22 May 2008

Shooting the Pass: On the Mullan Road

Shooting the Pass: On the Mullan Road in a
Hudson Sport Supersix

By Ken Robison

This continues the series of historical sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton.

Have you ever wondered about the fancy marble Mullan Road statue on the Fort Benton Levee? Who was Mullan? What was the Mullan Road? Why is it at Fort Benton? Well, here is the answer.

In the early days of the automobile in the 1920s, auto excursions were exciting features in the local newspapers. Every Saturday the Great Falls Leader carried an adventure to one destination or another. The Evening Leader of August 11, 1923 told of a trip made in a sport model super six Hudson along a portion of the historic Mullan Military Road.

Sixty-three years earlier, Lieutenant John Mullan led a military expedition to construct a wagon road from Walla Walla, Washington Territory to Fort Benton, then in Dakota Territory. Departing Walla Walla in June 1859, Lieut. Mullan’s men carved the road through the mountains of Idaho and western Montana, arriving at Fort Benton in August 1860. The historic Mullan Military Road is celebrated annually each May with a conference, this year in Missoula. In May 2010, the Mullan Road Conference will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Mullan Expedition in Fort Benton.

By 1923 the Mullan Road had faded from memory and was almost forgotten as Montana’s pioneers passed from the scene. Because of the friendship of Leader editor Ed Cooney and colorful Fort Benton and Great Falls character Whitman Gibson “Vinegar“ Jones, the Leader featured the Mullan Road, and Vinegar’s efforts to preserve it, in a Saturday auto excursion special. The story in the August 11 Leader read:

On Mullan Trail Of Vinegar Jones. Shooting the Pass in Sport Supersix Hudson For Holter Where John Mullan Blazed the Birdtail Pass Through the Rocky Mountains for Generations to Follow and Drink of the Birdtail Spring on the Summit--Where Also Lived Whisky Brown in the Days of Real Sport.

On Mullan Trail headline in August 11, 1923 Leader

Log of Road from Leader to Holter Dam: 0.1 mile--Right on First avenue north. 12.9 [miles] R. [right] Vaughn. 21.5 L. [left] Lange’s. 22.4 Sun River. 24 L. Follow the Yellow-Green trail. 32.4 R. 43.5 R. 50.6 Top of the world. 51.9 L. 61.5 R. Sullivan Hill road joined. 72 L. Wolf Creek. Cross bridge R. R. track sharp left. 75.1 L. Gate. 76.3 Power house, Holter dam.

It is a far cry from the buffalo trail of Lieutenant John Mullan in 1860, to the Bird Tail highway of today over the Rocky Mountains within the confines of Cascade county. But we made it in a sport model super-six Hudson just like shooting down a beaver slide on a wet shovel. That is we made the distance between Great Falls and Holter dam by way of the Bird Tail pass a distance of 76.3 miles, in a sport Hudson of the Gies-Wight Motor company driven by Arthur Gies of the company, and logged out a drive which is magnificent in varied scenery and a pleasure to drive over. With 24 miles of hard surface road, from Great Falls to just beyond the old town of Sun River, and the rest of the road excellent, one crosses the divide without knowing that he has crossed it; there is no hill and no pull in the crossing, and the first time one makes the trip it is hard to realize that the divide has been passed.

1923 Sport Six Hudson automobile

The Ice Cold Spring. On the summit of the mountains, at the very top of the Rockies on the road is a small green flat of perhaps five acres, with a little lake tucked away against the side of the mountains on one side of the road, a little flat plateau, and on the opposite side of the road an ice-cold little spring bubbling up out of the rocks as though made to order. The day the super-six sport Hudson party crossed the divide it was more than warm--it was hot--but the little spring was as cold as ice-water, and Bill drank two quarts on the outward trip, and came back for a couple more on the return. In the scores of years that the spring has been known to the thousands who crossed the divide no one has ever thought to wall it in, and it is today just as it was before Lieutenant John Mullan found it 60 years ago, and Vinegar Jones found it 40 years ago.

John Mullan laid out the Bird Tail trail 60 years ago across the Rockies and for many years all the travel of freighting and stage coach days went over that road. Then came the iron horse and freighting went out of fashion, the Buffalo quit the prairie for the long trail over the Great Divide, and the Bird Tail road of the old days went out of fashion.

Stone Feathers of the Bird Tail

Enter Vinegar Jones. It remained for W. G. ‘Vinegar’ Jones of Great Falls to revive the trail, and bedevil the world, the people, and the board of county commissioners until the road became a thing of beauty and joy once more; it took years, near 20 of them, but Vinegar Jones came out of the ruck triumphant in the end, and the memory of John Mullan and the traveling public, owe to him a debt of lasting gratitude.

W. G. Jones, the pioneer who fought for 20 years to have the old Mullan Trail made an historic highway

‘Vinegar’ Jones is not really sour, as one might infer, but as he built the first vinegar factory in Great Falls and furnished the first home vinegar for this neck of the woods in the days of long ago it was natural that he should be tagged with a distinguished mark; it was a habit they had in the earlier days of Montana. Mr. Jones has a ranch near Great Falls, a home in town, and a ranch near Eagle Rock on the Bird Tail road, which he located over 40 years ago, and where his son, E. R. Jones, yet lives, and raises ever-bearing strawberries and the like, keeping a watchful eye on the Bird Tail road.

Old Eagle Rock Station

Yellow-Green Gobs. In the sport Hudson party, not Hudson sport party, there were Mr. Gies, Mrs. Gies, the Fishing Lady, Bill, a basket lunch, the minnow bucket and a gallon of iced tea. It was quite a party and just balanced the sport six to run smooth as if on skids. Thirty-five miles an hour and never spill a drop of water from the minnow bucket, which is moving softly some. Just beyond the old town of Sun River the first lane to the left is the Bird Tail road officially, although one can go by Simms also and have 14 miles more of hard surface road. However, the hand of Vinegar Jones marks the first lane west of the town of Sun River as official for there begins his famous Yellow-Green mark of the Bird Tail trail.

One day a year since, when the 20-year fight for vindication of the judgment of the late Mr. Mullan had borne fruit, in the way of work upon the road and the final straightening out through right-of-way proceedings of a more or less tedious procedure, Vinegar Jones took a keg of yellow paint, a keg of green paint, a couple of brushes for the same, his son E. R. to herd the jitney, and beginning at Sun River he smeared yellow and green gobs for 40 miles along the Bird Tail trail, to its meeting with the Sullivan Hill road on the west side of the Rockies. The work may not be artistic from the standpoint of an artist, neither geometrical, nor according to accepted rule, but the yellow and green is there for all to see: on telegraph posts, on fence posts, on rocks, on bridges on buildings, on even the roof of the world, are the yellow-green gobs of Vinegar Jones. What he was doing was marking the road, and he did.

There are other trail signs on the road, white and black, and red white and blue, but the yellow-green gobs of Vinegar Jones point the way like a lighthouse in the darkness of the night. And he did the work himself and paid for it himself. It was his personal tribune to the memory of the late John Mullan, and Vinegar Jones laid on with lavish hand.

The combination of orange green is an unusual one, but it harmonizes on the Bird Tail trail--except that the orange is above the green, which caused Mr. Jones considerable consternation when called to his attention by the board of county commissioners in way of an official joke.

‘Never wanted to hurt nobody’s feeling, nor meant anything,’ explained Vinegar Jones to the board.

‘I just wanted to mark the road down so it couldn’t be lost again like it was for more than 20 years and I did it the best I know how. I don’t want to hurt nobody’s feelings, and next time I paint it I’ll put the green on top.

And Then Whiskey Brown. The road from Sun River is through a dozen miles of the irrigated Sun river reclamation and Crown Butte irrigated district. And then you come to the erstwhile home of Whiskey Brown, now a sheep ranch with house standing in a great grove of cottonwood trees to the north of the road. Whiskey Brown has long passed over the great divide, but in the days of real sport his was one of bright spots along the old stage and Helena.

“I always got something to eat for a feller,’ Mr. Brown would remark with a chuckle, ‘and the best drink of whiskey from hell to Whoop Up.’

And there is yet living testimony that he spoke truthfully--also that is how he received the handle to his ordinary name of John. Ah me, if Whiskey Brown could but have foreseen the drought of today he would have passed in his checks without a sigh!

Things Had Changed. Bill had visited the Whiskey Brown cabin when a 10-year-old boy, but the trees had grown, the hills looked smaller, and things seemed different. When Bill had made his last visit there were buffalo roaming about the face of Crown Butte and the Eagle Rock gap was full of them, while antelope dotted the prairies in thousands. The antelope and the buffalo have gone to join Whiskey Brown in the Spirit land, and only a grove of 50-year-old cottonwood trees, a sheep wagon in the grove, part of an old rock chimney standing in the middle of a heap of brown earth and debris mark the spot of vanished glory of a vanished day.

‘Things don’t look the same,’ said Bill, and then the machine shot on.

Eagle Rock Station. One station to the west and comes Eagle Rock gap, with Eagle Rock station and the home of the late Judge J. J. Farrell, who also was one of them in the early days, but not so early as Whiskey Brown. The old Eagle Rock station was the pride of the stage route, with its long log walls, dirt and earth covered roof, and warmth of welcome for the traveler in a lonesome country with a long ways between stops. The old station looks the same, and Bill almost hugged its whitewashed walls.

‘Now, that,’ said Bill, ‘looks something like, and the buffalo were over there, and I wanted to take a shot at them, but no one had a gun. They didn’t carry guns much in those days, unless they were hunting, or were bad men.’

And on beyond that, a few miles and to your right downstairs, sits the red painted home and barn of Vinegar Jones, nestling in a grove of cottonwoods and looking like something taken out of a picture and pasted down on the landscape. To your left stands Bird Tail rock. In the setting sun, with the rays lighting up the top of the big rock, it looks like a magnified tail of some gigantic bird with coloring pigment from the storehouse of God. In the early day they named objects of nature as they named objects of nature as they looked--and the Bird Tail rock is one of them.
Shades of Jim Lee. And then, just at the east side of the divide stands a tall lumber house of ancient design--the old freighting tavern of Jim Lee and last station east of the divide. If the old tavern, which it never was called, but is used to make the story sound better, could talk it could tell some startling tales of the days which are no more; of the days when the buffalo roamed, the Indian rode high and wide, and the cabin door was never locked, nor the stranger turned away. Anyhow, even if the old joint can’t talk, it can be read quite interestingly, as its rooms, two of them, are papered with newspapers dating back about 35 years, most of them being New York Heralds, with a Benton Press stuck in here and there for good measure, and a Helena Herald as a sort of afterthought.

One climbs the road to the top of the world without knowing it, for there is no more than a 7 per cent grade, and little of that. In the days of Mr. Mullan the reef of low rocks at the top of the world was blown out the width of a wagon and, worn away with time and travel, in latter times one jumped up several feet or fell down as the case might be, to pass through the door in the rocks, but now it is level. The commissioners let a contract to grade the west side of the mountain and take out certain large boulders, and when that is finished one will glide over without knowing it. The west side of the range is easy of approach, and without particular grade or any length to the top, and joins the Sullivan hill road about two miles from the summit.”

At this point The Leader excursion goes on to Holter Dam and an afternoon of fishing, but this is off the Mullan Road. From Fort Benton to the Helena, the Mullan Road formed the basis for the famed “Benton Road” that by 1862 was scene of hundreds of freight wagons, stagecoaches, and other conveyances during the exciting steamboat era of the 1860-80s.

A new book, “Montana’s Benton Road,” by Leland Hanchett pays tribute to the Mullan Road and the successor Benton Road through a fine combination of historic and modern color photos as well as exciting traveler accounts. As part of the build-up for the Fort Benton Mullan Road Conference in May 2010, we are working to mark the road with interpretive signage to commemorate the historic Mullan Road. In 2010 Lieutenant John Mullan and his expedition will come to life in Fort Benton.

Sources: Great Falls Evening Leader August 11, 1923 [the original article spelled Mullan incorrectly as “Mullen”; Montana’s Benton Road by Leland Hanchett, 2008.


(1) Lieutenant John Mullan
(2) Mullan Monument at its original location near the Old Fort Benton Ruins. Today the Monument is on the Levee

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