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Bigfork, Montana Area Chamber of Commerce

The Beginnings of Bigfork

What is now Bigfork was once a gathering place for the native tribes who camped by the lake to take advantage of the abundant natural resources of the area. Just north and east of town, the Flathead River empties into Flathead Lake while the Swan River rushes into the lake at Bigfork Bay. Some say that Bigfork took its name from the Swan River which was also referred to as the Big Fork of the Flathead River.

The town became “Bigfork” in 1901 when it was officially platted by Everit L. Sliter who arrived two years before.  By the time he began to officially create the town, Sliter had purchased land, bought and sold the trading post and built a 14-bedroom house where he began to rent rooms.  The original description of the town said that it was “nothing more than cut over stump land.”  Sliter purchased a stump puller and began to work. That same year, the Post Office was established with Sliter as the first postmaster.

Even before it was officially a town, Bigfork boasted a power plant (built in 1889) which gave its name to the town’s main street, Electric Avenue.  The wooden power house was replaced in 1906 with the current brick, concrete and steel building seen today. In 1899, Dr. Morton J. Elrod, a biology professor at Montana State University (now the University of Montana) leased five acres of land near the mouth of the Swan River where he established the Flathead Lake Biological Research Station.  The facility was moved in 1912 to its present site at Yellow Bay.

With no roads around the lake, Flathead Lake itself was an important waterway for trade.  Goods that arrived on the railroad in Missoula were loaded first onto wagons and driven to Polson to be loaded onto steamers for the trip north.  It wasn’t until June 1914 that the east shore road (Highway 35) was completed and trucks and automobiles could finally drive around Flathead Lake.

The climate around the lake, especially along the eastern shore, has always been perfect for growing fruit. Apples were the first fruit crop, but by 1893, growers discovered that it was the sweet cherries that grew best. In 1935 a cherry grower’s cooperative was born that now includes more than 100 members with orchards stretching down and around the lake. Some of our summer visitors plan their trips for mid-July to early August when they know that the famous Flathead cherries will be ripe and ready for everyone to enjoy.

During the early days of Bigfork, logging was a major industry. Logs cut from around Swan Lake were floated down that lake to the Swan River and then down the river to boom at Bigfork in a quiet part of the river near today’s Swan River Nature Trail. From Bigfork many of the logs made their way across the lake to Somers where they were cut into thousands of ties for the railroad. The rest of the logs were used in construction throughout the Flathead Valley.

From farming and timber, the economy of Bigfork has changed into a community known for art, fine food and theater, but there are still many reminders of the old days and the old ways.

We recommend taking a few Paces to the Past.  That’s what we call the Bigfork Village Historical Walk. While no one ever truly needs an excuse for shopping, visit the Chamber office and pick up one of the historic brochures before you stroll through the galleries and shops of downtown Bigfork. Each pace is designated with a small sign on the building that corresponds with a paragraph and photo in the brochure. You’ll discover:

  • Eva Gates Preserves: Begun in 1949 by Eva Gates using her grandmother’s recipe for strawberry preserves.
  • Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts: The building is new, but the Bigfork Summer Playhouse was founded more than 50 years ago (1960).
  • Sliter Park: Named for Bigfork’s founder and home of summer’s Riverbend Concert Series. Make sure you stop by the Memorial dedicated to Bigfork’s veterans and pioneers.
  • Swan River Nature Trail: Formerly a power company road, now a favorite hiking, biking and walking trail.
  • Bigfork Inn: First built in 1910, the original hotel burned down in 1937.  The current building was built the following year.
  • Old Steel Bridge: Built in 1911 to replace a wooden bridge that had spanned the Swan River since 1900.

If you’d like a copy of the brochure, contact the chamber at

To learn more about Bigfork, visit  Media queries may be directed to Carol Beck-Edgar at 406-837-2061.




Listed in Bigfork: Where Flathead Lake Begins

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