Honky Tonk Town: Havre


Honky-Tonk Town: Havre

by Gary Wilson

This excerpt from Honky-Tonk Town: Havre, Montana’s Lawless Era is published by permission of Globe Pequot Press. Copyright 2006 by Gary Wilson. To order a copy contact Globe Pequot Press, 246 Goose Lane, Guilford, CT 06437.

Editor’s note: From its beginnings as a railroad town in 1887, Havre was a tough town with plenty of saloons, gambling halls, opium dens, and brothels. With the passage of Prohibition, it was a natural hub for smuggling illegal alcohol across the nearby Canadian border. One of its most successful “entrepreneurs” was Shorty Young.


From the east, US 2 begins on the east coast of Maine and ends at Everett, Washington, on the west coast, a distance of about 3,000 miles. Once through the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and most of North Dakota, the highway meets and parallels the Missouri River and the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railroad near Williston, North Dakota, 24 miles east of the Montana border. Into Montana at Nashua begins the Milk River, a tributary of the Missouri River.

From this point westward to the Continental Divide at Marias Pass, the vast plains region of northern Montana is called the Hi-Line (High Line). The name originates from the old Great Northern Railway’s track westward from Havre being a gradually elevating roadbed. The heart of this country is Havre, the county seat of Hill County and headquarters for the Montana division of the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railroad.

The landscape varies from brown rolling hills and barren badlands to low buttes and shallow tree-lined valleys. In this country some of the finest milling and baking wheat in the world is grown. In fact Hill County is now the greatest wheat-producing area in Montana.

Because this land is remote, its early history has been passed over by historians of the American West. Approaching Havre from the east on US 2, one will see on the right side of the road, a state historical sign post that in part says: “Havre came into existence as a division point when the Great Northern Railroad was built and provided pastime to cowboys, doughboys (soldiers) and coal miners on the side. It is hard to believe now, but as 
a frontier town she was wild and hard to curry.”

Vice King

C.W. “Shorty” Young Jr. was destined to become northern Montana’s and Havre’s vice king. His notoriety spread throughout the West. Very few salesmen or drummers would miss an opportunity to stay at Shorty’s Montana Hotel.

Shorty was “Shorty” because he was only about 5 feet 2 inches. But he was well proportioned and wiry, almost as if he were a wrestler or an acrobat. The blue-eyed, brown-haired Young always had a big cigar in his mouth. He generally wore suits and loved striped shirts.

He came to Havre in 1895 and first worked as roulette wheel operator at Decker’s Palace Hotel on First Street. Shorty’s first call was at Reuben Hauser’s barbershop. Without funds he received a haircut and shave on the cuff. He then registered at the Windsor Hotel, changed clothes, and headed for the gambling houses. After a few hours at the tables, he made enough to reimburse Hauser, pay the hotel, and keep pocket money too.

In keeping with the code of the West, Shorty spoke little of his past and no one asked. Young came from Buffalo, New York, where he was born in April of 1872. His parents were Doctor Christopher W. Young and Sara Elliott-Young. His father graduated with a degree in medicine from Edinburgh University in 1851 and immediately migrated to the United States.

At the age of thirteen Shorty went to Canada. He was employed by a friend of the family who perhaps acted as a guardian. The benefactor was in the insurance business and also owned a racetrack. Here Shorty learned to handle racing horses.

For whatever reason, Young left New York in his early twenties and landed in Duluth, Minnesota. Shorty said he only made enough money in Duluth to go farther west. His next stop was Fargo, North Dakota. Fargo had several combination liquor and entertainment establishments. They featured all-night vaudeville acts and girlie shows such as Shorty’s future Honky-Tonk. By the time he reached Havre, he was an expert in all games of chance.

Shorty probably would have always remained just a colorful saloon dealer except for one thing: He introduced a new game to Havre called Chuck-a-Luck (or Hazard). The new toy took Havre by storm and Shorty cleaned up. With his newly found wealth, he soon bought the Havre Beer Hall from his old boss Mayor Eugene Shelton. In connection with the bar, Shorty opened an Oyster and Chop House.

In 1898 the building, which brought notoriety to Shorty, rose to prominence in the open, swampy, and empty west end of Havre’s First Street. The three-story frame building, the largest in northern Montana, was officially named The Montana European Hotel and Grill. But it was known as the Montana Concert Hall or just plain Honky-Tonk. It employed 28 people not including the girls.

The three-story building sat on the southeast corner of the property and faced First Street.

The main floor of the Honky-Tonk contained a raised stage on one end with about 30 tables in front of it. An open space between the stage and tables was used for any musical accompaniment. On stage vaudeville acts performed nightly for the audience while girls circulated in gaudy low-cut evening dresses and hawked drinks. Patrons could help the girls deposit their percentage tickets in their stockings. A special red ticket was for tips.

A beer sold for 20 cents in the Honky-Tonk, $1.00 on crib row, and $3.00 in the Parlour House.

Above and to either side of the stage were heavily draped boxes. Patrons at these tables could see down on the stage performances, but no one could easily see them. The third floor contained a dance and gambling hall and the apartment hotel rooms. Nine gambling games included Craps, Black Jack, Five Card Draw and Stud Poker, Roulette, Chuck-a-Luck, and the Chinese game of Fan-tan.

Shorty spent much of his time at the Honky-Tonk, at least in the early years. He walked, or rather paced, with his arms folded behind him. If any trouble developed, he walked swiftly to his office. Once the bouncers had quieted the disturbance, he reappeared.

Shorty built his own set of tunnels that ran among only his own buildings. He also had an escape tunnel that began under the stage and went several hundred yards to the west, surfacing in a dumping ground.

Soon after the Honky-Tonk opened, Shorty built another bar in the Pepin-Broadwater block. He called it the Mint. It was strictly first class: a bar with woodwork of mahogany, marble-topped tables, and inch-thick linoleum. The basement housed a restaurant. It had private booths with fancy opaque glass windows in the doors. The drinks were served in genuine cut glass. Around the bar on a shelf just below the ceiling were mounted animal trophies of all types, including mountain sheep, eagles, and alligators.

With his saloon businesses booming, Shorty soon became a very rich man. He bought property in downtown Havre at the east end. Among his holdings was a 6,000-acre ranch on the hill west of town. The ranch had 600 head of livestock and a large coal mine.

Shorty Young not only became well known for his business enterprises, but also for his determination to prevent law and order from interfering with them. Whether local, state, or federal government, Shorty fought them all—and usually won. But the price came high for Shorty and the town.


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