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Paul Fugleberg


You don’t have to be in Montana very long to realize there are some very strange rules applied to the spelling of some cities, towns, rivers, mountains, etc.

For instance:

State highway signs spell the town at the northeast end of Flathead Lake Big Fork. Some maps spell it that way, too, while others use Bigfork. How come? According to those who claim to have given considerable thought to the subject, the original choice was Big Fork. But the U.S. Postal Service, in its wisdom in the early 1900s, refused to accept two words on mailing addresses. So they say.

All right. But how about Great Falls, Big Arm, Big Timber, Two Dot, Swan Lake, Seeley Lake, Thompson Falls, St. Ignatius, Hot Springs, Deer Lodge, Columbia Falls? There had to be a better reason.

The river that flows from the outlet of Flathead Lake at Polson is now called the Flathead River. A check of older maps, however, showed it as the Pend Oreille River. Why the difference? Perhaps the latter was too hard to spell?

Along Interstate 90 near Anaconda and Drummond, there were highway signs (or used to be – I haven’t checked recently) referring to the Anaconda-Pintlar Wilderness, while highway maps spell it Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. The latter is correct, verified by a member of the Pintler family for whom the wilderness is named.

Other examples: There’s the city of Kalispell and the Kalispel Indian Tribe; the Kootenai River in northwest Montana, the Kootenay in British Columbia, and the Kootenai and Kutenai tribes; and Pondera County in Montana and Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho.

Pronunciations vary, too. Some folks pronounce Great Falls with the emphasis on Great and others say Great Falls stressing the Falls. The late Mike Turner, a Polson Presbyterian pastor, spun a yarn about some folks who decided to ask a Great Falls restaurant waitress which was the correct pronunciation.

They asked her, “Can you pronounce the place we are at?”

“Certainly,” looking rather puzzled, she replied, “Burger King.”

Paul Fugleberg is a former editor and co-publisher of the Flathead Courier of Polson and the Ronan Pioneer. His freelance articles and photos have appeared in numerous regional and national magazines and newspapers, and he has written several books. He can be reached at

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