The story varies on how Red Lodge got its name. One version has the Crow Indians applying red clay to their tipis, or the clay adhering to the tipis as they were pulled on travois behind the horses. Another version tells of a Crow leader named Red Bear whose tipi was painted red.
The ﬁrst Europeans in the area were probably Spaniards. A Spanish expedition led by Cabeza de Vaca may have visited the area in 1535. It would be 200 years before Lewis & Clark came through the area along the Yellowstone River north of here. Shortly after that, a trickle of explorers turned into a ﬂood. John Colter, one of the Lewis & Clark members, returned to explore this area along the Clarks Fork just east of Red Lodge. Jim Bridger trapped here, and a town nearby bears his name.
The Red Lodge area was, for a period, a part of the Crow reservation. But as often happened in the history of the West, the discovery of minerals led the government to change the deal. In this case, it was the rich coal deposits discovered in 1886. At that time there were three Indians to every settler and four men for every woman. The Rocky Fork Coal Company opened the area's ﬁrst mine in 1887 and shortly thereafter the Rocky Fork and Cooke City Railways came to the area. The area prospered as Red Lodge became the shipping point for the vast area to the south.
Red Lodge has had its share of colorful characters. In addition to John Colter and Jim Bridger, Buffalo Bill Cody used the railway to supply his Cody enterprises. Calamity Jane frequented the area. “Liver-Eating” Johnson, who the Robert Redford character in the movie “Jeremiah Johnson” was modeled after, moved here in 1894. Johnson's cabin is preserved at the south end of town.
With the growth of the coal mines came a diversity of ethnic backgrounds. Finnish, Irish, Scottish, Slavic, Italian, and Scandinavian miners and their families settled here. When Red Lodge was made the seat of newly-formed Carbon County in 1896, the town boasted twenty saloons. In 1906, there were six churches, 14 fraternal orders, two newspapers, public schools, two telephone systems, three banks, an electric plant, three hotels, and a population of 4,000. Before its decline, the population reached 6,000, almost triple today’s population.
In the mid-20s, the depression forced mines to close. The town turned to manufacture bootleg liquor, which was marketed as cough syrup and sold as far away as Chicago and San Francisco. In 1943, the Smith Mine disaster at Bear Creek killed 74 miners. This pretty much led to the end of coal mining in Carbon County. Today, the community is largely supported by agriculture and tourism.