several years and in the late fall of 1880 had gone into winter camp at Glendive and was expected at Milestown reasonably early the next fall but September found the track only as far as Powder river and there was a hint of winter in a September snow storm in that year, but it was only a bluff and 1881 proved to be one of the ),cars that has given Montana such a reputation for Indian summers. Settled crispy weather followed and extra exertions were made by the contractors to reach Fort Keogh with the track before winter set in. Naturally Milestown set out to celebrate the occasion with befittirig ceremony We knew they were laying about a mile of track a (lay and when they reached Dixon's bluff we had our reception committee organized and at work. The reception was a failure. The only time, up to that date, that Milestown had failed to pull off a public function with due eclat, The committee had done its work well. There were washtubs full of sandwiches, kegs of beer on tap, pails of dill pickles and many other snicks and snacks that we supposed the track crew would relish and appreciate and certain eminent citizens were even loaded with "remarks" on "the potentiality of this significant occasion," but they never got a chance to uncork. From the time the track-crew came in sight at the Main street crossing -- which was about noon -- they did much better than a mile a day and were over the Tong-Lie river bridge before dark of a November day. They didn't pass us by wholly unnoticed; the men all got a bite and a sup, but the boss of the crew was crowding his men for a record; at least that was what he said, but the truth probably was that lie didn't want them to get "jagged" on him and so our big occasion petered out and we had to turn to and eat our own sandwiches and drink our own beer, which wasn't as hard on the populace as the choking off of those torrents of eloquence was on the expectant speakers. The one thing to be pleasantly remembered anent this occasion was the big black horse that drew the iron car who knew his business as well as any of the humans he worked with and there were some skilled trackmen on that job. That was in November, 1881. The exact date is not important in this connection and is not remembered just now. The ties and piling used in the construction of the road from Milestown west to Forsyth were furnished by the Diamond R under contract, in the performance of which a big logging and tie-making crew was sent into the woods up Tongue river and the logs and ties were "run" down that stream on "the June raise" and into a boom that was located just below where the Seventh street bridge crosses the "slough," the "drive" being diverted into the slough by piers and booms shutting off the timber from going out into the Yellowstone through the mouth of Tongue river. Adjacent to the boom on the slough below Seventh street, was a saw mill of considerable dimensions, where all of the lumber used in construction in town and much of that used at Keogh was sawed. The Northern Pacific built a spur from the main line down to this mill and the "fill" that was made for this spur, later became-in part Leighton boulevard, which was in those days pretty bad country.

On the whole, though we welcomed the railroad even in the face of the fact that it had spurned our ceremonial expression of good-will, for it brought us closer to the outside world and in many ways facilitated the transaction of business, but we were slow to appreciate the new class of citizens, the tramp, the hobo, and the city thug, that it brought to us; in fact, never did appreciate them and eventually made a demonstration of our disapproval that served its purpose during the remainder of our infantile years. True it is and never sought to be denied, that we were a tough town, but our toughness was largely exuberance of spirit, bred of freedom from the ordinary restraints and responsive to the call of the "wild." The voting majority were of one mind on the point that a too technical enforcement of the law was not desired and so they elected officials who they knew would not be too officious. Not but that there was due protection for life and property but there seemed to be a tacit understanding to let smaller matters adjust themselves, and into a community permeated by this teaching and in this frame of mind, the injection of the lawless element the railroad brought to us, distinctly disturbing. Perhaps it was due to the fact that we were so "wide-open" that this undesirable element chose to congregate here. Be that as it may, it soon became apparent that the decent women of the community were not immune from insult by these new-comers, if opportunity favored, while holdups and "rollings" of drunken soldiers and others were of nightly occurrence. Our own "people" of all grades had always been scrupulously observant of the respect due the sex and it was a peculiarly offensive breach of this tenet that precipitated the sequence of events that mark the high-tide of excitement in the life of Milestown.

On Saturday morning, July 21, 1883, at an early breakfast hour, a tough named Rigney, accompanied by a boon companion, turned up in the residence part of the town after an all night carouse, drunk and ugly. In this condition they forced themselves into a respectable home while the family were at breakfast. Ordered out they refused to go and when forced out they gave vent to foul language and fouler allusions to the family on whose privacy they had intruded. A neighbor who was cognizant of the outrage the ruffians had perpetrated, ordered them to waste no time in getting out of that neighborhood and receiving an insulting retort from Rigney, promptly dealt that worthy a blow that laid him out senseless and his companion thereupon took to his heels. In due time Rignew was taken in charge by the city marshal and deposited in the court house jail pending judicial proceedings, but the judge who sat on his case was not the duly constituted official.

During the day public opinion formed rapidly. The story of the morning was told and retold, the incident gaining importance from the fact that the young ladies of the family on whom the outrage had been committed were general favorites. As the day waned indignation waxed and whispering knots of citizens here and there clearly intimated that something out of the usual course was impending. As it subsequently transpired, the law and order people adjudged the Rigney incident of the morning to be the last straw. Events had been tending toward a lawless state of affairs for some time and the old sentiment of letting such things cure themselves was giving way under the strain of the changed character of the disorder introduced by the criminal influx from the east. Immunity from restraint operated to encourage this new element to greater license and the invasion of a private house and the offering of insult to the inmates, brought the better class face to face with the proposition that such offenses had to be checked promptly and effectually or life and property would be at the mercy of the mob.

That Saturday night at midnight Jailor "Jim" Conley was stuck up " by a posse of men who were of few words but determined in action. The keys of the jail were secured, an entrance effected and Rigney brought out. From that time forward a relation of events as concerned Rigney are merely inferential. No one concerned has ever told what happened, but Sunday morning's sun as it peeped over the pine hills that guard the eastern horizon of Milestown played upon the swollen face of a dead man, hanging by the neck from a railroad trestle about half a mile below town; the same that now has for a close neighbor the present county hospital. The dead man was Rigney. Judge Lynch had held his first session in this community with the usual result.

But this was not the only surprise that greeted the morning sun as he peeped over the hills on that Sunday morning. Just as the dawn was breaking, the Cosmopolitan theater at the corner of Sixth and Main -- where the Commercial State bank is now located -- was discovered to be on fire. The theater was then the eastern end of a row of pretentious frame buildings extending westward to the brick then occupied by the First National bank. This row contained half a dozen or more stores, including the principal drug store in town, located on the site of the present "Savage" establishment. The fire was without doubt of incendiary origin. Almost at the start it enveloped the whole building and shortly afterward a number of explosions spread the flames in every district and terrorized the few who were fighting the fire, but the case was a hopeless one and in a hour the whole row was in ashes up to the bank building, which stood the test. It was never definitely settled whether this fire had any connection with the Rigney hanging or was an independent piece of deviltry, It was thought by many that one of Rigney's pals, skulking about the jail that night had witnessed his taking out by the Vigilantes and surmising the outcome had spread the news among "the gang" and that the fire followed as an act of reprisal and intimidation, but for the general public the story of Rigney's fate did-not gain general circulation until after the fire had burned itself out, and a fevered and angry community made up of two hostile elements, found itself on the verge of serious trouble. The law and order people generally accepted the fire as connected with the lynching and as meant for a warning of like things to follow, and this had the immediate effect of welding this element into a protective league, out of which came a committee of public safety, whose first act ordained the deporting of all suspicious characters. On that same Sunday afternoon a secret meeting of the committee was held and a patrol force organized, whose delicate duty it was to wait upon the leaders of the "undesirables" and give them a time limit of a few hours to get out.

Sunday evening fell, soleful and threatening. Aside from the cause of anxiety mentioned, a wind-storm came up about sundown and threatened to scatter the live embers of the morning far and wide. This in connection with the unusual occurrences of the past twenty-four hours had wrought a high pitch of excitement in the community and the chances were against there being any Milestown in the morning, but though the furies were riding the gale waiting to be invoked, the night passed without an outbreak of either fire or temper, and Monday dawned, sunny and pleasant, with no outward intimation that an ultimatum had been announced and that the issue was to be met that day.

The main reliance of the toughs was on John Chinnick, who kept a joint -- next to the Jordan store -- where they hung out, and a feed trough for them at his ranch, out beyond where the ball park was. John ranked as a citizen. He was one of the earliest to come, one of the townsite company, and was to that extent, one of the founders of the town. The new gang took to him, however, and he to them and this association so lowered his standing in the community that he was one of the first to be told by "the committee" to leave. He was due to depart Monday evening and just to show that he was a good fellow he spent Monday forenoon around town, going the round of the different resorts, discussing the situation with an entire absence of rancor, but at the same time with an air of bravado that clearly indicated that he did not intend to comply with the ultimatum. In the forenoon he was in his shirt-sleeves so that all might see that he was unarmed, and to this fact he more than once called attention during the forenoon as evidence that he was a peaceable citizen. At noon he went home to dinner. His home was on the western outskirts of the town in a belt of timber; wholly apart from other houses and quite capable of being made a fortified position, and it was to this ultimate condition that events pointed -- as the gang had all congregated at the Chinnick ranch and report was that they were well supplied with arms and ammunition and intended to make a fight. At that time I resided at the corner of Third and Pleasant streets, distant about a quarter of a mile from the Chinnick home, which was clearly in view, the intervening space being open. Naturally I was interested in what might be going on in the camp of the enemy and during the noon hour of that fateful Monday I was watching the place through a field glass. As I looked I observed a sudden commotion among the many who had been lounging about and shortly a messenger was seen to leave the ranch for town. On his return, which was speedy, he brought a doctor. After a stay of half an hour the doctor returned to town, the bearer of the startling news that John Chinnick had been accidentally but fatally shot. He had intended coming up town again in the afternoon, this time packing his gun. His wife endeavored to dissuade him from doing so and a scuffle for the possession of the weapon ensued, during which it was discharged, the bullet entering Chinnick's abdomen, inflicting a wound that proved fatal after a lapse of four weeks. Just what would have happened in Milestown that night had the shot gone harmless, is hard to guess. Chinnick was a nervy and reckless man. He had a considerable following and had made up his mind that he would not be driven out of town like a yellow dog. On the other hand, the committee was composed of men of nerve and determination. A clash even more, a battle was imminent, and it certainly would have been fought but for the accidental shot that put Chinnick hors du combat and scattered his following. This rabble needed his nerve and reckless assurance to keep them in line and when his personality was removed they had no stomach for the fray. They scattered in all directions under the friendly cover of that Monday night and the next day the current of our communal life resumed its accustomed peaceful flow. This event marked the crest of the wave of lawlessness that had been slowly gathering since the incoming of the railroad two years before, encouraged by the lax conditions under which we had existed in the earlier days. The lynching and the subsequent lineup against the undesirables, established the conviction that there was an authority that could and would punish drastically and the community felt safer.

The identity of the men who did for Rigney has never been revealed. For a while it was a subject of gossip -- or conjecture rather -- as no names were ever mentioned, but it was a general presumption that some of the men who were active in the committee of safety were members of that posse, but conjecture on that subject lapsed for lack of material, for while there were those who would assert that they could name the men, or some of them, it never got beyond that interesting but unsatisfactory stage and as the legal authorities never took any notice of the matter, it soon became a closed incident. It goes without saying, however, that the summary disposal of Rigney met with the approval of all except the small percentage who were of his breed and the act was regarded popularly as one that did not require or even admit of investigation. It is only fair to say that the edict of proscription that was issued against the "undesirables" did not name any of the old-time gambling element of the town as there had been nothing in common with them and the hoodlum element. These old-time sports of ours were strictly of the frontier and there was a general feeling that in the games that were run a player had nothing worse to go against than hard luck or superior skill, and as the "gams" themselves were "broke" more than half the time, it didn't look as if they had any "edge" on the public. And this general reputation sustained by them saved them from being classed with the other lawless element when the "clean-up" came.