BIG HOLE ROAD:
FIRST FOREST SERVICE PROJECT
The first road built by the forest
service in district No. 1 was the old Big Hole road from Camp creek to Sula
to the big Hole battlefield, 15 miles this side of Wisdom. The road was
26.6 miles long and cost $52,000 to survey and construct. It was built in
N.E. (Than) Wilkerson, old time District 1
forester who was associated with the Bitter Root forest reserve from it's
very beginning in 1897, told the story of the Big Hole road. He came to
the Bitter Root valley about 1890 and worked for farmers until about 1897
when he was one of eight men appointed to work on the Bitter Root forest
reserve in Montana and Idaho. At that time, the reserve covered a very small
part of the county. The line was somewhere in the mountains on the west
side of the valley. Later, the present territory was added and the name
became the Bitter Root National forest.
Mr. Wilkerson was in charge of surveying and
construction for the road. He said, $52,000 doesn't seem like a large amount
in this day, but then it was something. Donations were obtained from individuals
to supplement sums authorized by Ravalli county, Beaverhead county, and
the forest service. Issues of the Western News from 1912 through 1914 discussed
the road and from where the money would come. At first, it was believed $6,000
would be sufficient. Later, the ante was upped to $10,000.
In January of the next year, the forest service
supervisor, W.W. White, said $5,000 would be contributed by the service.
On March 4, the county commissioners pledged $5,000, but it was decided the
cost would be $20,000 to build the entire 26 miles. The forest service raised
its pledge to $10,000. Then, on April 24, the contract was signed for a
road extending the Camp creek road across the Continental Divide down Trail
creek at a cost of $30,000. This was to cover all but 15 miles of the distance.
The rest of the road was to cost $10 to $15,000.
With increased costs for labor and equipment,
as well as higher road standards, the average cost for building forest roads
now is approximately $3 to $5,000 a mile for permanent logging roads, which
would correspond roughly to the Big Hole road, and from $15,000 to $35,000
or $40,000 for the forest highways, such as the East Fork and West Fork
roads. At $52,000 for 26.6 miles, the old road cost about $2,000 per mile
which isn't a startling difference from road costs of today. The figures are
purely estimate as each road is different and it is nearly impossible to
obtain an accurate average for cost of building a mile of road.
Mr. Wilkerson recalls that the road was planned
in 1912, surveyed in 1913, and built in 1914, from April to November 10.
Frank Bonner, district engineer at Missoula, assisted Than in running the
grade and surveying the road. It took quite a while to find the route, especially
for the 7.6 miles on this side where the grade was 5% or a 5 foot climb
in 100 feet. The road was to be 11 feet wide with turnouts at various spots.
The contract was let to Clifton-Applegate
and Toole, which a son still operates in Spokane. The first 1/4 mile was
made by horse and scraper, but the rest of the way to the top, many men picked
and shoveled their way. From the top down the other side, horses and scrapers
could be used again as the terrain wasn't so steep.
The ground was decomposed granite which made
a wonderful hard road bed. The years have proved this as the road still
looks the same now as it did when built 38 years ago. There was very little
rock work and the road followed the contour of the mountain. At that time,
lots of labor was available. The work was done on a yardage basis. The road
was measured in stations or 100 foot sections and a man received 40 cents
a yard for moving dirt. the laborers averaged about $2.00 per day.
About 1 1/2 miles from the top, they struck
the old overland trail which was something. An old notation from the Beaverhead
county officials said that the old trail, about 20 miles from Ruby creek
and Trail junction to the top, forded Trail creek exactly 144 times in that
The first automobile to travel travel over
the new road connecting the Bitter Root with the Big Hole was driven by
Dr. Herbert Hayward and All Rissman. Hayward recalled how the Darby Chamber
of Commerce became agitated about the need for a road over the mountain
connecting the two areas. It was decided that it would be necessary to raise
funds. One of the leading workers was Al Rissman who then operated a drug
store at Darby. Everyone was strong for the road but when Rissman and Hayward
went to call upon one of the most vocal boosters, a citizen of the area
who was reputed to possess much wealth, that worthy gave them a two hour
talk and subscribed his name near the top of the petition with a $5.00 donation.
The solicitors when back to Darby muchly disappointed. They decided to have
a meal and over their steaks discussed the matter with Charley Daly, a Chinese
who operated a restaurant in Darby at that time. Daly was asked if he wished
to contribute and willingly agreed, saying he would put his name down for
the same as the man whose name was the only one then on the petition. Hayward
suggested that Daly lead the petition with his name, and the Oriental, either
because he mistook the amount of the other man's donation, or because of
a whim, wrote his name at the top of the petition and put down $50.00. After
that, the steaks with trimmings which cost 35 cents, tasted much better to
Rissman and Hayward who went after contributions from other burghers of
the Darby township with greater zeal.
At that time, Hayward was practicing
medicine in Darby and, while the road to the Big Hole was under construction,
he acted as physician to the workers engaged in pick and shovel work on
the project. Workers were plentiful, many of them being the Bulgarian and
Montenegrin workers from the Butte mines who had been the principal workmen
engaged in building the dam at Lake Como, the Big Ditch, and similar projects
in the Bitter Root a few years earlier.
When the stretch of road up the mountain on
the Bitter Root side was about finished, people became aware that the two
localities were about to be united and the Wisdom Chamber of Commerce invited
Bitter Rooters to send a pilot car over the road as soon as possible. Hayward
possessed a brand new Ford runabout and it was determined that he and Rissman
would attempt the trip in September of 1914. They lashed two planks, 2 x
12 x 16, on each side of the car and started out on the appointed day with
Wisdom ready to celebrate the arrival of the intrepid motorists.
After an uneventful trip to the foot of the
hill near the Gallogly residence, the two Darby men started up the
mountain. Soon the car was boiling. It was necessary to climb down to water
and fill the radiator. This was repeated until the motorists tired and then
much time was consumed to permit the air to cool the red hot engine after
short climbs. It was nearly dusk when the trail-blazers arrived near the
top of the mountain at the end of the Ravalli side of the road where the
road camp was located. There they hit a stump which tore the plug from the
bottom of the pan permitting the oil to escape. They ate a hearty steak supper
while the camp blacksmith of the road crew fashioned a wooden plug which
closed the broken pan. It seemed to the travelers that the day was lost because
they had no oil. This was solved by Frank Bonner and the camp cook who substituted
cottalene for oil and the Darby men left the camp in the dark going down
the old Trail creek road. Their progress took them a couple of miles to a
big prairie where they hit a rock in the road which bent the car's wishbone.
It was necessary for them to spend the night in an old log cabin which was
located nearby. It was cold and they had no blankets and there was little
There appeared to be a paucity of tools in
the car but they finally got the wishbone off and pounded it back into
shape with rocks and replaced it so they could steer the car. Then they
started at sunup down the Trail Creek road crossing it time and again to
finally arrive at the Ruby Creek where the car slipped off the planks which
had been laid in front of it and mired down.
Opportunely a cowboy arrived and offered to
help them by affixing his lasso to the bumper. They started the car and
the horse bolted leaving the cowboy in the swamp. The three men walked to
the Ruby Ranch where they secured another horse and a steak dinner and finally
pulled the car through the creek and up on dry ground. Then they started
on the homestretch to Wisdom, some 15 miles away where they found the celebration
somewhat worn off, the celebration steaks cold and unused and the celebrators
somewhat the worse for wear in the town saloon curing their wounds. It had
been decided when the Bitter Rooters failed to arrive the night before that
the celebration was off and it was necessary for the would-be celebrators
to drown their sorrow. Editor Dick Hathaway, of the Big Hole Breezes, wearing
a 20-gallon hat and filled to the gills with wild moose milk lifted the Bitter
Root men to top of the bar where they were toasted repeatedly until everyone
felt fine again and the celebration of the first car to travel over the Big
Hole road was staged by the Big Hole citizenry with a fervor reminiscent
of the flight of Lindbergh across the Atlantic May 20-21, 1927. Thus Hayward
and Rissman in their epochal crossing antedated the initial solo
flight across the Atlantic.
After some car and other repair of a personal
nature, the Darby men started out on an early September morn upon the return
and, believe it or not, they made it clear through to Darby in a single
day - stopping en route at the road camp atop the Big Hole mountain for another
steak dinner. All of which does show there were almost as many steaks in
this country in those days as there are today, although they were not so valuable,
despite the fact they were more extensively used in 1914 than today!
Dr. Hayward is now these many years a resident
of Hamilton, when no en route to the Orient, Mexico or Europe. It seems
that the wanderlust that led him to engage in the initial motor trip over
the Big Hole mountain has never waned. So it is too with Al Rissman. After
leaving Darby, Mr. Rissman operated a service station in Hamilton, now operated
by Frank Rouse; later operating one in Missoula, which he sold less than
a year ago before leaving for California where he is now residing.
The Western News, May 8, 1952