Andrew Benoni Hammond was the king of the West. He controlled the Union Pacific Railroad, most of Montana and Oregon as well as a large chunk of California and major trade rivers during the late 1800s to the early 1900s. He was the unseen dictator who could get anything he wanted, and with his power, he created the West as we know it today.
In the presentation “When Money Grew on Trees: Who Was A.B. Hammond and Why Should You Care?” given at the Museum of the Rockies on Oct. 5, Greg Gordon, Ph.D., of Gonzaga University, told the story of the forgotten historical figure A.B. Hammond. From store clerk to timber baron of the West, Hammond was deliberately erased from history and is now being brought back into the light. When Gordon asked the audience who had previously heard of Hammond, a small proportion claimed they had, and for a good reason too. Hammond was known as the “one of the classic jerks in Montana history,” Gordon said.
Born in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1848, Hammond lived and worked near his home as a wood cutter until 1867, when he moved to Maine to work in logging labor camps. When gold was discovered in Montana and he could afford a ticket on a steamboat, Hammond moved out West to Missoula, where his future really took off.
Hammond started off as a store clerk, but in 1881 he was able to make a deal with the Union Pacific Railroad to supply all the lumber for every part of every track. Because of the Northern Pacific Land Grant of 1864, there were enough trees for a while, but most of the land given to the railroad had unsuitable trees for building. Hammond started cutting on public and private land eventually making enough money to fund the Missoula Mercantile Company, the first bank of Missoula and Hammond Lumber Company. Hammond also bought most of the public land in and around the town of Missoula. Hammond had started his empire.
Although Hammond brought many people to Montana through the lumber industry, he gave little regard for his fellow person and took advantage of every law, loophole and negotiation possible. During both the panic of 1893 and the first part of the Great Dust Bowl of the 1930s, Hammond bought out all competing lumber companies and gained even more control of prices in the market. He pulled people to the West by providing jobs and contributed greatly to the economic development of the West, while exploiting those same people and the nature they called their homes.
Hammond died at the age of 85 in 1934, one year after his empire collapsed due to a fire set by his lumberjacks, incinerating over 380 square miles in Oregon over the course three weeks. As the legend goes, Gordon said, “Hammond, with a shock of white hair, impeccably dressed just as he was in life, sat up in his coffin. As the pallbearers approached, he said ‘Six pallbearers. Fire two and cut the other four’s wages by 10 percent.’”