The Montana Merchant Marine

(My regular column is suspended during the pandemic, but we’re running some old ones I thought readers might enjoy. They originally were published in The Idaho Statesman early in my career there. Many are humor columns from the 1980s. In times like these, we need humor.)

  Credit Robert Kelleher with the bizarre idea of the month

  Kelleher is a candidate for governor of Montana. His idea is the kind of story newspaper columnists pray for.

  He wants to start a Montana Merchant Marine

  The man is serious. He actually wants landlocked Montana to invest in merchant- marine freighters.

  Imagine the headlines.

  “S.S. Bozeman sinks off Nebraska coast.”

  The only thing that separates Kelleher from true genius is that he’s running for governor of Montana and not Kansas.

  You have to admire a person with that kind of courage. Selling people on the idea of sea-going freighters in Montana must be about as easy as selling lighthouses in Oklahoma. 

  Montanans do not have a consuming interest in freighters, barges, tankers or other marine vessels. The closest thing they have to a seaport is Lewiston, which as everyone knows is in Idaho.

  As I understand it, Kelleher’s strategy is to use a newly formed Montana Merchant Marine and a rehabilitated railroad to ship grain to Asia. This supposedly would cut by a third the cost of shipping Montana grain to the Far East. 

  The plan, obviously, poses a potential threat to Lewiston’s port and Idaho’s grain shipping.

  With this in mind, I’m hereby proposing a counter offensive. If Idaho is to prevail against Kelleher and likeminded Montanans with nautical ambitions, it has but one course of action.

  We should start a navy and take them on.   

  Think about it. Idaho has been taking it on the chin from Montana for years.

  The best example is Yellowstone Park. When the park was divvied up, Montana and Wyoming got all the geysers, all the entrances and all the souvenir shops. All Idaho got was a miserable little corner, without a single mud pot, geyser or tourist restaurant.

  The most humiliating thing about the relationship between the states, from an Idahoan’s standpoint, is the way Montana and Idaho are perceived by much of the rest of the world.

   In books, movies and television programs, Montana is portrayed as Big Sky Country, a land of towering peaks and alpine splendor, a state where sophisticated eastern tourists sip whiskey in mountain lodges after catching trophy trout.

  Idaho, also blessed with towering peaks and alpine splendor, is thought by everyone east of the Mississippi to be a flat, unvarying expanse of potato fields. A Midwesterner once told me, with a perfectly straight face, that Idaho is nothing but potato fields, that it shares a border with Iowa and therefore has to be flat, and that anyone who knows anything knows that Sun Valley is in California.

  It isn’t fair. Montana gets all the glory while Idaho is the butt of potato jokes.

  With a navy, that could change overnight.

  For starters, we’d print up some catchy recruiting posters:

  “Join the Navy and see Idaho.”

  “Damn the spuds. Full speed ahead!”

  Artists would jump at the chance to sketch aircraft carriers crossing the Camas Prairie.

  Once our destroyers were operational, we’d steam over and claim our fair share of Yellowstone Park. If Wyoming gave us any trouble, we declare war on Rock Springs.

  Imagine the looks on Montanans’ faces when our fleet docked outside the stadium for the next Idaho-Montana football game.

  If anyone protested, we’d mine the harbor at Billings.

Tim Woodward’s column runs every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on the following Mondays. Contact him at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s