DEER LODGE — The Mullan Road was built as a military road in 1859-1860 — but it opened the Northwest U.S. to thousands of people seeking gold and a new life.
This was just one nugget of information shared during the Mullan Road Conference held in Deer Lodge recently. Fifty “Mullanites” — enthusiasts — from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and throughout Montana learned about historic trails and shared information.
The 624-mile Mullan Road was the first federally funded, first engineered, and first road to connect the Missouri and Columbia River drainages. Construction began July 1, 1859, at Fort Walla Walla in what is now Washington and was completed August 1, 1860, at Fort Benton in Montana. The road was declared completed in 1862 after improvements were made, with some parts relocated because of site conditions, and washed out bridges were replaced.
Although it was used only once for a military mission in 1860 to move supplies and a contingent of 300 soldiers from Fort Benton to Fort Walla Walla, the Mullan Road was the route used by thousands flocking to the gold rush areas of Montana and Idaho as well as many settlers moving to the Northwest.
Among those were Spokane resident Joann Townsend’s great-grandparents, Fred and Laura Dimmitt, who traveled from Kansas to central Washington with a wagon and team of mules. They traveled with other family members along the Oregon Trail to Idaho then north through Dillon to Deer Lodge where they turned West on the Mullan Trail.
Rich Buswell, a retired Helena physician, has spent years of research and “boots on the ground” looking for and walking in the ruts and remnants of the old road from Elliston to the Sieben ranch, north of Helena.
Buswell said he became intrigued as a youngster listening to his father talk about the historic trail while moving cattle from their ranch west of Helena over Mullan Pass. It was one of the trails to the buffalo for the Flathead/Salish who traveled up Dog Creek over the pass, through the Helena Valley to Three Forks.
This was the first time the conference was held in Deer Lodge, and it was especially meaningful, because there is more of the Mullan Road in this area than in many other areas, said Ken Robison.
Among the highlights gleaned from the conference:
• A portion of the Yellowstone Trail that runs through the Deer Lodge Valley was built by convict labor — inmates at Montana Territorial Prison.
• Attendees learned about historic mining in the Gold Creek area; the route of the road near and through the Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area, east of Deer Lodge; and how GPS mapping has helped find the historic route in Powell County.
• Ken Robison, Mullan Road historian from Fort Benton, said the statue of Lt. John Mullan on courthouse square in Deer Lodge is one of seven in Montana and is in good condition compared to some others
• Attendees learned about how to get the Mullan Road listed as a National Historic Site.
• The group went on a field trip led by Butte geologist Ted Antonioli that took them first to the Gold Creek monument marking the site where gold was first discovered in Montana. North of the ghost town of Emmitsburg on Henderson Creek, the group hiked to the marble monument to miners killed in accidents in 1867 to 1872 then to the ghost town of Pioneer and visited the Chicago School museum.
The Deer Lodge Preservation Commission sponsored the Mullan Road Conference, which is held each year in a different town along the route.