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Blazing the Mullan Road

In The Beginning

John Mullan

Although Lewis and Clark were the first explorers known to have recorded their travels through the geographic region known as Montana in 1805, it was John Mullan, first a lieutenant and later a captain in the U.S. Army, who left his stamp on the area. Nor was he alone in the task but helped and was helped by other notables in the region.

As the country pushed westward, a series of forts were established to protect the civilian population from potential and often real threat by the Native Americans whose land was at issue. Among the forts constructed was Fort Benton (in 1846), named in honor of Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, on the site of a trading post operated by the American Fur Company in the Dakota Territory. A second was Fort Walla Walla established in November 1856 in Washington Territory. It was between these two facilities that Mullan made his mark on the world.

It was because of Mullan's thoroughness and exacting nature that Mineral County lies along a major east-to-west transportation artery. Mullan, an Army trained engineer, scratched out his road from Fort Walla Walla, Washington Territory to Fort Benton, Dakota Territory during the years of 1859-1862. It was intended first to be a military route used by the Army to quell potential Indian problems, then a path for pioneers to follow into the virgin region. Many sources question the road's value in either of those cases although it was tested once for its military usefulness and used extensively during the hot and heady days of the Idaho and Montana gold rushes. There is even a note about a man that drove wild horses from Washington to Montana over the road during the Montana gold stampedes. There are records of camel trains plodding their way across the road delivering supplies from the west to the opening Territory of Montana.

The real value of the road came from the expedition notes made by the attendant cartographers, topographers, astronomers and other specialists during the 1853-1854 Pacific Railroad Surveys, and later on the Mullan road-building expedition. (Mullan was an active participant in both). That same data was in place when it came time to select a railroad route. Nor was it neglected when the Yellowstone Trail and Highway 10 roads were constructed to follow the same general lines as Mullan had.

On October 28, 1978 Mullan's contribution to the settling of the inland northwest was recognized when the American Society of Civil Engineers dedicated the Mullan Road as a National Historic Engineering Landmark by placing a plaque commemorating the accomplishment at the top of the Fourth of July Pass in Idaho near the famed Mullan tree. In nominating the 624-mile road as a historic landmark, the ASCE noted that it "was the first major transportation facility in the Pacific Northwest whose location was selected on the basis of extensive exploratory engineering reconnaissance surveys. A sextant was used for determining astronomical positions, an odometer for measuring distances, a barometer for estimating altitudes and spirit levels for determining precise altitudes and profiles along various alternative routes.

"Mullan's . . . crews successfully determined the first time the precise latitudes and departures at various key locations in the interior of the Pacific Northwest. Both the Lewis and Clark and Stevens expeditions had hoped to do this, but equipment failures and other problems had intervened."

Considering both the method of location and the type of facility constructed, the Mullan Road was one of the first, if not the very first, 'engineered' road in the Pacific Northwest or perhaps even in the entire trans- Mississippi West. It was definitely the first engineered road in Montana."

Blazing the Mullan Road

As early as 1852 a firm proposal was made to build an overland route to the Pacific Ocean to help settle the area with pioneers thus squeezing out any claims the French, English or Russians may have had on the disputed territories. But little detail was known about the country, despite Lewis and Clark's work, so Isaac Ingalls Stevens, a West Point graduate who had been appointed the first governor of the Washington Territory, was ordered to survey a route from the Missouri River to the Columbia that would be suitable for the building of a railroad. Stevens assumed the task, but also kept in mind that the route should also be suitable for a wagon road.

In the spring of 1853, under Congressional authority, an expedition made up of engineers and explorers and led by Stevens was organized near St. Paul, Minnesota. They were to detail the geographical and topographical character of the country and among them was a small, dark-haired young man named John Mullan.

Mullan was just a year out of West Point and anxious to prove his mettle as a military trained engineer. He and the others in the assigned crew boarded boats which they took to Fort Benton at the headwaters of the Missouri River. Throughout the summer they mapped and charted their way west until in the late fall of 1853 they found themselves at Missoula and the most daunting of their work--to locate a passage through the Bitterroot Mountains--still ahead of them. Mullan wrote in his Report on the Construction of a Military Road from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Benton: "the lateness of the season, the difficulty of the county, the importance of our mission, the scarcity of our supplies, the meagerness of the information we then possessed and the necessity felt for a more detailed and thorough exploration of the Rocky Mountain -section ... all conspired to influence Governor Stevens to leave in the mountains a small party for the winter of 1853, for further explorations ...

Winter Camp

"To the command of this winter party I was assigned in October, 1853, and selecting the genial range of the Bitterroot a suitable location, and there erecting comfortable, though rude huts for my men, I made it a centre from which to explore the mountain region..."

Missoula pioneer Frank H. Woody mentioned these huts in his Reminiscences of the Early Days of Missoula County in which he wrote: "The only buildings then in the valley, were three or four small log houses built, I think, in the winter of 1853, by Lieutenant John Mullan at the large spring at the mouth of Willow Creek, and named Cantonment Stevens, and the buildings at Fort Owen."

Throughout the winter Mullan and the men traveled around the valley and nearby ranges taking measurements, mapping and seeking information from the local folks, Indian and white. In 'Captain John Mullan: His Life' the authors tell that Mullan learned to depend heavily on one of the enlisted men, Gustavus Sohon, "an artist and gifted linguist," who learned the Salish tongues of the Flatheads and Pend d'Oreilles and became the party's interpreter. He helped gather information on the trails, mountain passes and other geographical features and his sketches are still among the earliest and best of the region.

With Sohon's help, Mullan soon earned the tribes' confidence. Prior to every foray, he gathered those Indians who wintered in the Bitterroot valley around him and explained to them where he was going to explore and why. He became well-known by the area residents who met him as he explored the Mission valley where the St. Ignatius Mission stands, the Bitterroot where the St. Mary's Mission -and Fort Owen- were built.

Tenaciously Mullan and his men sought the best route across the mountains. As the weather improved in 1854, he pushed his way through the Lolo Pass and the Lochsa River area in search for a rail passage and pronounced: "I can arrive at but one conclusion--that the route is thoroughly and utterly impracticable for a railway. The country is one immense bed of rugged, difficult, pine-clad mountains, that can never be converted to any purpose for the use of men ... In all my explorations I have never seen a more uninviting beds of mountains." - With that; he scratched off Lolo Pass as a potential route.

Pass Chosen

Through Sohon Mullan located an Indian wanderer called by the Flathead tribesmen "Ignace Chapped Lips." Mullan refers to him in his report as Aeneas. It was Ignace that suggested the pass over which the Mullan Road was later built called Sohon's Pass. But Mullan was still not convinced that the route pointed out by Ignace was the best one, however, he sent party member Thomas Adams, a topographer, with Ignace in the spring of 1854 to make a close examination of the spot when the snow depth became more manageable.

Meanwhile in May 1854, Mullan went to take a look at the Clark Fork River valley through Plains, Thompson Falls, etc., to see how difficult it would be to build a wagon road and/or through that area. But it being spring with all the creeks and freshlets boiling with rapid, deep water that covered the trails, and the rocky mountainsides making travel elsewhere difficult, Mullan became convinced that it was not a suitable route either.

He wrote: "I have always exceedingly regretted that it was my fortune- to examine this route at so unfavorable a period, for I have been convinced by the later date that it possessed an importance, both as regards to climate and railroad facilities, enjoyed by no other line in the Rocky Mountains between latitudes 43 and 49 degrees.

"I would state that had I known in 1854 what I did not learn until 1859, I should have recommended that the section of the (Mullan military road) from Antoine Plant's (near Spokane) to the Hell's Gate should have followed, at any cost of construction it called for, the Clark's route instead of the section via the Coeur d'Alene mission."

But it was the deletion of the fourth route over the Bitterroots and headwaters of the St. Joe-the Nez Perce Trail-the one followed by the Catholic fathers when they arrived to set up the missions in the area in the 1840s that cinched the route from the Catholic Mission in the Coeur d'Alenes to Hell Gate. The Nez Perce Trail was eliminated from the running because of the "difficulties and disasters arising from snow and other obstacles that attended the trip of Mr. W.W. Finkham, one of our civil engineers," Mullan reported.

So the Coeur d'Alene route sounded the best to the young lieutenant and it was time for him to look it over in person. In June 1854 "I procured the services of Bassile, a Coeur d'Alene Indian, to accompany me in the capacity of a guide through the Coeur d'Alene and St. Regis Borgia valleys.

... I was much pleased with the general aspect of these valleys," Mullan wrote. "That much work was required to lay and construct a-first-class road was self-evident; but its direction and short distances, and the connexion made with the Spokane on the one side and with the Bitter Root on the other, were recommendations in its favor..."

Satisfied that he had done a thorough and complete job of the winter surveys, Mullan returned to his Willow Creek camp and finished his report to Stevens. Stevens added it to his multi-volume Pacific Railroad Survey, 1853-55, which was sent on to the nation's capital where it found favor with the War Department Mullan followed the report to Washington in 1855, he wrote, where he "found the War Department, though favoring the project, averse to its continuance, at that me, giving as a reason that the appropriation was inadequate to the character of the work, unless carried on in connexion with some large military movement that would justify its expenditure; and as it was not deemed judicious to direct at that time any such movement, the appropriation for our road remained untouched in the vaults of the Treasury Department till a later day, and the measure itself was allowed to slumber ..."

Plans Resume

After languishing in the vault for about two years, the road proposal was resurrected in the fall of 1857 when Stevens, now the newly elected nonvoting representative from the territory, arrived in Washington, D.C. There he lobbied successfully to have the War Department endorse it, Congress to fund it and Mullan to lead it (Dyer the protests of several other topographical engineers in the U.S. Army who coveted the project themselves).

On May 21, 1858 the Olympia Pioneer and Democrat newspaper reprinted an article from the New York Journal of Commerce dated March 31, 1858. It announced: "The Secretary of War (John B. Floyd) has issued orders to Lieut. John Mullan, U.S.A., to proceed immediately to the Columbia River and organize a force to commence at once the work of opening a wagon road from Fort Walla Walla on the Columbia River, to Fort Benton, on the Missouri.

"The intention of the preliminary is to demonstrate the perfect feasibility of the route, and to open a summer trail for emigrants.

"Lieut. Mullan is well and favorably known to the public as having been connected with Gov. Stevens' great survey for the Northern Pacific Railroad, during which he discovered the celebrated pass through the Rocky Mountains, between the head waters of the Prickly Pear Creek on the east and the little Blackfoot river on the west, known as Mullan's Pass, and through which the road is so easy that Lieut. Mullan in his report says he passed over it in a wagon with his horses on a trot ... it will demonstrate the good judgment of Gov. Stevens in proposing that the work be approached at once from the Pacific, rather than be the usual tedious and expensive operations of commencing such roads from the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains ... By adopting the present plan, a savings of at least one year's time will be effected."

In April 1858 Mullan left New York enroute to Port Dalles, Oregon to organize his expedition. After arriving at his destination in May, he outfitted his group with the help of Army Capt. Thomas Jordan and they had barely begun the trip only to hear of the "lamentable defeat -of Colonel Steptoe on the Spokane plains" in a battle against about a thousand Indians, members of the Nez Perce, Spokane, Palouse, Coeur d'Alene and Yakima tribes. The tribes were becoming increasingly angry about losing their lands to the white settlers and became determined to prevent any more encroachment. The battleground, near present-day Rosalia, Wa, lay in Mullan's path. Frustrated but leery, Mullan later wrote: "to construct the wagon road while the Indians were in a state of open hostility was out of the question: but it was necessary for me to possess authentic facts before I could either move forward or break up the expedition. During the interval I occupied my men in building bridges over the Five-Mile and Ten-Mile creeks...

"On the 30th of May a reply was received from (the embattled men) from which I judged it impractical to prosecute the work this season. I therefore returned to the Dalles and disbanded my expedition, with the exception of Mr. Kolecki, my topographer, Mr. Sohon, my guide and the men necessary to take care of my stock, reporting the facts immediately to the War Department."

Mullan then joined Colonel George Wright, as the topographic officer, in the September 1858 campaign against the rebellious Indians. The ensuing event resulted in the hanging of several Indian leaders and the massacre of more than 800 of the tribes' horses. Mullan made copious notes and sketches of the campaign and battle, noting that they were indirectly associated with his own project, and submitted them to the WarDepartment.

But he was concerned that his interrupted project would be returned to the vault because of the Indian trouble, so decided to travel again to the nation's capital to keep the project alive and, if possible, increase its funding from the initial $30,000 to $100,000.

He later wrote: "In the month of March 1859, the bill appropriating $100,000 for our work became law, and new instructions were issued to me in the same month by the War Department. With these I again started for Oregon on the 5th of April ... My instructions left me liberal margin for collecting all the facts that bore either directly or indirectly upon the question of a railroad location, to which our immediate work ultimately tended.

"We reached the Dalles again on the 15th of May, where, organizing my party, I took up the line of march for Fort Walla Walla My escort this season had been increased to one hundred men (from 60), who were detailed from the companies of the 3rd artillery..."

Road Building Begins

Finally, the expedition was on its way. As it progressed, Mullan sent out several smaller parties under toe leadership of Sohon, Engle, Howard and Delacey in different directions to examine specific sites that could have potential for improving the route. Meanwhile, the main expedition reached Walla Walla from the Dalles on June 15. After hesitating for repairs and some further outfitting, the main parry finally left on July 1. The first section of the road made light work for the expedition because most of it was a high rolling prairie such as the Palouse with abundent water and grass for the stock. However, some of the route required road grading or repairs of bridges and ferries. On their way east, the men passed forts, homesteads and the site of Wright's victory. Mullan noted on July 14, "We camped this day on the banks of the Nedwhuald, and at the same point where General Wright hung Qualtian (Qualchan), the noted Yakima chief, and several other Indians; from which the stream is known to many as Hangman's creek. Poor creatures! Their doom, although in this instance a just one, is nevertheless, pitiable; had the white man been to them more just, fate had proved less harsh."The following day, the group came across a band of Coeur d'Alene Indians who, Mullan wrote, were invited into his camp to eat and smoke. He continued, "afterwards (I) explained to them in detail our mission and object; they left, apparently satisfied, and with a promise to preserve friendly relations in the future (but) they are wily fellows..."

The Men pushed forward and soon entered the area of the Coeur d'Alene Lake and St. Joseph River basin. Mullan reported "Four miles up the valley we selected a suitable place for crossing by a ferryboat. We immediately set the whip-sawyers in the timber to get out the necessary lumber, and some men to burning tar, and, being provided with the necessary oakam, we built two flat boats, forty-two feet long, twelve feet broad and two feet deep. one for the St. Joseph's and the other for the Coeur d'Alene."

Later John W. Park was granted a franchise to operate a ferry where Mullan's Road crossed the St. Joe and he charged fifty cents for a person who crossed afoot and the fee for each horse-drawn wagon was $5. But Park did not profit for long because in 1861, a new section of the road was built on the present road site eliminating the ferry's monopoly.

On August 16, 1859, the expedition reached the Catholic Mission in the St. Joe valley. Again Mullan sent out his mapping crew while the bulk of the force cleared, laid down corduroys and built bridges through the boggy bottom land.

Mineral County

Sohon was sent ahead of the group to continue to study the section from the St. Regis- Borgia river valley to the Bitter Root River (now Clark fork) and returned to camp on Sept. 15 with a positive report Mullan wrote: the "data brought in by Mr. Sohon (convinced, me) that we had to content ourselves with the cheapest location that the peculiar features of the valleys of the Coeur d'Alene and St. Regis Borgia (sic) warranted . . . Our work, consequently, from the 16th of August to the 4th of December, 1859, consisted in cutting through this densely timbered section of 100 miles, building small bridges where required, grading in thousands of places (including) . . . an ascent of one and three-fourths miles, to the summit of the (Bitterroot) Mountains."

But it was not easy.

"This work was heavy," he wrote "Suffice it to say that we mastered the many difficulties with which its construction was fraught' and reached our winter camp in the St. Regis Borgia valley on me 4th of December."

The trip had been arduous and the expedition had paid the price.

The lieutenant continued his tale in his report:

"As we had been obliged to keep our stock in me mountains until the mountains were covered with snow, many bad died from starvation and exposure. I had at first intended to reach the Bitter Root river, but winter overtaking me, I did the best in my power, and made a point on the St. Regis Borgia below the last crossing. It was to attain this that I pushed my stock to the last point of endurance . . ."

Mullan sent what stock he could on to the Bitterroot valley. The rest he ordered slaughtered, butchered and frozen from which the men could eat until the weather warmed. But while the weather remained frigid and the snow deep, me military man ordered a camp of rude log huts erected that would house the men. "To the camp I gave the name of Cantonment Jordan," he wrote later. "It was situated in a dense bed of timber, that furnished both building materiel and fuel, had many fine springs, and was securely sheltered from the winds by friendly rims of mountains.

"We erected an office, and occupied the entire winter in compiling field-notes, completing maps, as far as our material sufficed, and writing such memoirs and reports as would furnish me bureau with exact information on all points connected with our operations.

"The office hours of employees were from 10 a m. to 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. till 9 p.m. The men employed in gathering and preparing fuel, and the ordinary labors incident to camp life. Guard duty was kept up merely to preserve discipline, as the snow was an effectual barrier against Indian depredation or Indian surprise."


But word went out to regional papers that me expedition had fallen on especially hard time. The source of these reports may have stemmed from a letter written to W. Strachan by his brother John, who was a member of Mullan's expedition. The letter, dated December 25, 1859 noted that, "snow commenced falling in October and had been from two to three feet deep at that time . . . many cattle and mules had been lost for want of food. On the 6th of December, a party of six men left the-Main Camp and proceeded to me place of operations; but the cold was so -severe that three of them were badly and one of them dangerously frozen. The mercury was 38 degrees below zero. The next day, at the camp, the mercury was frozen solid."

*The alarm about the expedition was soon dealt with through a letter to me San Francisco Herald by Walter W. Johnson, a civil engineer who was also a member of the expedition. He wrote on Feb. 18, 1860:

"Editor of the Herald. Having seen many exaggerated accounts of the situation of Lieut. Mullan's command published in the Oregon newspapers, I would be much obliged if you would insert the following statement, which may, perhaps relieve the anxiety of many of those who have either friends or relatives in the party.

"On the 26th of November last, Lieut. Mullan's train arrived at their present camp on the Little Mesula or St. Regis Borgia river, within thirteen miles of the Bitter Root river (near present St. Regis) having Lieut. White with a portion of his escort in camp on a small prairie on the same stream, nine miles above: and Lieut. Lyon with the remainder of the escort, and half of me supplies of me commissary department in camp on small prairie six miles east of the summit of the Coeur d'Alene Mountains and fifteen miles west of Lieut. Mullan's camp. On the 27th of November, it began to snow, and on the morning of the 28th, there was over a foot of snow on the ground. To work on the road, cutting and clearing heavy timber was impossible: and as the season was already far advanced, and winter was now upon us, it was deemed best to erect winter quarters where we were, in the woods, and await the opening of spring to resume our labors.

"A depot warehouse had already been erected, and an office was next built, in order to have reports, maps, etc. prepared as soon as possible. Next the houses for the laboring men were made; and by Christmas, all were finished and comfortable. The dwellings for officers were nearly completed when I left, (January 9 )- While this was going on at our camp, Lt. White and Lieut. Lyon, with their respective parties, were engaged in conveying the stores from their camps down to the main camp, called Cantonment Jordan. This was done on hand-sleds, as our cattle were all sent through the Bitter Root valley as soon as possible, after the fall of the snow. By me end of December, all the supplies for the escort were brought down and safely stowed away in a large warehouse erected by Lieut. Howard, which was filled to its ridgepole with flour, pork, coffee, sugar and all the other articles comprising commissary stores, and, on the beginning of January, the entire party were once more together.

"It has been stated that we have lost all our animals. The (civilian) escort, on account of their heavy train, requiring two trips to move it, have lost nearly half their cattle and mules, while Lieut. Mullan's loss is only some few yoke of cattle, about six mules, nearly all his horses. some ten or fifteen head-bout thirty head of beef cattle, including estrays, which is his entire loss since leaving Walla Walla last dune.

"It is stated that we have suffered greatly from the cold. This is not so. Several of the men have had their fingers and toes nipped a little by the frost this would not have occured, if the supply of mittens, boots and shoes had reached us: but as Capt. Friedman was obliged to abandon them on the eastern side of the divide about forty miles our camp, we are obliged to make moccasins from raw hide, etc.: for protection. The suffering caused by this is but little, for under the good care of Dr. Mullan all were well, and none were little more than a week on account of this misfortune. The only case which is any way serious is that of a soldier, named Mahon, who started out to search for whiskey, was gone three days and was found so badly frozen that his life was despaired of. Both his feet were amputated, and when I left, his recovery was doubtful.

"We have an abundance of supplies to last us until spring. Some nine or ten men only have left the party . . . and only five left the party to better their condition: . . . I left the party in good health and spirits on the 9th of January, all cheerful and comfortable . . ."

The commissary officer, Lieut. H. B. Lyon, sent out requisition letters to the War Department with Johnson. One dated January 8, 1860 was to supercede the request of November 1859. It was requested that supplies for employees and troops either returning over (the} recently built road from Fort Benton to Fort Walla Walla or going from Fort Benton to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas Territory were to include: 1500# bacon sides, 200# bacon hams, 2500# flour (in sacks) 100# crushed sugar, 240# soap, 6 bushels of salt, 10 gallons of molasses and 100 gallons of whiskey.

(Lieut. says the rations used from October 31, 1859 to July 1, 1860 equaled 22000 pounds of the original supplies of 24000 pounds which consisted of coffee, sugar, flour, beans, salt, candles, vinegar and soap and 8000 pounds of pork. 5000 additional pounds of rations were requested to the end of September.)

A special requesition made by Lt. Lyon, also dated January 8 (1860) from Cantonment Jordan was to include: 100# 3/4" rope, 30 ox bows, 112 barrel of resin and 100# oakum. The lieutenant certified that the above requisition is correct and that the articles specified are absolutely requisite for the public service rendered so by the following circumstances: the rope and ox bows will be necessary to refit the quartermaster train for a return from Fort Benton to Fort Walla Walla, Washington Territory and the resin and oakum to make or repair the ferry-boats at the crossing of the several streams on the road.

Rumors Persist

But still the rumors of disaster plagued the expedition. On March 16, the Pioneer and Democrat reported "We have received additional news from Lieut. Mullan's expedition, as late as the 18th of January. News has been received from Mr. Engle's party, whom Lieut. Mullan sent to Fort Benton in November, and regarding whose safety serious fears were entertained, lest he had been lost in a snow-storm, or that his whole party had been massacred by the Blackfoot.

"He made the trip safely to the Missouri and back in forty-six days, and crossed and re-crossed the Rocky Mountains, with horses, in December and January. Thus proving most conclusively that though earth work on the wagon road could not go on, that traveling at all seasons is practible over the dividing ridges, and that snow offers no serious obstacle to the railroad line."

And the issue of snowfall continued to concern Mullan as he noted in his report "The question of snow had been with me an all-important one, and with the view of arming myself with the facts as to its fall arid depth. I had snow gauges prepared along the route, either by cueing off the tops of trees or planting prepared posts graduated to a scale of feet and inches, so that when the mailmen passed, which they did every month, they might note its depth."

Camp Moves

From his measurements, which showed the snow depth varying from two and a half feet in the lower river valleys to rune feet at the summit, Mullan began to suspect that this route might not be as viable as he believed in 1854. More confirmation came from the area Indians who explained that they never used the route in the winter but always followed the Clark Fork River on its path through the mountains. Mullan wrote: "The point chosen for our winter camp was fifteen miles from the Bitter Root ferry (now St. Regis), through a densely timbered section, involving heavy labor. The winter at the main camp proved severe while at the ferry it was generally mild and pleasant, with less snow by one and a half feet, and, although only fifteen miles distant, like a new climate."

After making his comparison, Mullan decided that he would continue work after all: "I determined at once to throw forward all my men upon the Bitter Root, there build boats for the transportation of our supplies up the river, and resume work . . .

To carry our supplies this distance of fifteen miles by hand involved much hard labor. The men transported on their backs two months' supplies, all their tents and personal baggage, and setting to work at the crossing got out the necessary lumber (for six boats) . . . to be used in transporting our supplies and baggage up the river as our work progressed."

With this project underway, Mullan appointed Lieut. J. L. White to oversee the work and left to rendezvous with some Indians and plan his spring and summer work.

One concern that had been on Mullan's mind throughout the winter was the proving that the road was a viable route for the quick transport of military I troops from east to west. This reasoning was behind the original road proposal made by then (1854) Secretary of War Jefferson Davis who would become the leader of the Confederacy in the war between the states. As Mullan noted: The success of such a movement would prove conclusively that a result had been obtained."

After considering the potential progress of the road building, Mullan dispatched W. W. Johnson to Washington, D.C. to recommend that the Army "send three hundred recruits from St. Louis to Fort Benton . . . by steamers . . . with four months' supplies, and I would meet them at Fort Benton with my train, with which they could make the trip to Walla Walla in sixty days."

Having finished the plans for the summer work and sent word of the progress to Washington, D.C., Mullan headed back to the Bitterroot Valley to see to supplies and horses for his party. He continues in his report "In company with Lieutenant Lyon I then visited the Pend d'Oreille mission, to procure fresh vegetables for my men who were already affected with the symptoms of scurvey. We had at this time about twenty-five cases of this disease, all of which readily yielded under the care of my brother, Dr. James A. Mullan, to the specifics of fresh vegetables and vinegar."

The men returned to the main camp with the vegetables in Late March. Work on the northeast bank of the Clark Fork River was progressing. This is the area that now forms the center of Mineral county. But that was about to change.

Johnson, the engineer, sent a letter to Secretary of War Floyd dated April 9, 1860, in which he states there were then 88 civilian men in the command of Lt. John Mullan, five engineers and topographers; two rodmen; one astronomer, fourteen general assistants, masters and expressmen; fifteen teamsters; thirty-two laborers; eight cooks; four packers; four herders and two carpenters.

(In 1861 one of the military men, a Private Donald McDonald, deserted, he was a mower, gathered grasses for the stock. The pay for those attached to the military was 35 cents per day!)

A Scenic Barrier

"Mr. Sohon, in his examination of the previous year, brought to my notice that the spur of the mountains thirty miles from the ferry jutted upon the river bank for six miles, leaving no berme over which we could lay our road (this is the Scenic Rock area, west of Alberton).

"This would force us either to cross the stream, make a side-hill cut through this length, or thurn the mountain by its rear. I endevored to accomplish the latter, and in the month of April devoted several days to examining the entire country, and especially the route known as Brown's Cut-off, but I found the mountains so high and abrupt . . . that I gave up all hopes of attaining my ends in this direction.

"To make this six-mile cut through rocky spurs was an undertaking that I almost feared to attempt."But he did, and he succeeded at a cost.

"On the 1st of May I commenced upon the cut around the Big Mountain, and by the 10th had my entire force of citizens and soldiers employed. My camps were formed at its west-base, where a small creek and an abundance of timber afforded all the conveniences required.

"In order to obtain the practicable elevation on account of the abrupt rocky faces of the spurs, I carried the line up a ravine, until, gaining 1000 feet. I wound around the mountain sides, making the reentering angles by gentle curves, until the entire six miles was completed.

"It was a severe piece of work, and cost us the labor of 150 men for six weeks. Being rocky in most places, we were compelled to blast, when, by a premature explosion, one of our men, (Fred) Sheridan, lost one of his eyes, and another, Robert P. Booth, was severely stunned..."

But the job was soon completed and the camp moved eastward.

Mullan's proposal to have a military unit traverse the new road was approved and on March 31, 1860 an order was given that the 300-man contingent, under the command of Major George A. H. Blake, First Dragoons, be organized and sent On May 3 1860, 292 enlisted men and eight officers embarked on P. Choteau and Co.'s steamers Spread Eagle, Key West, and Chippewa from St. Louis on the waters of the Missouri River. Not only would they be the first military contingent to move over Mullan's new road, but also the first to travel by boat to the river's headwaters and Fort Benton.

The Army Moves

One of the officers on this so-called Blake Expedition was Lieut. August V. Kautz, a former West Point classmate of Mullan's. He kept a daily diary of the troop's travels, the contents of which appeared in an article published in the July 1946 Pacific Northwest Quarterly. Traveling with the men, he noted was James A. Mullan, John's brother, who had been the Mullan expedition's physician in the early days of the roadbuilding.

Kautz wrote about the problem with men deserting enroute, the dangers the boats encountered and what a nuisance one man, a Lt. Henry S. Pearce whose drinking bouts off and on duty finally lead to his being court-martialed eight years later, was to the group. The slaughter of buffalo, wolves and bears by men shooting from the riverboat decks also preoccupied Kautz who wrote, "Wolves afford me a pleasure, as also bears, but buffalo seem so helpless, and die so hard."

By June 29 the contingent received word that Mullan was still west of Hell Gate but had sent more than 30 pack animals to Fort Benton where Blake's group landed on July 2. They soon found Lt. Hylan Benton Lyon of Mullan's group waiting for him with some beef cattle and about 25 wagons on the way.

But Blake's men did not leave their camp, instead they waited for Mullan's arrival and passed much of the time hiking, fishing and reading.

On July 30 Kautz wrote: "We begin to count the hours now to the arrival of Lt. Mullan."

"Lt. Mullan arrived in this afternoon by Teton route," Kautz added on August 1. "A heavy rainstorm prevailed this afternoon. It rained very hard, and the wind with great violence. I had a long talk with Mullan about his road and his troubles. He is decidedly more monomaniacal in his demonstrations than I ever knew him. He imagines everybody who is not in favor of his road to be against it . . . White and Lyon came up, and spent the evening in camp, but Mullan did not come up, much to the Major's disgust. (This is Major Blake with whom Mullan was angry for discharging his expedition's astronomers earlier in the year. Blake believed that Mullan's funds were exhausted but word arrived soon after the dismissals that Congress had granted the Mullan group an additional $100,000. Because Mullan no longer had his astronomers, his expedition had no official record of the eclipse that took place that summer.)

But on August 2, Kautz noted that he "went down at Mullan's request and came up with him to see the Maj. Their interview proved more amicable than I anticipated . . .

"Lt. M. has turned over all the wagons he has in possession, and takes our pack train in exchange. The Major intimidated Mullan into letting him have all the wagons by telling him that he would not move without them. Mullan is quite monomaniac about his road."

On September 9 the Pioneer and Democrat announced that Mullan had completed the road to Fort Benton and was enroute back to Walla Walla "in advance of Major Blake's command. repairing and improving the road."

But the project was beginning to take its told on Mullan as he wrote, "My health during this time had seriously failed me, and I had to intrust the general charge of the work to Lieutenant Lyon and Mr. W.W. Johnson." Soon, however, the expedition completed its object.

Military Foray Ends

The Blake expedition was the only important movement of military troops over the Mullan Road and it arrived at Fort Walla Walla at 3 p.m. on October 4, 1860, 50 days after it left Fort Benton 6I6 miles to the east. Mullan wrote: "Thus ended this military experiment . . . and the success that attended it... consititute(s) sufficient commentary upon its feasibility for future military movements towards the north Pacific."

But the story does not end there.

Mullan organized a new expedition in May 1861 whose object was to travel the road, again from west to east, and make any repairs and modifications necessary. Among these, he wrote, "was to improve the road by cutting the stumps close to the ground, avoiding as many crossings of the Coeur d'Alene and St. Regis Borgia rivers as possible, by side cuts along the mountains, and by bridging those I could not avoid . . . We built twenty heavy bridges on this (Coeur d'Alene) river which . . . Occupied us until the 15th of September, when crossing the summit of the Bitter Root mountains, we reached the head source of the St. Regis Borgia river, on which a similar system was initiated."

By November 1861 Mullan and his men set up their winter camp near Hell Gate.

"I here mention," he reported later, "with regret a sad accident that occured to a citizen in passing from one to another of our camps, and which will tend to show the degree of cold we experienced during January. He (Charles Schafft) had left one of the camps with the intention of going to the Deer Lodge valley. Night and severe cold overtaking him before he could reach another camp, he halted to build a fire, and being wet endeavored to slip off his moccasins, when he found them frozen to his feet. He became alarmed, and retracing his steps reached the point he had started from, late at night, but with both feet frozen, and on their being thawed in a tub of water all the flesh fell off. The poor fellow suffered intensely, and his life was only saved by his suffering the amputation of both legs above the knees; the operation performed by Dr. George Hammond, U.S. Army. A purse of several hundred dollars was raised for him, and-he was left to the kind charity of the fathers of the Pend d'Oreille mission, where he remained up to the date of our leaving the mountains."

Final Trip

The party reached Fort Benton on June 8, 1861 and after a few days, Mullan began his return to Walla Walla Again they made repairs and improvements, and where they couldn't, they offered recommendations for changes, such as the segment of road that went over the Scenic Rocks area west of present-day Alberton. "No other material points need attention until we come to the Nemote Creek. Here, instead of taking Brown's Cut-off, I should now prefer to excavate a line from one and a half to two miles along the Bitter Root, and say, from one hundred to two hundred feet above the river, in order to get above all the slides, and by this means shorten the road two miles and avoid a steep hill. This done, there would be no further work required till reaching the Bitter Root ferry."

The St. Regis River valley, he wrote, "we lost six bridges this past season."

Finally Mullan finished his obsession when he reached Walla Walla again in late August where "I disposed of my property at public auction, disbanded my expedition and on the 11th of September started for Washington City to make my report to the War Department.

"Thus ended my work in the field, costing seven years of close and ardous attention, exploring and opening up a road of six hundred and twenty-four miles from the Columbia to the Missouri river, at a cost of $230,000."

' Lieut. James E. Bradley who served under Mullan sometime during the original construction, later wrote that the construction of the road involved 120 miles of difficult timber cutting, 25 feet broad, 30 measured miles of excavation, 15 to 20 feet wide, the traversing of 424 miles of open timbered country and rolling prairie, and the building of hundreds of bridges and several ferry boats. Mullan did not regard his road as completed and estimated that a further sum of $700,000 would have been required to bring it to a state of perfection he desired.


Contributed by the Mineral County Historical Society - excerpts from Mineral County Pioneer volume number 6

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