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Published: October 12th 2014
The drive from Butte MT to Helena Campground & RV Park in Helena MT on Wednesday, September 10, 2014 would be short according to MapQuest (only 68 miles and 70 minutes). The trusty Ram started the trek with a 4-5 mile uphill pull on I-15 that took me through 6368’ Elk Park Pass. Although the drive is not designated as scenic by the Rand McNally brain trust, all that stuff is subjective and relative anyway. I suspect cornfields might be scenic to a desert native the first time! Regardless, I enjoyed the drive.
My first order of business after set-up was a trip to the Helena Visitor Center. Over the course of The Great Adventure, I have learned there are two basic types of visitor centers. The first is staffed by folks whose JOB it is to be knowledgeable about the needs of the visitor. These folks can determine the visitors’ interests quickly and then actively engage the client with suggestions based on those interests. The second type is generally a Chamber of Commerce facility that has (probably) had the visitor center role shoved down its budgetary throat. Those folks will do their best to answer your questions, but you
had better bring your question list with you! The Helena Visitor Center is the latter type.
I already had a pretty good handle on the attractions I wanted to visit when I walked in the door but always have had one problem child. Waterfall information is available in numerous locations on the Internet, but I have yet to find a comprehensive resource that provides hiking distance and difficulty, trailhead location and physical data (height, width, water volume, etc.) for the waterfall.
Some web sites provide a comprehensive LIST with only minimal information such as state and county, GPS coordinates and waterfall height. One of those web sites lists four waterfalls in Lewis and Clark County. Other web sites provide a comprehensive DATASET for a mere handful of waterfalls. Generally, the latter tends to identify waterfalls with physical demands this out of shape codger is not able or willing to challenge.
Both of the women staffing the “visitor center” were busy at their computers when I entered and promptly greeted me. I inquired about local waterfalls and, although they seemed eager to help, I was unable to supplement the information I already had found on the Internet. That
was not the first time I had bewildered folks with the waterfall query. Without knowing the trail length and difficulty and without knowing how to get to the trailhead, I had to scratch the waterfalls off my “to do” list.
For those of you who don’t remember my last blog entry, Deer Lodge MT is host to a five museum consortium I spontaneously visited on a Monday (vs. my original plan for a weekend visit). I found only the Old Montana Prison Museum and the Montana Auto Museum are open on Mondays, so I had three attractions remaining on the “to do” list. Since one two-day ticket accesses all five facilities (and since the drive to Deer Lodge is designated as scenic anyway), the other three attractions were on the agenda for Thursday, September 11, 2014. (Nope, it didn’t even register until I was watching The History Channel that evening. Since I pay a lot more attention to days of the week than the date, I wasn’t surprised.)
Wednesday evening had brought overcast skies and brisk temperatures to Helena, but I was unaware of any precipitation. The drive west from Helena on U.S. 12 has a 6-7 mile
stretch that took me from Helena at a 3875’ elevation through 6362’ McDonald Pass. As my elevation increased, I began to notice the coloration in the distance was gradually whitening. Indeed, it had snowed in the mountains west of Helena! My knee-jerk reaction was that I should reconsider my itinerary in the mountains of Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon and head SOUTH! LOL The warm roads had melted the snow so driving wasn’t an issue.
My first stop in Deer Lodge was the Frontier Montana Museum and its partner, Cottonwood City. Allegedly, this is the largest collection of handguns, spurs, chaps and other cowboy collectibles between Cody WY and Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I have no reason to doubt the claim. The items on display are from the period of 1829 to 1900 and are primarily the lifetime collection of one man – Don Cappa. There are over 300 handguns and rifles on display; however, one of the best features of this particular museum is the presentation of the artifacts. Most are displayed in themed dioramas vs. dedicated display cases although some of the guns and spurs are too numerous to realistically incorporate into a diorama.
In addition, the
museum displays hats, many varieties of chaps used on the frontier, horse bits and saddles. Several Native American tribes are represented with collections of bead work, animal skin clothing and weapons. A variety of “George Armstrong Custer Family Artifacts” is on display as well as vintage gambling equipment and “the most complete whiskey memorabilia collection in the United States.” The collection is housed in the Old Montana Prison Mule Barn which adds ambiance to the best collection of its type I have seen in a community as small as Deer Lodge and, indeed, would only expect to find in a much larger city. In my opinion, this museum is the crown jewel of the quintet.
I stepped outside and walked through Cottonwood City. The buildings are interesting but do not compare to the Frontier Montana Museum. Most of the unattended buildings have a foyer so the visitor can examine the artifacts through three windows (left, front and right). I can only imagine how quickly the artifacts would disappear where they not protected from the public! As long as you’re here and have already paid the price of admission….
My next stop was Yesterday’s Playthings. Ninety-five percent of the
collection is dolls and doll-related with over half of that being Raggedy Ann and Andy memorabilia. Four percent is model trains and railroad-related. I’ll be nice. Enough said.
I won’t be as nice to the Powell County Museum. The posted hours of operation indicated the facility should be open, and the sign in the window of the door declared, “Open;” however, the door was locked.
After lunch, I sought out the main reason for my return to Deer Lodge – the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site. The ranch (which already had been designated a National Historic Landmark) was re-designated a National Historic Site in 1972 to commemorate the Western cattle industry from the 1850s through recent times. Originally, I planned to visit the attraction from Butte on the same day I was planning to drive the Pintler Veterans' Memorial Scenic Highway; however, my spontaneity had really screwed up the plan!!! No harm, no foul. (Read my Butte blog if you want more of the gruesome details.)
The original ranch was established in 1862 by Johnny Grant. In August 1866, he sold his ranch to cattle baron Conrad Kohrs. Today, the National Park Service runs the facility as
Passin’ Out The Cowboy Joe
Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site - Deer Lodge MT
a living history ranch, using draft horse teams to hay the land and on site blacksmiths make shoes for the horses.
There is no admission or tour fee. The tour of the outbuildings is self-guided, and the tour of the ranch house is guided; however, the group size for the ranch house tour is limited so a reservation must be made at the welcome center near the parking area. Photography inside the ranch house is not allowed but is allowed throughout the rest of the property.
On the day of my visit, a ranger was serving cowboy coffee prepared on a campfire. After all, it had snowed overnight! I found the placards posted among the outbuildings to be well done and informative, and the buildings and artifacts interesting. The NPS rangers, as always, were helpful and enlightening. I’ll give this attraction a thumbs up for all who have time available and will give it a “very highly recommend” for those new to ranching equipment, practices and lifestyle.
Saturday (when school tours cannot happen), September 13, 2014 found me headed to the Montana State Capitol. The building was constructed between 1896 and 1902 with the wing-annexes added between
More Of Montana’s History In Art
Montana State Capitol - Helena MT
1909 and 1912. The building is constructed of Montana sandstone and granite, is in Greek neoclassical architectural style and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Although electricity was not widely available in the western U.S., the Montana State Capitol was the first capitol in the U.S. to be wired for electricity at the time of construction. What visionaries!
The exterior of the dome is covered with copper. Atop the dome is a feminine statue, affectionately dubbed "Lady Liberty," who wears a long-flowing gown and holds a torch in one hand with a shield in the other. Our tour guide offered an intriguing story about “Lady Liberty:”
A design competition for the capitol building was conducted in 1896 and a winner was selected; however, in 1897, it was found that the Capitol Commission was planning to scam money from the building project. Is this an Illinois story??? The first commission was disbanded and a second Capitol Commission was convened, a design was selected and a contract was awarded. An aside, while the original building was never constructed in Montana, it was selected later as the basic design for the Arkansas State Capitol.
Locals recalled hearing
stories that “Lady Liberty” had arrived unexpectedly at the Helena railroad depot. Because of the scandal over the construction of the statehouse, officials had no idea who had sculpted the statue, and all records about it had been destroyed. Not knowing its name, people referred to the statue as "Lady Liberty" ever since it was installed on September 15, 1901.
In the late 20th
century, a Pennsylvania woman, Alice Nagle, sent an e-mail to the Montana Historical Society asking whether "my grandfather's sculpture" still graced the dome. Society officials learned that Nagle's grandfather, Edward J. Van Landeghem of Philadelphia, was the sculptor of the 17-foot tall statue of "Lady Liberty." Nagle told officials her grandfather had christened his sculpture "Montana." For me, a really great Great Adventure story!
The most notable feature inside the Capitol building is the rotunda with four circular paintings surrounding it. These paintings depict four archetypes of people important to Montana's early history: a Native American, an explorer and fur trapper, a gold miner and a cowboy. Other works, primarily themed on the explorers Lewis and Clark, adorn the building with the most significant a painting by Montana's famous Western artist Charles M. Russell.
The Playroom Has Some Really Cool Toys
The Original Governor's Mansion - Helena MT
The 1912 work, titled “Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flathead Indians at Ross' Hole,” is 25 feet long and 12 feet high. It is on display above the Speaker's chair in the House of Representatives' chamber.
Visiting the state museum and taking a guided tour of the state capitol (the historic capitol if there are two capitols) are the best ways I have found to get to know the state, its citizenry and its culture. As are all capitols, the Montana State Capitol is highly recommended. Non-flash photography is allowed throughout.
My next stop was The Original Governor's Mansion also in Helena. Rather than constructing a new dwelling for the governor, the State of Montana acquired a mansion in 1913 to serve as the official residence for her chief executive. The Queen Anne style house and carriage house were built originally in 1888 by William Chessman. Between 1913 and 1959, it was home to nine Montana governors and their families and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.
Since somebody had the foresight to get anecdotes from former occupants (mostly as children) in the 1960s era, the tour guide was able to provide
Gates of the Mountains Looms In The Distance
Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour - Helena MT
an entertaining and colorful tour of the otherwise nondescript mansion. The attraction makes my “if you have time” list. Non-flash photography is allowed throughout.
I had to take a little drive north of Helena to get to the Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour. Gates of the Mountains, a canyon over five miles long that cuts through a series of 1,200 foot cliffs, was noted and named by Lewis and Clark on their journey west in 1805. The tour traverses a very scenic stretch of the Missouri River as it winds through the canyon with walls whose height is now significantly diminished by a manmade lake. The captain was interesting and informative throughout the tour, but one of his narratives struck home for me more than the others.
On August 5, 1949, the Mann Gulch wildfire was reported in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness along the upper Missouri River. A team of 15 smokejumpers who had been dispatched from Hale Field in Missoula MT parachuted into the area that afternoon to fight the fire. As the team approached the fire to begin fighting it, unexpected high winds caused the fire to suddenly expand, cutting off the men's
Peaceful And Serene
Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour - Helena MT
route and forcing them back uphill. During the next few minutes, a "blow-up" of the fire covered 3,000 acres in ten minutes claiming the lives of 12 smokejumpers and one ground firefighter who had been fighting the fire alone before the smokejumpers arrived. Three of the smokejumpers survived. The fire would continue its rampage for five more days before being controlled.
The firefighters who were lost hailed from Montana and Idaho, as one would expect, but also came from as far away as Tennessee, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New York, Kansas and California. Thirteen memorial markers are located on the steep hillside of Mann Gulch. The youngest man on the crew was age 17 at the time of the fire and was the last survivor of the three smoke jumpers. He died on May 29, 2014. The location of the Mann Gulch fire was included as an historical district on the United States National Register of Historic Places on May 19, 1999.
Here’s a synopsis of the Mann Fire for those who share my interest: It was a hot, 97 ° F day, and the fire danger rating was high when lightning struck the south side of Mann Gulch.
Around noon, the fire was spotted by forest ranger James O. Harrison who had been a smokejumper the previous year but, ironically, had given it up because of the danger. The windy conditions scattered the15 smokejumpers, and their radio was destroyed after its parachute failed to open. Harrison fought the fire on his own for four hours before he was reinforced by the smokejumpers.
After the smokejumpers had landed, a shout was heard coming from the front of the fire. Foreman Wagner Dodge left instructions for the team to finish gathering their equipment, eat and then cross the gully to the south slope – their pathway to advance to the front of the fire. He went ahead to find the person shouting (Harrison) and to scout the fire. By the time Dodge returned to his men, the fire was already jumping across the gulch and into the fast burning grass, causing what fire fighters call a "blow up." When Dodge finally got a glimpse of what was happening, he ordered the men to drop their packs and heavy tools.
With the fire less than a hundred yards behind them, he took a match out and set fire to
the grass to their front. In doing so, he was attempting to create an escape fire (with a resultant “burned out” area) that he and his crew could lie in while the main fire burned around them. Three firefighters with Dodge at the time of the blow-up misunderstood when Dodge said, "Up this way," and ran straight up the hill for the ridge crest. As the rest of the crew came up the hill from below, Dodge tried to direct them through the fire he had set and into the burnt out center area. Someone said to Dodge, "To hell with that, I'm getting out of here." Only Dodge entered the escape fire.
Six men were overtaken by the fire before reaching the ridge crest. Two men managed to escape through a crevice to reach the other side of the ridge although they had no way of knowing if the crevice actually "went through" or if it would be a blind trap. Four men reached the ridge crest. Two were overtaken on the ridge crest by the fire and killed, and two managed to find a rock slide with virtually no vegetation. They waited there for the fire to
overtake them, moving from the bottom of the slide to the top as the fire moved past. Both initially survived the fire, but they suffered severe burns and both died in a hospital the next day.
Dodge stated the updrafts generated by the fire moving past him were so intense they caused him to be "lifted off the ground" several times. Of those crew members caught in the main fire, unburnt patches underneath their bodies indicated hypoxia had rendered the men unconscious before the flames engulfed them. Dodge’s story is told in the book by Norman MacLean Young Men and Fire
. That book inspired James Keelaghan to write the song "Cold Missouri Waters." The lyrics can be found here
and an excellent, poignant YouTube rendition by Cry, Cry, Cry can be found here
. A note from the songwriter footnotes the lyrics page, “This song is inspired by Norman MacLean's book 'Young Men and Fire' about the Mann Gulch fire, August 1949. When reading I kept coming back to the image of Dodge, who survived the inferno, dying of Hodgkin's disease. Fate, which had saved him at 33, took him at 38.”
The captain played the James Keelaghan version
of "Cold Missouri Waters" over the boat’s sound system. The United States Forest Service drew lessons from the tragic Mann Gulch fire by designing new training techniques and safety measures that altered how the agency approached wildfire suppression. The agency also increased emphasis on fire research and the science of fire behavior.
The Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour is nice and the canyon is cool but I cannot label the attraction a “must see.” The best part, in my opinion, was the captain’s narrative. If you take the tour, I hope you get the same captain!
Monday, September 15, 2014 found me heading for Montana's Museum in Helena. This is the state museum and, as such, should be the repository for all things Montana. It is. I was, at first, perplexed and then disappointed. Most state museums I have visited immediately immerse the tourist in a prehistoric labyrinth of eons and epochs that have little appeal to me. Montana's Museum presented me with 19th
and early 20th
century exhibits that made sense as individual artifacts but seemed totally disjointed from a global perspective. I soon realize I was in one of the special exhibits galleries!
exhibit entitled Montana's Territorial Legacy: The Montana Historical Society
commemorates the 150 year history of that organization. The Society was founded in 1865 by the first Territorial Legislative Assembly. Unusual in the day, a group of farsighted pioneers believed future generations would someday be interested in the newly formed territory's early history. The Montana Territory and the Montana Historical Society grew up together. The exhibit showcases its fifteen decades of preserving Montana's past.
The second special exhibit is Montana's Mining Frontier: Then and Now
. It consists of an exhibition of vintage engravings and contemporary black and white photographs that explores Montana's early mining culture. About half of the images are original engravings published over a century ago while the other portion is contemporary black and white photographs that focus on what remains from that historical period.
The final special exhibit is Gold, Glory, and Rebellion: Montana and the Civil War
. It portrays the political turmoil accompanying Montana Territory's creation. While the new territory offered opportunities for many, the Territory could not separate itself from the rebellion in the "states" that threatened to tear the nation apart. Those who came to Montana seeking riches, a second chance, or refuge
brought with them baggage – the seeds of disunion, political partisanship, and self-righteous fury.
All three special exhibits are interesting and meaningful as long as the visitor dons the correct par of glasses! I have no notion of when the current special exhibits will be replaced but am confident those replacements also will be well designed and informative.
There are four Long-Term Exhibits. The first I encountered was The Mackay Gallery of Russell Art
. Charles Marion Russell was born March 19, 1864 in Saint Louis MO and was also known as C. M. Russell, Charlie Russell and "Kid" Russell. As an artist of the Old American West, Russell created more than 2,000 paintings of cowboys, Indians and landscapes set in the western United States and Canada as well as numerous bronze sculptures. Russell also was a storyteller and author.
"Kid" Russell came to Montana in 1880 at the age of 16. After an unsuccessful stint working on a sheep ranch, he found work with a hunter and trapper turned rancher named Jake Hoover who owned a ranch in the Judith Basin of Central Montana. Russell learned much about the ways of the west from Hoover, and the
two men remained lifelong friends. After a brief visit to his family in 1882, he returned to Montana where he remained for the rest of his life.
He worked as a cowboy for a number of outfits and documented the harsh winter of 1886-87 in a number of watercolors. At the time, Russell was working on the O-H Ranch in the Judith Basin. When the ranch foreman received a letter from the ranch owner asking how the cattle herd had weathered the winter, the ranch foreman sent a postcard-sized watercolor Russell had painted of a gaunt steer being watched by wolves under a gray winter sky. The ranch owner showed the postcard to friends and business acquaintances and eventually displayed it in a shop window in Helena. After this, work began to come steadily to the aspiring artist.
For those of you with a very good memory, you will recall from my visit to the Montana Capitol that Russell’s 25 feet long and 12 feet high painting titled “Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flathead Indians at Ross' Hole” is on display above the Speaker's chair in the House of Representatives' chamber. Artist Russell came of age when the
"wild west" was being sold back to the public in many forms ranging from the dime novel to the wild west show and, eventually, in silent motion pictures. Russell was fond of these popular art forms and made many friends among the well-off collectors of his works including actors and film makers such as William S. Hart, Harry Carey, Will Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks. Russell's 1918 painting Piegans
sold for $5.6 million at a 2005 auction.
Montana's Museum gallery features approximately 80 art pieces and offers a nice sample of Russell’s work; however, the true Russell aficionado will want to venture to Great Falls MT where the C. M. Russell Museum Complex houses more than 2,000 pieces including artworks, personal objects and artifacts. Speaking of Great Falls, Tuesday will find me embarking on another scenic loop which will include Great Falls.
The next long-term exhibit I encountered was Neither Empty Nor Unknown: Montana at the Time of Lewis and Clark
. The exhibit emphasizes that in the early 1800s Montana was only empty and uncharted to Anglos and conveys how Montana’s flora, fauna and Native peoples and her landforms and regions impacted the members of the Lewis and Clark
Expedition as revealed in their written observations. The exhibit also shows how these same sites also were economically and/or spiritually important to the Native peoples.
The third long-term exhibit I found was the honey hole I had expected when I walked through the door. The Montana Homeland
exhibit examines what life was like in Montana's past and focuses on how people lived, worked, played, raised their families and built their communities and on how they adapted to each other and to the world around them. It explores the ways people obtained necessities like food, clothing and shelter; highlights the tools people developed to make life easier; and discloses the ways Montanans traveled and transported goods.
I had to go up to the second floor to see the final long-term exhibit, Big Medicine
. Big Medicine (1933-1959) is a mounted specimen of a white bison. White bison are born only once in every five million births and, to many Native peoples, are sacred and represent great spiritual power. Consequently, the May 3, 1933, birth of a white buffalo calf on the National Bison Range on Montana's Flathead Indian Reservation was greeted with celebration and wonder. Named in recognition of the
Montana's Museum - Helena MT
sacred power attributed to white bison, "Big Medicine" held great significance for the people of Montana – both Native American and non-Indian. For this reason, in the early 1950s the Montana Historical Society made arrangements to ensure that, upon his death, Big Medicine would be moved to the state's museum and permanently preserved for future generations.
Because he had some pigmentation - blue eyes, tan hooves, and a brown topknot - Big Medicine was a white buffalo rather than a pure albino. At his prime, he weighed 1,900 pounds, stood six feet high at the hump, and measured twelve feet from the tip of his nose to the end of his tail. Although his fame spread worldwide, Big Medicine spent his entire life on the National Bison Range where he received special care that enabled him to live much longer than Joe-average bison. As a result, however, when he died his hide was in poor condition and, in many places, almost hairless. Consequently, his advanced age will forever be reflected in the worn appearance of the mount. Impressive. Montana's Museum is highly recommended.
As promised, Tuesday, September 16, 2014 found me setting out for another scenic excursion. This
journey took me west on U.S. 12 – yup, back over McDonald Pass (the snow had melted, and I decided I’d stick around the northwest for a spell longer); however, before I reached Deer Lodge I turned north on MT 141 to Lincoln MT. If anybody knows of a state that is Lincolnless, please let me know! There I caught MT 200 to, where else, Great Falls. In Great Falls, I got some lunch and stopped at the visitor center for some brochures before taking U.S. 89 south. Since this trip served as a reconnaissance mission, since I plan to return to Great Falls on my northern sweep and since I didn’t have the time to dedicate to the art, I didn’t visit the C. M. Russell Museum Complex. Just past White Sulphur Springs MT, I turned west on U.S. 12 to Townsend MT where I caught U.S. 287 back to Helena.
After the first cut-off near Deer Lodge, the landscape assumed a high desert/grassland character, but once I reached MT 200, the scenerocity score heightened. It remained very scenic for almost all of the remainder of the 345-mile trip. A scenic pullout above Sluice Boxes State Park provides
Babbling Brooks Abound
Helena to Great Falls to Townsend MT Loop
an extraordinary vista. Between Sluice Boxes State Park and White Sulphur Springs I caught some more cattle chewing their cud, but, actually, the rolling hills were a nice change of pace at that point. As a whole, this loop is one of the best LONG scenic drives I have undertaken. The distance is manageable for a day trip, there are numerous opportunities to stop for a photo op, the roads are well maintained and there are sufficient accumulations of humanity to provide food, fuel and restroom opportunities.
Although Helena does not hold the charm of Butte (not many towns can compare to that jewel), I had a great time. The people are friendly, the streets are easy to navigate and the attractions are interesting. With that said, what else could be requested?
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