Beaverhead’s Mountain Passes

IMG_3417Beaverhead County’s history has deep roots, perhaps never deeper than at the high mountain passes that divide it from neighboring Idaho.  We have already taken a look at Monida Pass, but now let’s shift to the western border and consider Lemhi Pass (Lemhi Road is the image above) and Bannock Pass, both at well over 7000 feet in elevation.

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IMG_3427Lemhi Pass is a magnificent place, reached by a wide dirt road that climbs up to 7300 feet.  The roadbed is modern, and lies over a path worn by centuries of Native Americans who traveled this path between mountain valleys in present-day Montana and Idaho.  That deep past is why the more famous Lewis and Clark Expedition took this route over the Bitterroot–and the Corps of Discovery connection is why the pass has been protected in the 20th century.  The pass is also connected with Sacajawea, since her tribe, the Shoshone, often used it to cross the mountains.

The pass is one of the infrequently visited jewels of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, a place that the expedition used and probably would have never “discovered” if not for the prior Native American use.

IMG_3433This kiosk by the U.S. Forest Service is part of the new public interpretation of the property, both at the start of the pass to the top of the mountain itself at the Sacajawea Memorial Area.

IMG_3429Bannock Pass, comparatively has received little in public interpretation.  Unlike Lemhi, it is not a National Historic Landmark associated with Lewis and Clark.  For today’s travelers, however, it is a much more frequently used way to cross the Rockies despite its 300 foot higher elevation.  A historic site directional sign leads to one interpretive

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marker explains that railroad engineers used the pass to connect Dillon and Idaho in the early 20th century, changing the ancient appearance of the pass, used by Native Americans for centuries to connect the high plains of Montana to the rich valleys of Idaho.  The marker also describes the use of Bannock Pass by Nez Perce led by Chief Joseph in 1877, as they escaped back into Idaho after the Battle of Big Hole. The Nez Perce National Historic Trail is more closely associated with Chief Joseph Pass, located to the north.

IMG_2893It was a snowy Memorial Day when I crossed Lost Trail and Chief Joseph passes on my way to Big Hole Battlefield.  Once again I was impressed by the recent efforts of the U.S. Forest Service to interpret the epic yet tragic journey of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce in 1877, especially the Trail Creek Road that parallels Montana Highway 43.

Kudos to the National Park Service for its new visitor center, exhibits, and interpretive markers at the battlefield–the finally the whole story of the Nez Perce campaign is explored through thoughtful public interpretation, centered on the Nez Perce perspective,

those who lived here until the military force led by Col. John Gibbon thought it could surprise and rout the Indians.  Rather the Nez Perce counter-attacked forcing the soldiers into surrounding woods.  The trek of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce effort to find safety in

IMG_2919Canada was underway. Today the Nez Perce National Historic Trail and Park mark that journey into history. The park today is frankly an amazing transformation, from a preserved battlefield in the early 1980s that only hinted at the true facts of history to a modern of battlefield interpretation, one that does justice to history and to the Nez Perce story.  One only wishes that more western battlefields received similar treatment.

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Lewistown’s Heritage Development

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Photo by Montana Preservation Alliance.

During the state historic preservation planning process in 1984-1985, the new historic preservation efforts in Lewistown, especially the focus on the sandstone masonry of the Croatians, were noted and celebrated as well as the town’s only “marked” historic site, Reed’s Fort Post Office, associated with the very early history of settlement in Fergus County and the history of the Metis who lived here in the 1870s and 1880s.  Certainly much more was known about the community’s history and architecture. But there was little public interpretation, except for this log building and, on the other side, of the town, a public park with military artifacts including an ICBM missile–a rarity then and now for a public park anywhere in the west.

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IMG_0010Even the local museum was at the beginning stage, sharing quarters with the chamber of commerce in a Ranch-style building, like the park, on the outskirts of town.

IMG_0016How times changed over 30 years.  The museum is still at its location but adjacent is now a new facility, replicating a huge barn, expanded exhibits and artifacts about the region’s history.

IMG_0017Markers about National Register-listed properties and districts exist throughout town, courtesy of the exemplary interpretive marker program of the Montana Historical Society.

IMG_9390What happens within town is supported by recent interpretive marker installations at the highway rest stop as you enter Lewistown.  From this spot there is an excellent view of the historic Lewistown airfield, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, for its significance in World War II aerial supply lines and defense.

IMG_9416Not only can you see the historic district, you also can learn about its significance through an interpretive marker developed by Montana Department of Transportation.

IMG_9415Steps away is another interpretive kiosk, related to an earlier, sadder military story, that of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians and their attempted flight to freedom in Canada in the 1870s.  Both markers also emphasized the overall theme of transportation and how Lewistown has been crisscrossed by important historical events for centuries.

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Walking tour brochures help visitors and residents understand more of the history and architectural beauty of the town, from landmarks such as St. Leo’s Catholic Church, an amazing interpretation of Italian

IMG_9965Renaissance revival style from the prominent Montana firm of Link and Haire, and the historic early 20th century domestic architecture in the downtown neighborhoods.

IMG_9923The town’s historic districts serve as anchors within the commendable trail system developed in Lewistown over the last 20 years.  Local officials and representatives, working with the state government and abandoned railroad property and corridors, have established a series of trail loops that not only provide excellent recreational opportunities, as signified in this trail head near the Yogo Inn, but also paths for heritage tourists and

IMG_9403residents alike to explore the landscape, and how history in the 19th and 20th centuries created the place where they live and play today.

IMG_9405As we will see later in western Montana, like in Butte and Kalispell, trail systems can be the best of heritage development because they take advantage of the state’s greatest asset–its landscape and sense of the Big Sky Country–and combine it with explanations of the layers of history you encounter wherever you go, creating an asset that visitors will like but that residents will cherish, because they can use it on a daily basis.

IMG_0014Of course recreation, to my mind, is never complete unless there are nearby watering holes where one can relax and replenish, and Lewistown is rich in those too, being they the various classic roadside establishments along the highways entering and leaving town or the can’t miss taverns downtown, such as The Mint and the Montana Tavern, where the signs speak to the good times to come. Those properties are crucial for heritage development because they are important in themselves but they also are the places that get people to stop, and hopefully explore.

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Fergus Co Lewistown Montana tavern sign downtown commerical HD 24 - Version 2Using multiple pasts to create new opportunities for communities:  Lewistown has it going, and it’s far different world today than in 1984.

 

 

 

 

 

The Chief Joseph Battleground in Blaine County

 

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In 1984 I was very eager to see the Chief Joseph Battleground, as many historians and residents called it 30 years ago.  Here in 1877 Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce surrendered to the U.S. Army, which had pursued Joseph and his followers across most of Montana, starting in Beaverhead County in the southeast corner, extending as far east along the Yellowstone as present-day Laurel, and then striking north for the Canadian border.  They made it as far as this wind-swept prairie 15 miles south of Chinook.

In 1984, on a cold winter morning, the site was spectacular and I gave a tip of my hat to the local residents who had made the effort to preserve the site–and acquire enough land that you could gain a strong sense of place, and of destiny.  The level of interpretation at the battleground was disappointing.  There was a mounted bust of Chief Joseph (not full-sized; it looked lost on the vastness of the space) which has since been moved.  There were metal plaques noting Chief Joseph’s surrender to Gen. Nelson Miles, erected by the DAR and the citizens of Blaine County in 1929 and by Congress in 1930. And most recently, a 1966 marker to C. R. Noyes, the local 

 

 

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rancher who had played the key role in saving the battleground.  There was not much else to explain the significance of the Nez Perce campaign nor what happened there in the fall of 1877.  When I next visited in 1988, the story was the same.

In 1989 the National Park Service designated the Chief Joseph Battleground as a National Historic Landmark–the first step in a new future for the park.  Then it became a key property in the Nez Perce Historical Park, which has units from Idaho to Montana.  New interpretive trails and interpretive markers are the most recent additions, telling a much broader story than the old metal markers were capable of doing.  

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The experience today is far different than 1984.  There is still no visitor center–the new one at Big Hole Battlefield in Beaverhead County is superb however–and the Blaine County Museum in Chinook still carries that burden of interpreting the story.  But there is truth in the landscape now, as never before.  The trails, markers, and landscape combine to create a deeper understanding of why the Nez Perce stopped here, why it was difficult to escape the U.S. army, and what that trek and all of those stories might mean today.

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The two layers of interpretation–that of the early 20th century and that of the 21st century–co-exist within a special place.  Here is one preservation success in the last 30 years that deserves to be better known.

A bit farther down the road is Cleveland.  In my time in Montana, it hosted one of the most famous (or was it infamous) local rodeos around.  Its bar/cafe/post office spoke still to the first part of the 20th century.  People there in 1984 were friendly, and it was a good place that I looked forward to revisiting.  But the doors were shuttered in Cleveland.  The corrals were still there, sorta.   And there was no Cleveland Bar.  Wish I could have been here one more time before it went away.

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