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What’s in a name? Town’s namesake remains uncertain to this day
What’s in a name? Town’s namesake remains uncertain to this day

ALBERTON - Funny thing about ink on paper: The combination creates truth.

Or it seems to, in the case of Alberton town's name.

Consider the evidence. Roberta Cheney's book "Names on the Face of Montana" declares Alberton "seems to have been named for the Albert family, who came from Canada in the late 1870s and settled at Frenchtown. They homesteaded the area when Indian trails were the only roads."

Or the Mineral County Historical Society's "Mineral County History." It states the Chicago, Milwaukee & Puget Sound Railway bought the area known as Browntown and "renamed the area Alberton, after its president, Albert J. Earling."

Who's right? Surely the Montana Historical Library can settle the question.

Nope. The library has both references in its files. Neither trumps the other.

What about the residents? Mike Albert, great-grandson of homesteader Alexander Albert, has recently moved back to Alberton and rekindled the debate.

"It's very hard to find really firm documentation," Albert said. "The oldest thing I can find is my grandfather's obituary from 1941."

The Missoulian obituary specifically mentions "Burial will be in the Albert family cemetery - established by members of the family for which the town of Alberton was named." It also notes that well-known town figures William Ladiges, Elmer Chadwick, William Drost, William Daigle Thomas Bestwick and Ira Nichols were Raoul Albert's pallbearers. A separate story announces that stores in Alberton were closed for the funeral.

"Those pallbearers were highly respected business people in Alberton at the time," Albert said. "If the town was named for someone else, you'd think they would have mentioned it or said something different in the obituary."

According to Albert's family records, great-grandfather Alexander Albert immigrated from New Brunswick to Montana around 1885 with two other brothers. One roamed western Montana as a hunter and trapper. The second settled in Frenchtown. And Alexander took a homestead near Natural Pier Bridge, on the south bank of the Clark Fork.

That location is a sticky issue, because it's agreed by all that the town of Alberton has always been on the north bank.

In 1895, the Northern Pacific Railroad started running a line on the south side of the river, and William Clark had a booming lumber mill nearby at the turn of the 20th century. But around 1910, Clark moved the mill to Milltown. Many area families floated their homes across the river to the north bank, where the Milwaukee Road railroad was building a new line and division point.

According to Alberton Historical Museum curator Fran Rogers, the Milwaukee Road bought a large property on the north bank known as the Brown homestead in 1907. The railroad announced plans to build a maintenance facility there, and subdivided the land into residential plots for auction.

A man named Mark Shields bought the first two of those lots. He set up a general store in a tent on the north bank that formed the core of the future Alberton. Although he moved away two years later, he wrote a letter to railroad historian Harold Cole in the 1960s about what he remembered of the town's origins.

"It tells that the town was named for the president of the Milwaukee Road, Albert J. Earling," Rogers said. "I also checked with the Milwaukee Road Historical Association, and all their records confirm that."

So that's the version she wrote in her contribution to the "Mineral County History."

However, Rogers said she's been unable to find anything other than company histories that make that claim - no meeting minutes or memos chronicling the decision.

Town names are typically confirmed by the U.S. Post Office or the county government, when they become conduits for government services. Alberton officially became a postal stop in 1909, a year after the railroad was established in the area. So that's no help.

To add to the irony, Rogers and Albert were once classmates in Alberton. In 1954, when Rogers was in middle school, the town received telephone service. The Bell Telephone Co. had a contest where the best boy and girl student would get their town histories published in the first Alberton phone book. Rogers interviewed "everyone who had been there from Day One."

"I was told it was named for the Albert family, so that's what I wrote in my history," she said. It got published in the phone book.

Rogers is convinced there's "no logical reason" supporting the Albert family namesake story - wrong side of the river, other names published at the time and the Milwaukee Road records all seem in her favor. But mistakes can be made.

For example, several Missoulian stories refer to Milwaukee Road "general superintendent" H.B. Earling. And the gravestone in the Albert family cemetery has Raoul Albert's year of death wrong: "1940" is engraved on the tombstone instead of 1941.

And making mistakes, or simply making stuff up, was a common occurrence in the early days of Montana. The Milwaukee Road got its start in Montana buying up a little-used central Montana line built by the Northern Pacific. Because of its history of empty or inflated promises, it was known as the "Jawbone Line."

And in the oral history of early Montana compiled by writers in the federal Works Progress Administration, there's this story:

"Soon after its completion, the Northern Pacific requested a timetable of the new road to incorporate into its own," wrote Richard Harlow, namesake of Harlowtown and superintendent of the Jawbone Line. "There were no towns on the line, nor … any provocation for towns, but … I drew up a schedule and located … plenty of them. Two young ladies (Fan and Lulu) were visiting at my house. On the timetable, you will find Fanalulu just below … Ringling."

Albert and Rogers aren't planning anything more than a spirited difference of opinion on the matter.

"The question has gone on enough years that it's become a part of our history in its own right," Rogers said.

"Nobody knows for sure," added Albert. "And maybe nobody will ever know for sure."

Railroad rendezvous

Alberton's annual Railroad Days celebration comes July 19.

Events start off with a Golden Spike scavenger hunt at 8 a.m. along with a pancake breakfast at the Senior Center. The railroad parade begins at 11 a.m. down Main Street. The University of Montana's SpectrUM Science Tent also opens at 11 a.m. with hands-on displays of science concepts and projects.

Guitar Hero and goldfish racing games will start at noon, with an innertube race at 2 p.m.

Live music offerings include the Old Time Fiddlers at Trax from 4 to 8 p.m., a blue grass jam session at the park gazebo from 5 to 7:30 p.m. and the Helping Hands live music show in the park from 7 to 11 p.m.

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