The lumber town of Libby (pop. 2,626) was first founded as a gold-mining camp but grew into its present, elongated form after the Great Northern railroad came through in 1892. On the south bank of the Kootenai River, Libby is just downstream from the Libby Dam, which was built in 1972 and forms the Lake Koocanusa Reservoir, stretching north into Canada. Despite the fact that Libby is the hometown of Montana governor and Republican Party national chairman Mark Racicot, the town has suffered one of the worst cases of toxic pollution in recent U.S. history. From the 1940s up until 1990, mining company W. R. Grace dug millions of tons of asbestos-laced vermiculite rock out of a local mountain, covering Libby in toxic dust that has caused more than 1,200 people to suffer from serious lung diseases. The EPA has spent over $50 million to clean up Libby’s streets, gardens, and houses, and in 2005 company officials were indicted on criminal charges.
Despite the occasional media interest in the asbestos case, Libby looks like a pretty typical Montana mountain town. Alongside the railroad tracks, Libby strings for a few miles along US-2 frontage, where you can find casinos and gas stations galore (the Conoco station offers hot showers), a half dozen motels, including the Sandman ($40 and up; 406/293-8831), and places to eat like Beck’s Montana Cafe, 2425 W. US-2 at the west end of town; the old center of town, along Mineral Drive north of US-2 toward Libby Dam, holds the Pastime Saloon, serving beer since 1916.
A number of pleasant campgrounds operate in and around Libby, including excellent spots in the nearby Cabinet Wilderness. Libby’s most interesting accommodation option: spending a night or two in the Baldy Mountain Fire Lookout, 20 miles north of town. The popular lookout sleeps up to six people and costs $25 a night; for details contact the Libby ranger station (406/293-8861).
Between Libby and the busy mini-metropolis of the Columbia Falls/Whitefish/Kalispell area, US-2 traverses 70 miles of Kootenai National Forest, an all but uninhabited area, sections of which have been badly charred by forest fires. A small display at milepost 63 explains the role of fire in the natural scheme of things.
West of Glacier National Park, US-2 crosses US-93, the Border to Border route, which runs through the towns of Whitefish and Kalispell.