As you speed down I-90 at 80 miles per hour to your shopping spree in Missoula, have you ever thought about the perils and labor expended when this valley was first traveled? The selection of developing this route is chiefly credited to Captain John Mullan (1830-1909). Arriving in the area with Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens in 1853 to survey a northern railroad route, Mullan was left with a small group of soldiers and laborers near Fort Owen during the winter of 53-54. He was given broad orders to explore and develop wagon routes “which in time should lend themselves as aids to the construction of our railroad lines” (Mullan Journal). After gleaning much information during the winter, Mullan left the Bitter Root with a small group on March 1, 1854 (on horse back); crossed the Rocky Mountains on the 10th; reached Fort Benton on the 14th. Left Fort Benton on the 17th after fitting up a wagon train and re-crossed the range, reaching the Bitter Root Camp again on the 31st.
A later trip synopsis provides a good descriptor of the geography: “…reaching the Big Blackfoot, we crossed to its left bank on the first and second (of July) by means of a wagon-boat and a small bateau…Our location up the Hell’s Gate this season involved eleven crossings of this stream in fifty miles; the first was ferried; the rest forded. This stream is from one hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty feet broad; its current rapid, and its course very serpentine over the distance that we followed it. Its valley is from one to four miles broad, and mostly timbered with open pine….We reached no point of much difficulty until making the eleventh crossing of the Hell’s Gate, where a spur involved a cutting of half a mile to enable us to pass it. This was completed by the ninth of July, when with rapid marches we hurried forward to the mouth of Gold creek…The upper portion of the valley of Flint Creek may be found suited to agriculture.”
After the first exploration and clearing of a route between Walla Walla and Fort Benton, Mullan was transferred to a command position in the east during the Indian Wars. When he returned to the area, in 1859, his focus was no longer on the railroad but to develop a Military Road. Mullan was able to lobby Congress for $30,000 and set about this task. Mullan sent men out to various spots where they made camp and worked all winter on their designated area.
Mullan then set out to review his road and determine mileage and the dollars he needed to appropriate from Congress to finish paying for the road. This journey began in 1860 and was very different than his 1853 -54 trips as the land was now becoming settled. The daily journal details the geography all the way from Walla Walla.
This article will quote only those days from Missoula through Granite county: Twenty eighth day-Move to Higgin’s and Worden’s store, at Hell Gate (Missoula),…road excellent, wood water and grass here; good place to rest animals for a day or two; blacksmith shop at Van Dorn’s and supplies of all kinds can be obtained, dry goods, groceries, beef, vegetables and fresh animals if needed. Twenty ninth day- Move to Blackfoot bridge, eleven miles; road good; wood water and grass abundant. Thirtieth day- Move to Campbell’s camp, fifteen miles; road excellent; good wood, water and grass abound. Thirty first day- Move to Lannon’s camp, nine miles; road excellent; may have to double team to Beaver Tail Butte; wood, water and grass abundant (near present day Bearmouth). Thirty second day- Move eleven miles to Lyon’s creek, crossing enroute Hells Gate Bridge; road good; wood water and grass at camp (south side of the river following the current Mullan Road). Thirty third day- Move to Flint Creek, distance eleven miles; road somewhat hilly but still not steep; wood water and grass at camp. Thirty fourth day-Move thirteen and one half miles to Gold Creek or American Fork of Hell’s Gate river; road excellent; wood, water and grass at camp. Supplies of all kinds to be had here.”
The way Mullan measured miles was by running a single wheel with a handle in front of him and knowing how many wheel turns equaled a mile he computed the daily trip. The group arrived at Fort Benton August 1st and on August 7th the first and last major military expedition moved out over the newly completed route.
From then on, although not maintained, gold miners and cattlemen used the trail and in later years, the railroads followed part of the route, as did Highway 10, then interstate 90.