Editor's Note: This story is part of "River in Peril," a four-part series produced by reporters and photographers from The Montana Standard, and videographers from the Helena Independent Record.
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For thousands of years, Indigenous peoples hunted, gathered, quarried stone and traded in and around the valley of the river that became known as the Big Hole.
Signs of their passage live on in tipi rings, stone projectile points and other “lithic scatter” — including stone flakes.
Separate tribes of Native Americans who came to be identified as the Salish, Shoshone, Nez Perce and Blackfeet traveled through the region. Most did their best to avoid the fierce Blackfeet while moving to the plains to hunt bison.
Life changed irrevocably for indigenous tribes in the Rocky Mountain West after the expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark from 1803/1804–1806 and impacts associated with the fur trade.
In the decades that followed, the Big Hole River Valley provided an Old West microcosm of the exploits of white men and women seeking wealth or a simpler life or something akin to biblical dominion – trapping, mining, smelting, hard drinking, gambling, a notorious attack by the U.S. Army on a Native American tribe, homesteading and ranching.
People have long attempted to hang a name on the ultimately unnamable: The Waters of the Pocket Gopher (Salish); The Land of Big Snows (Shoshone); Hot Springs Valley (William Clark); The Land of 10,000 Haystacks.
Fur traders such as Alexander Ross and his men killed beavers aplenty after arriving in 1824, with more trapping to follow. The near extirpation of the beavers probably changed the Big Hole River significantly, according to the Big Hole River Foundation.
“The removal of beaver dams likely contributed to faster flows, increased erosion, incision and simplification of the stream channel, decreased retention of sediment, decreased riparian cover, decreased floodplain connectivity, lowered groundwater tables and summer base flow, and loss of habitat diversity,” the foundation reports.
Miners chased dreams up the creeks and gulches of the Big Hole River drainage. Gold fever burned most fiercely but silver fired the imagination too. Men from around the nation and world shouldered mighty risks, back-breaking toil and harsh weather in pursuit of promising dust and ore.
They panned and sluiced and dug. They used hydraulic hoses.
Some, like William Allen, spent a fortune in the early 1900s in a quest to strike it rich. Among other endeavors, he paid to build a narrow-gauge railroad from Divide through Wise River and up to Coolidge, where he also built the state’s largest silver mill at the time, completed in 1922.
Earlier, in the 1870s, the Hecla Consolidated Mining Company purchased claims at the headwaters of Canyon and Trapper creeks after the discovery of rich silver deposits. The company built the town of Glendale, about 10 miles below the mine, and constructed a smelter there.
The Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology reported that smelter activities “stimulated the growth of a large community…At its peak, Glendale boasted a population of over one thousand, a large skating rink, two doctors, one lawyer, two churches, 10 saloons, a brewery and a community spirit that pushed it into the race for ‘capitalship’ of the state at one time.”
Other reports estimated Glendale’s peak population reached between 2,000 and 3,000 people.
Miners who worked in the Big Hole River Valley from about 1900 included men from Austria, Canada, Finland, Ireland, Mexico, Scotland, Sweden, Switzerland and Wales, along with an array of U.S. states.
Ultimately, mining never became a dominant industry in the valley. Pat Munday, author of “Montana’s Last Best River: The Big Hole River and its People,” observed, “Fortunately for the beauty and integrity of the Big Hole environment, the watershed is not particularly rich in mineral resources. Nearby watersheds, such as the Clark Fork, Blackfoot, and Jefferson have suffered from extensive mining.”
Some miners who grew weary of the chase opted to settle down, a choice eased by the Homestead Act of 1862.
In addition, the bustling mining town of Butte and the emerging smelting town of Anaconda – along with the Anaconda Co. itself – created demand for the kinds of goods the Big Hole Valley could deliver – beef, timber, horses, mules and more.
Battle of the Big Hole
Separately, the reluctance of many Native Americans to embrace life on Indian reservations led to a bloody battle in August 1877 between roughly 800 Nez Perce attempting to escape that fate and pursuing U.S. Army troops and volunteers during what became known as the Battle of the Big Hole.
The troops and volunteers struck first, firing indiscriminately into tipis and shooting fleeing women and children. But the Nez Perce warriors rallied and routed the soldiers led by Colonel John Gibbon. The surviving Nez Perce continued their flight.
“The Battle of the Big Hole generated immediate and widespread interest. Even more than the Nez Perce's long retreat over the Bitterroot Mountains into Montana, the hard-fought battle turned the Nez Perce's struggle into an epic, sensational event,” reports the “History of the Big Hole Valley – Montana Pioneers of the Old West.”
Historian Merrill Beal observed that the fight, “coming within fourteen months of the Custer Massacre, aroused the whole nation and attracted the attention of the world.”
A few of the white veterans of the battle objected years later to reports that they had slaughtered women and children. Survivor Barnett Wilkinson claimed they had taken up weapons to fight the soldiers.
Chief Joseph countered, “The Nez Perces never make war on women and children; we could have killed a great many woman and children while the war lasted, but we would feel ashamed to do so cowardly an act.”
Accounts vary about how many Nez Perce died that day. Joseph’s count was 50 women and children and 30 warriors. Others have said the Nez Perce suffered 89 killed, noting that most of the dead were women and children.
The Nez Perce fled the battle and continued on the long quest to reach Canada.
But on Sept. 30, 1877, U.S. cavalry troops, led by Col. Nelson Miles, attacked the fleeing tribe at what became known as the Battle of the Bear Paws.
After more fighting, Chief Joseph is said to have observed, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
The Nez Perce were forced then to endure reservation life and, according to at least one observer, sadness lingered like a pall in the Big Hole.
“There slumbers a valley in southwestern Montana so impregnated with silence that the spirit of the visitor seems to hear sorrow…as if the sound waves of a once great misery enacted here moved on but left sad ghosts behind,” observed a travel writer, describing the Big Hole battlefield (from “History of the Big Hole Valley”).
Decades before, the Nez Perce had been hospitable to the Lewis and Clark expedition.
“After some initial apprehension, the Nez Perce embraced the expedition, providing aid during a very trying time and reminded friendly to Lewis and Clark when they returned in 1806,” according to a National Park Service narrative.
“In the aftermath of the expedition's departure, the promises of a productive relationship with the United States government proved to ring hollow. In a generation, the flight of 1877 would tear asunder any notions of lasting peace and friendship.”
Lewis and Clark
In August 1805, Lewis and Clark had decided not to ascend a stream Clark dubbed Wisdom River because of strong currents and beaver dams.
They opted instead for what is now known as the Beaverhead River to continue a portion of their quest to reach the Pacific Ocean.
On their return, Clark and Lewis split up at Travelers’ Rest near present-day Lolo, with plans to reunite at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers.
Clark and companions traveled through the Big Hole Valley during the summer of 1806.
Of the valley, he wrote, “we assended a small rise and beheld an open boutifull Leavell valley or plain of about 20 miles wide and near 60 long extending N&S in every direction around which I could see the high points of Mountains Covered with Snow.”
Observers before and since have marveled at the sprawling beauty of the Big Hole Valley, whether buried in snow or greening up in spring.
Clark discovered hot springs in the vicinity of what is now Jackson Hot Springs. Ever the citizen scientist, he supervised an experiment that involved cooking small pieces of meat in the hot water.
More than a half century later, southwest Montana became a destination for homesteaders and ranchers.
“Homesteading meant stability and prosperity to miners tired of moving from one boomtown to the next, a new start for those who had failed to prosper on the plains, and an unfettered life of freedom for recent immigrants,” Munday wrote in "Last Best River".
Predictably, those who traveled to the Big Hole included a few eccentrics, men like George Pettingill, The Wild Man of Wise River. Pettingill was said to be about 6-feet-2 with matted “dreadlocks” that nearly reached his waist. Accounts suggest he traveled into the Wise River area by 1869, lived eight miles up Wise River at Sheep Creek in a dugout, startled people who encountered him, stalked game relentlessly until it surrendered and ate his bounty raw, reports “History of the Big Hole Valley.”
A December 1894 article in the Cincinnati Enquirer described Pettingill as “the most interesting and mysterious character of the state, if not the whole Northwest.”
Meanwhile, the Homestead Act, its successors and other government measures made ranching in the remote and wintry Big Hole more palatable.
Ranchers quickly recognized the absolute necessity of accumulating large amounts of hay to sustain cattle herds through the prolonged and often bitterly cold winters.
Haystacks proliferated courtesy of beaverslide hay-stackers, a Big Hole invention credited to ranchers Herbert Armitage and David Stephens around 1908.
Ranchers were among those who suffered property damage in June 1927 when a dam built by Montana Power at Pattengail Creek gave way above Wise River.
Four people died. The flood’s victims included a husband and wife and their adopted son, as well as Charles Ferguson, said to be a rancher and trapper.
The flood destroyed numerous structures in Wise River and then washed out bridges on the Big Hole as the raging waters barreled downstream.
As the valley settled, the city of Butte teemed with toil and turmoil. For residents who had the opportunity to travel for a break from the industrial milieu, the Big Hole provided refuge and recreation.
“Butte was an island of mine activity surrounded by barren dirt,” Munday wrote. “Yet just over the Great Divide south of town flowed the Big Hole River. Perhaps because Butte was such a blighted landscape, wealthy and working class Buttians alike appreciated every chance to fish the Big Hole.”
Munday notes that the Big Hole received attention as a national destination in publications that included “The Angler’s Guide Book,” published in 1886.
Anglers in Butte could ride the Sunday fishing train from Butte to Divide to wet a line.
One of the Big Hole’s most famous fly fishermen, fly tyers and conservationists was born in 1906. Later, George Grant, Tony Schoonen and others led the fight in the mid-1960s to defeat the Reichle Dam, proposed by the Bureau of Reclamation near the town of Glen.
In 1972, local conservationists formed the River Rats Chapter of Trout Unlimited. Board members included Grant and Schoonen.
In 1985, the dedicated efforts of conservationists helped produce the Montana Stream Access Law.
History shows that the work of people who have loved the Big Hole River for the support it provides for agriculture, for its scenic beauty and for its world-class fishery, have preserved a treasure recognized for centuries.
Munday quoted George Grant, “A millionaire couldn’t buy a piece of water as good as any reach on the Big Hole River. And we can fish it for nothing.”
With thanks to Tim Fay of Wise River and Dana and Alta Miller of Dewey for their guidance.