A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE HAMILTON POLICE DEPARTMENT
by Sgt. Robert Weber (Retired)
In the late 1800’s and up until 1894, the only lawman around the Hamilton area were Night Watchmen and constables. On rare occasions a US Marshall would be called in from outside of the area.
In August of 1894 there was excitement in the air when a large group of people had gathered to nominate candidates for Hamilton’s first election of Mayor and Alderman. As a result, the true beginning of the Hamilton Police Department was formed when a Marshall was named to enforce the laws of the City of Hamilton. The Marshall was appointed and his salary was to be $85.00 per month.
Being a Marshall in Hamilton in those days was not an easy matter. Shortly after the Marshall was appointed, another night officer was appointed to assist the Marshall. In 1894, Marcus Daly had one of the largest sawmill and planer mills in the world employing some 300 to 400 men. As you can imagine there were plenty of thirsty men looking for a good time at the many saloons that were in town.
The Marshall’s duties for the most part in the beginning were a walking beat in the alleys of the downtown area. The County seat at that time was in Stevensville, Montana. Hamilton had a simple holding facility for prisoners, but no official jail. Records indicate that the Marshall would rent a saddle horse if he had to transport prisoners or had business to attend to that was too far to walk. The Marshall worked from 6am until 6pm and the night officer would work from 6pm until 6am, six days a week. There were no radios or telephones available to the Officers at that time. The town installed two call lights in the down town area. One was located above the Ravalli County Bank (corner of 3rd and Main Street), and the other one was above the Opera House (corner of 2nd and Main Street). The lights had red bulbs in them and when an officer was needed the light was activated. When the officers saw the call light on they would go back to City Hall or the Courthouse to see what the problem was.
Shortly after the county seat was moved to Hamilton, in 1900, a new County Courthouse, Sheriffs Office and the County Jail were built. The year of 1900 came to an end with the shocking news that Marcus Daly, the City’s founder, had died.
Shortly after the turn of the century one of Hamilton’s most historic events occurred. A man by the name of Walter Jackson had been arrested and tried for the murder of a six-year-old boy named Fonnie Buck from Stevensville. Jackson was found guilty and an appeal was filed by his lawyer. In the early morning hours of October 14, 1903 a group of masked men from Stevensville forcibly took Jackson out of his cell with a rope around his neck and lynched him on a power pole in front of the Ravalli Hotel. (The Ravalli Hotel was located where the present City Hall is today.)
Time passed, and progress came to Hamilton. Local Realtor, Frank Drinkenberg bought the first automobile in Hamilton. A lot of folks in the area were not too fond of the new car. As you can imagine, the noise and sight of the auto frightened saddle horses and wagons as they met the auto on the streets. Some folks took it upon themselves to take care of the problem. The car was stored in a shed at Drinkenberg’s house. Unknown persons took some dynamite and blew up the car and shed.
A new City Hall, Fire Hall and Jail building was finished in about 1908. The roaring 1920’s brought about some new problems. By now automobiles were a part of life in Hamilton. It didn’t take the Police long to realize that they could not catch up with speeding cars while on foot. The City passed a speed limit law of 15mph on City streets. No one seemed to pay much attention however because they knew that the Police could not catch them anyway. So the City hired special motorcycle cops to catch the speeders. It was evident by a newspaper article that was printed in the Ravalli Republic in December of 1920, that these motorcycle cops upset the area folks. The article basically said that the farmers were afraid to come to town for fear that the motor cycle cop would arrest them for reckless driving. It did however make a big difference in the speeding in town.
The Hamilton Police had no Police vehicles until the late 1940’s. Then Chief of Police, Clarence Houge had a red 1937 to 1939 Ford pickup that had no siren or insignia. The Police used the old pickup occasionally when they needed to go somewhere. However, the officers did not like to use it because it was terribly noisy and smoked up the street. The first actual patrol car for the Police in Hamilton came in 1955. It was a 1949 Dodge two-door sedan with full insignia, lights, and siren.
From the beginning to the 1940’s, two to four officers took care of enforcing the laws in Hamilton. In those days the officers ended up maintaining streets, plowing snow, and whatever else needed to be done.
By the 1950’s some dramatic changes were taking place. To list a few, the first patrol car, the first Police radios and a newfangled contraption called a radar. The radar wrinkled many a brow. Until the late 50’s, the Police had not worn a uniform other than a hat or coat with a badge. The first regular uniform was a gray uniform shirt, navy blue uniform pants, and a navy blue eight-pointed saucer type Police hat. There were no patches or brass except for the badge. The Police Department was located in the old City Hall building from 1908 until the mid 1970’s when it was moved into the basement of the new Courthouse. Then in the late 1980’s it was moved into the new City Hall at 223 South 2nd Street, where it remains today.
With very few exceptions, the Hamilton Police Department has had a twenty-four hour patrol, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty five days a year, and has served the community for more than the past one hundred and ten years.
From the days when the Marshall walked a beat and rode a saddle horse, today’s Hamilton Police Department has become modern, and state of the art, operating with all the technologies of the day. There are a total of fifteen officers in the Police Department, ten Patrol Officers, one Sergeant, two Detectives, one Lieutenant and one Chief of Police.