Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Timeline outlines Montana Department of Transportation history

Timeline outlines Montana Department of Transportation history

  • Updated
  • 0

Here are some key dates in the history of the transportation in Montana and the state Department of Transportation, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Jon Axline, the department’s historian, compiled the timeline.

1805: William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition observes Indian trails, north of Helena in July.

1860: Lt. John Mullan completes a 624-mile road between Walla Walla, Wash., and Fort Benton. It is the first engineered road in Montana.

1864: Montana Territory created in May. First Territorial Legislature charters 23 toll road, bridge and ferry companies. At its peak in 1868, 33 toll companies were operating in Montana. The legislators established the toll rates as part of the charters: “Upon each wagon or vehicle drawn by one span of horses, mules or yoke of cattle, the sum of $1.50; upon each additional span of horses, mules or cattle, the sum of 25 cents; upon each riding horse or mule the sum of 15 cents; upon horses, mules, asses and cattle driven loose, the sum per head of 25 cents; upon pack animals, per head, the sum of 15 cents; upon all sheep and swine driven on said road, the sum per head of 3 cents.”

1889: In November, Montana becomes the 41st state.

1912: The Yellowstone Trail is established between St. Paul, Minn., and Gardiner. It would be extended across Montana to Seattle in 1914. The trail was one of the first American interstate highways.

1913: The Legislature creates the three-member state Highway Commission in March. One commissioner, George R. Metlen, was the first chief engineer, and the only salaried member. His staff consisted of a stenographer. The department’s annual entire budget was $5,000.

The commission begins sponsoring use of convict labor on state highways Motor Vehicle Registration Law enacted.

1915: Highway Commission establishes a Bridge Department, which standardized designs for steel truss, stringer, timber, and reinforced concrete bridges by July. The commission oversaw its first bridge letting, for the Bitterroot River east of Florence, in July.

1916: First Federal Aid Road Act enacted by Congress in July. It appropriated $1.5 million to Montana for road and bridge construction over five-year period.

1917: The Legislature expanded the State Highway Commission to 12 members, with a three –person Executive Committee in March. One commissioner, state Penitentiary Warden Frank Conley, became the president of the Executive Committee in 1919.

The Highway Commission approves Federal Aid Route No. 1, Sun River Road.

1919: Montana Highway Department formed. State divided into four districts in Helena, Great Falls, Glasgow and Billings, each under supervision of a district engineer.

Commission oversees first contract letting for the Black & White Trail in Carbon County.

1921: The new Federal-Aid Highway Act establishes the Seven Per Cent System, the basis for today’s two-lane highway system. In Montana in 1921, there were 67,000 miles of road. The Seven Per Cent System established about 4,700 miles of those roads as the Federal Aid Primary System. Federal funds could only be spent on the Seven Percent System. This legislation provided the basis for all ensuing Federal Aid Highway Acts.

The Highway Commission and Silver Bow County award a contract to construct nine miles of concrete highway between Butte and Anaconda. It’s the first paved highway in Montana.

Legislature enacts a 1 percent per gallon gasoline tax, with part of proceeds going for highway construction.

1926: In November, voters pass Good Roads Bill (Initiative 31), which authorized a 3 cent per gallon state gasoline tax, with the revenue going to match federal highway funds. This was a turning point in the department history, making the commission responsible for the funding, design and construction of road and bridge projects on primary highways.

1929: The Highway Commission awards the first highway oiling projects. Low grade oil mixed with gravel and other materials forms an asphalt-like hard surface.

1930: Great Depression begins

1931: Legislature passes Gasoline Tax Debenture Bill, providing $1.5 million to match federal funds. Debentures are essentially unsecured bonds, which functioned as loans against future gas tax revenues. They provided funds to match federal highway appropriations until the late 1940s.

Construction begins on the Beartooth Highway.

1933: Industrial Recovery Act, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, is passed to provide $400 million in federal funds to states to construct roads and bridges and put unemployed people back to work building roads. Montana’s share is $6 million for primary, feeder (secondary) and municipal road construction.

Highway Commission becomes directly involved in tourism and develops comprehensive program to attract tourists to state.

1934: Hayden-Cartwright Act passes. Montana received $4 million for road construction under the federal law.

Highway Commission builds its first rest stop at junction of U.S. Highways 10-North (Lyndale) and 91 (North Main) in Helena.

1935: Montana Highway Department reorganizes in wake of appointment of D. A. McKinnon as chief highway engineer. He organizes the department into divisions that answer directly to him: Engineering, Administrative Service, Accounting, Personnel & Public Relations and Field Districts.

Roadside Historical Marker program established, and 30 markers installed that year.

Department creates and distributes its first highway map.

Legislature creates Montana Highway Patrol.

1940: The U.S. Bureau of Public Roads and the Montana Highway Commission designate Montana’s Strategic System of Military Defense Highways in December. The federal government prioritized federal funds and materials to roads that had strategic significance in case the United States became embroiled in European war.

1941: Legislature reorganizes the highway commission, with five members.

Congress passes Defense Highway Act, reflecting the federal government’s growing emphasis on national defense and the prioritization of money spent on highways on the system.

Congress declares war on imperial Japan on Dec. 8, a day after Japan attacks U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. Nazi Germany declares war on the United States on Dec. 11.

1945: World War II ends on Sept. 2, 1945, with surrender of Japan to the United States.

Montana approves National System of Interstate Highways based on recommendations made by the federal National Interregional Highway Committee. It becomes the basis of the Interstate Highway System, which generally followed the same routes.

1956: President Dwight D. Eisenhower signs Federal-Aid Highway Act into law. The single most important highway legislation of the late 20th century, it established the Interstate highway system and provided significant amounts of money to the states to complete the system by 1972. The federal-aid ratio for public lands states like Montana was 91 percent federal funds to 9 percent state funds. The state Highway Department significantly expanded its operations to accomplish what Eisenhower wanted.

1957: In June, the Highway Commissioners voted to establish five construction/maintenance districts coinciding with the five districts from which the highway commissioners were appointed.

1958: The Highway Commission lets the first Interstate project to contract—five miles of I-15 between Monida and Lima.

1961: Construction of Interstate 15 through Wolf Creek Canyon begins.

1964: Construction of Interstate 90 over Homestake Pass begins. At $6.4 million, it was then the costliest project the Montana Highway Commission had let. When completed in 1966, the total cost of the Interstate between Whitehall and Butte was $18.5 million.

1966: Federal-Aid Highway Act and Department of Transportation Act passed by Congress. The latter mandates that all Interstates be four lanes (daily traffic counts determined whether Interstate would be two or four lane. Because Montana is a rural state, the majority of Interstate constructed here were originally two lane).

1970: Congress enacts the National Environmental Policy Act.

1971: Gov. Forrest Anderson proposes the Executive Reorganization Act, which Legislature passes. It established 19 state agencies, including the Montana Department of Highways (formerly the Montana Highway Department). Anderson appoints H. J. “Andy” Anderson as first department director.

1978: New Highway Complex, where the department has its headquarters east of Helena, is occupied in October.

1988: Last section of Interstate completed — a seven-mile section of Interstate 15 south of Dillon in Beaverhead County. Between 1959 and 1988, the department oversaw the construction of 1,188 miles of Interstate highways in Montana at a cost of $1.22 billion. At 95 percent, Montana has the highest proportion of rural Interstates in the United States.

1991: Montana Highway Department reorganized as Montana Department of Transportation.

1995: National Highway System Designation Act establishes the National Highway System, made up of the most important roads in the United States for the nation’s economy, defense, and mobility. The system includes 160,995 miles nationwide of which 3,878 miles are in Montana. It also abolished the national speed limit.

2012: Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama. It includes $20 billion general fund transfer to the Highway Trust Fund, Highway Funding Program reform and 90 percent of federal transit funding.

2013: Department celebrates its centennial.


Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News