Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

New exhibit illuminates Bozeman’s historic red-light district

Montana may be known for its pristine wild places and picturesque views, but its history isn’t necessarily pretty.

A new exhibit reveals a seamier side of Bozeman, its “restricted district” home to brothels, saloons, and opium dens from the 1870s until 1918. At the time, the newly-founded town was an agricultural hub for mining camps like Bannock, Virginia City, and Helena that propagated with the discovery of gold in the early 1860s.

Crystal Alegria is the Executive Director of The Extreme History Project, the nonprofit behind the exhibit.

“Our mission is to make history relevant and our tagline is history isn't pretty,” Alegria said.

Located in a former late 19th-century brothel, the exhibit focuses on the lives of two district madams, Libbie Hayes and Lizzie Woods. Hayes lived and worked out of the building housing the exhibit; Woods from a house nearby. The money and shred of agency they enjoyed almost certainly came with a steep social cost. Most red light workers were driven by destitution and desperation.

“There was also a lot of violence in these districts,” Alegria said. “Violence towards the women from their customers, but also violence between themselves. There was also a lot of drug use and alcohol abuse in these districts. A lot of the women we see die very young of overdose. A lot of women commit suicide.”

Behind the building housing the exhibit is one that was operated by members of the Chinese community, a not uncommon arrangement in many early Western towns.

“The Chinese community liked to set up next to the Red-Light District because there were a lot of people coming into that area that would then use their services, shop in their mercantiles, go to their restaurants, that sort of thing,” Alegria said.

Using information gleaned from deed and probate records, census data, and newspapers, the exhibit shows documents, photographs, and artifacts from the era. Taken together, the PG exhibit shows how the women navigated the legalities, social stigmas, and moralities of the day.

Illuminating the Shadowed World of Bozeman’s Historic Red-Light District opened earlier this month and will run through the summer. Tickets and more information can be found on The Extreme History Project website (