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Hiking Helena
Perhaps the best advice you will ever receive: When hiking, be sure to bring along a 17 year-old high school soccer player. This way, if you and your party choose not to bring water and then a mile into your hike realize how bad a decision that was, you can send said soccer player running down the mountain to bring back some water bottles. Alternately, you could just remember your water bottle from the beginning.

Mount Helena City Park covers 620 acres on the edge of Helena. Trails crisscross the entire park. Some summit the mountain. Others connect with trails in the surrounding Helena National Forest. We took the "1906" trail. It makes sort of a spiral around Mount Helena, which makes it longer, but keeps it from being too steep. Don't be fooled by the "Powerline" trail. Even though it's really short, it goes straight up the face, and is absurdly steep. "1906," on the other hand, wends its way through open hillside and pine forest, and gives some really spectacular views of the city in the process. On the way down, I think we took "Hogback" and "Prospects Shafts." Neither had as much variety as 1906, but it was nice to make a loop instead of backtracking. The trails we took weren't terribly hard. They were just hard enough that at the end you knew you had been exercising. And the view from the top is absolutely worth it. We went in the middle of the morning on a humid overcast day, but it would make a beautiful early morning or close-to-sunset hike.




A post about the Post

People have been chronicling the doings of Montana for almost as long as Montana has been around.  Montana became a territory in May, 1864, before that, it had been part of the Idaho Territory.  By August of 1864, Montana had its own newspaper, the Montana Post.  According to the Montana Historical Society, John Buchanan published four editions of the weekly paper before selling it to Daniel Tilton.  Tilton hired Thomas Dimsdale to edit the paper.  Under Dimsdale, the Post had its most successful run.  During the vigilante era of 1863-64, Dimsdale's editorials waxed poetic about the nobility of the vigilante cause.  In 1866 Dimsdale produced a series of articles about the vigilantes, which he compiled and published as Montana's first book, entitled The Vigilantes of Montana or Popular Justice in the Rocky Mountains.  Dimsdale died of tuberculosis in September of 1866.

Thomas Dimsdale

Thomas Dimsdale.
courtesy of Bannack Association

As population and power shifted from Virginia City to Helena, so did the Post.  However, the Post lasted only a year in Helena before its building was destroyed in an 1869 fire of the business district.  After that, the newspaper divided into several different publications.  During its existence, the Post was a highly divisive publication.  At the time, Montana was a heavily Democrat area.  During the Civil War, men in the border states, angry at their homes for siding with the Union, had headed for the Montana gold rush.  After the war, Confederate soldiers, having nothing to return to in the South, had also headed toward Montana.  In the midst of this anger and disillusionment, the Montana Post preached pro-Unionism and radical Republicanism.

Although not Montana's biggest newspaper, and probably not its best, the Montana Post was the territory's first.  It chronicles a unique era in the birth of Montana.

The Library of Congress has digital copies of the Post, they can be found under "related links" at        

Tags:  history, Virginia City, Helena, newspapers




What on earth does 3-7-77 mean?
Recently, Brian Dunning aired a piece on his blog Skeptoid discussing the Montana symbol 3-7-77. In it, Dunning covered much the same ground as anyone else who writes on the topic: the fact that the Montana Highway Patrol and other Montana institutions use the numbers in their logos, the five or so main theories, and Fredrick Allen's 2013 book A Decent, Orderly Lynching. Beyond these, few facts exist to present.

As far as we can tell, the numbers have nothing to do with Montana's first, and most famous, Vigilantes. Thomas Dimsdale, the Vigilantes most vocal supporter, didn't mention the code in his 1865 book, and Nathaniel Langford, a prominent Montanan who participated in the first wave of vigilantism, said nothing on the subject in his 1890 book. As Allen pointed out, the uniquely Montana tag first appeared in 1879, and wasn't directly connected to a lynching until 1885. For about forty years, the code appeared fairly regularly, in situations ranging from shooing vagrants out of downtowns to the lynching of union organizer Frank Little. Today, nearly divorced of sinister meaning, the code shows up on everything from the Montana Highway Patrol to the Big Sky Brewing Company as a short-hand reference to the state's frontier past. What the numbers might have meant to the graffitios who tagged Helena's fences in 1879, we will never know. 

In A River Runs through It, Norman Maclean offhandedly assumed that the numbers represent the dimensions of a grave (3 feet wide, 7 feet long and 77 inches deep). Judge Llewellyn Link Callaway, writing in 1929, claimed the numbers represented the 3 hours, 7 minutes and 77 seconds Vigilantes gave miscreants to get out of town. He claimed to have based this theory on his acquaintance with former Vigilantes during his childhood. Other theorists have added the numbers (3+7+7+7) and said that it represented the 24 hours criminals had to leave town unmolested.  

In a rare move for Skeptoid, Brian Dunning endorsed the Mason theory suggested by Rex Myers in which the 3 represents either the general number of Masons required to form a lodge or the specific number that formed the first lodge in Montana; the 7 represents the ideal minimum number involved in a decision; and 77 represents the number of Masons in Montana at the first gathering. This might be the first time Skeptoid has ever supported a Mason theory. Myers suggested that maybe the code wasn't so much a warning as a call for a meeting and that undesirable elements learned that the one often proceeded the other. Allen, however rejected this notion by noting first that several prominent Masons during the 1870s-80s opposed vigilantism, and second that the Masons have never been keen on publicly displaying secret codes. In the same article, Allen tossed around the theory that the code urged miscreants to buy a $3 ticket on the 7:00am stage for the 77 mile trip from Helena to Butte-basically a warning to get out of town. Warnings, though, need to be straight-forward so that everyone gets the message. Allen acknowledged that his theory, like the others, was pretty obscure.

A warning, a code, a cipher? Since their appearance on Helena fences in 1879, the numbers have befuddled generations of Montanans. That they had some link to vigilantism seems clear, but what was the nature of this link? Who scrawled the numbers on Montana's history? What was their intent? How did people interpret the signs? These questions we will probably never know, but that shouldn't keep us from speculating. What do you think?

Allen, Fredrick. "Montana Vigilantes and the Origins of 3-7-77." Montana: The Magazine of Western History 51, 1 (2001): 2-19.
Callaway, L. L., Jr. "The Vigilante Numbers: Another Look at 3-7-77." Montana: The Magazine of Western History 25, 2 (1975): 83-84.
Dunning, Brian. "3-7-77: The Montana Vigilance Code."
Maclean, Norman. A River Runs through It and Other Stories. New York: Pocket Books, 1976.
Myers, Rex C. "The Fateful Numbers 3-7-77: A Re-Examination." Montana: The Magazine of Western History 24, 4 (1974): 67-70




The Montanan Called Spokane

May, 1889.  The boisterous crowd at Churchill Downs went silent as two horses lunged for the finish line, well ahead of the rest.  One was the massive Proctor Knott, a Kentucky horse, winner of the Futurity, and the obvious favorite.  The other was Spokane, a much smaller horse, whom the Chicago Daily Tribune quoted as having eight to one odds (though other sources say six to one).  

Spokane's owner, Noah Armstrong had made his fortune in Montana.  He had his fingers in a number of pies, but the most notable piece of his empire was the Helca Corporation silver mines.  With his fortune secured, Armstrong had turned to one of his great passions: horse racing.  He built a grand three story round barn, complete with an indoor quarter mile training track, outside of Twin Bridges.  He also bought a bred mare, Interpose, and brought her to Montana.  While at a meeting in Spokane, Washington he received word that the mare had given birth.  In celebration he named the foal Spokane.  Spokane had a distinguished record as a two year old, and was favored to place at the 1889 Kentucky Derby, but the field was too strong for anyone to think he would win.

Spokane and Proctor Knott finished neck-and-neck, so close that no one in the stands could tell who won.  A few moments later, the crowd erupted as Spokane's number came up.  Spokane, the little horse from Montana, had won the Kentucky Derby.  He finished the mile and a half track in 2 minutes, 31.5 seconds, setting the Derby record.  In 1896, the Kentucky Derby was shortened to one and one quarter miles, meaning that Spokane's record will never be beaten.  If there's any doubts as to who was the superior horse, Spokane went on to beat Proctor Knott in two more prestigious races.

The distinctive red barn where Spokane was born and trained still sits north of Twin Bridges.

Tags:  history, sports, animal, Twin Bridges




Memorial Day Links
In my experience, the best way to predict Montana weather is to look at the calendar. Memorial Day and state track meets both mean rain. I hope that next week is absolutely beautiful, but if the weather forces you indoors, feel free to follow these links. Most of these sites don't have much to do with SouthWest Montana, but they inspire me to want to travel and explore, so I thought I'd share them with you.

The Central Montana blog is one of my favorites, it always makes me want to head over there.

Glacier Country's blog is also always inspiring.  Does anybody know if Montana's other tourist regions have blogs?

Ellen Baumler's blog "Montana Moments"(and her books by the same name) captures some of the most interesting little tidbits of Montana lore and presents them in short easily digestible stories.

I recently discovered The Last Best News, which covers news from Montana east of Billings, a bit (i.e. massive, vast portion) of Montana that I don't think gets as much recognition as it deserves.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  Watch it, and realize how much you want to see the world.  Then (because this is a SouthWest Montana Blog) start your adventures in Montana.

One of my favorite travel blogs, The Everywhereist has nothing to do with SouthWest Montana, but everything to do with being inspired to explore the world.

Another recent find, Proof features the experiences and pictures of National Geographic's best photographers.

This video from National Geographic has nothing to do with Montana, or spring, but it is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the Sami reindeer herders of Scandinavia, and starting at 0:54 includes one of my favorite interviews of all time.

Paul Salopek is spending the next 7 years walking around the world. His blogs are always remarkable. Actually you can't go wrong with anything from National Geographic (I might be a little obsessed).




A River Runs through It: Follow Norman Maclean through Southwest Montana.

Fly Fishing in Southwest Montana

Southwest Montana's creeks and streams open for general fishing this Saturday, May 17th. So it only makes sense that I would write another post about the greatest of fishing books: A River Runs through It. Whenever I read A River Runs through It, I get the urge to scurry into the woods and maybe try my hand at fly-fishing. Unfortunately, my outdoorsmanship evokes more Patrick MacManus (who once said his casting technique has "the exact same motions as those of an old lady fighting off a bee with a broom handle") than Maclean. I much prefer spending my time tramping through the willows, falling into creeks and eating sandwiches to perfecting a cast that achieves the perfect unity of theology and art, but that's just me.

If you love fishing (even if you're terrible) and love A River Runs through It, then you'll love this list A River Runs through It's Southwest Montana places:

Wolf Creek-In 1937, when the story takes place, Norman lives in Wolf Creek, near his wife's family. The little town is an extremely popular basecamp for people hoping to fish the Missouri. Seven miles north, the fishing mecca of Craig celebrates the opening of fishing season with the annual Craig Caddis Festival.

Helena-Norman's brother Paul works a news report in Helena. He spends most of his time at the bar of the Montana Cub, the oldest still operating private club west of the Mississippi.

Elkhorn River-Norman describes at length a day of fishing on the Elkhorn River with his brother and brother-in-law. To be honest, I don't know what he's referring to. I think he might be talking about Elkhorn Creek (which flows into Willow Creek, and from there the Missouri) just north of the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area, but I could be mistaken. Any thoughts?

Roger's Pass-On their way to fish the Blackfoot, Norman and Paul cross the Continental Divide at Roger's Pass, famous for having the coldest temperature on record (-70 F) in the continental U.S. On their way down, they would have passed through Lincoln. Norman also writes of Paul taking the "Nevada Creek Road" which is now MT 141.

The Big Blackfoot-the titular "River", the Blackfoot flows from its headwaters near Roger's Pass to Bonner, where it joins the Clark Fork. The Blackfoot is one of Montana's most famous blue ribbon trout streams.

The Montana Club, circa 1915. Courtesy:

A barn near MT 141

The Blackfoot River, near Ovando




The Chief of Editors
Chris Johns

Chris Johns. Courtesy: National Geographic

Ok, I know that Missoula isn't in SouthWest Montana, but last week the Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic came to the University of Montana as part of the Journalism School's centennial celebration. For a blogger, that's the pretty big deal. Nat Geo is the absolute pinnacle of travel storytelling. I skipped trivia (and cheap microbrew) night at the bar to listen to this guy, that's how excited I was.

Chris Johns started as a freelance photographer, working for, among others, Time, Life and National Geographic. In 1995 he became one of National Geographic's few staff photographers. He has been the Editor-in-Chief since 2005. During his time as a photographer, he published over 20 articles, including 8 cover stories. In a magazine renowned for its photos, Johns is the first non-writer to be Editor-in-Chief. Under his tenure, the magazine and website have emerged as one of the world's best vehicles for immersive storytelling, merging photos and writing with videos, multimedia, audio and interactive displays.

To establish his authority as the coolest guy in the room, Johns showed a video towards the beginning of his speech. The video showed him photographing cheetahs. One of the cheetahs went to Johns and sniffed around his equipment. The cheetah smelled his hand, bit his camera lens, and then wandered off. Although ostensibly about the history and future of National Geographic, Johns' talk centered on one piece of advice, "Find your voice as a person first, and then as a photographer [or writer, or artist]." Johns was very likely the most intense person in that room (for example, he took this photo while hanging out the side of an airplane) but he came across as humble and down-to-earth. In fact, for all the incredible stuff he has done, he spent most of the night talking about the other great photographers at National Geographic. For them, photography and travel are not just a business, or a way of having exciting adventures, but a way of expressing a deep compassion for the people, places and animals of the world. His talk was an inspiring reminder to me of how meaningful travel and adventure can be.   

Johns' ability to capture the human experience is on full display in this gallery of photos of South Africa's Bushmen. You can view a gallery of his work for National Geographic by typing his name in the search box on this page.     

And, because all things come back to Montana eventually, National Geographic is celebrating its 125th year with a feature issue about the Yellowstone ecosystem. I'm not sure when that will come out, but I do know that by the time it does, some of the magazine's best writers and photographers will have spent over a year in the area, documenting the ecosystem of the world's first national park.




The Forgotten Celts

So, pasties. A Butte staple. Delicious pie-pastry pockets stuffed with potatoes and meat. Sometimes topped with brown gravy. If you haven't had one before, you should get one. Right now. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Pasties are sort of the Northern European version of a calzone and in Butte they are strongly associated with mining, and thus the Irish. You can even find recipes for "Butte Irish Pasties."  But, the rest of the world associates pasties with the Cornish, a Celtic people from the southwestern-most tip of England. A week ago, the UK officially recognized the Cornish people as a national minority, granting them the same status as other Celtic groups like the Scots, Irish and Welsh. I decided that it's time to give the Cornish a little bit of recognition.

Celtic Flag

The Cornish Flag. Courtesy:

The Cornish in SouthWest Montana have never gained quite the same status as the other British Celts, they often get lumped together with "the English." Nonetheless, the Cornish were integral to Montana history. Since ancient times, Cornwall has been famous for its tin and copper mines. By the 19th Century, Cornishmen had gained so much fame that one historian called them "the world's best miners." In America, the Cornish were affectionately called "Cousin Jacks," perhaps because of their tendency to write back to relatives in Cornwall whenever a mine needed workers. Their hard rock mining expertise proved invaluable in Butte. In 1879, C.F. Kellogg wrote that the city's population "[was] nearly 50-50 Irish and Cousin Jacks." Beyond Celtic roots and a propensity for mining, the Irish and Cornish had very little in common. Butte's Irish almost universally identified as Catholics and Democrats, while the Cornish were staunch Republican Methodists. Brawls frequently broke out between the Cornish and the Irish, and some mines used this to their advantage. The Steward for example pitted Cornish and Irish shifts against each other; prominent tally sheets challenged each nationality to outdo the other. This rivalry even manifested itself in the legendary Daly-Clark feud. Clark hired so many Cornishmen that one of his mines earned the nickname "Saffron Bun" after a Cornish delicacy. Daly, on the other hand, "made Butte an Irish town," with his equally blatant preference for hiring Irishmen.

Cornwall, from whence come the Cornish. The southern tip of Cornwall is called "The Lizard," which is not relevant to this blog, but pretty interesting. Courtesy:

Eventually however, the Irish emerged as Butte's most prominent Celtic nation. So prominent that in 1889, according to historian Dave Emmons, "St. Patrick's Catholic Parish numbered 7,000 members; Mountain View Methodists had the city's second highest membership with 145."

A cross-cut of a pasty. Courtesy:

And the pasty? Well I'm not sure. The Cornish have laid their claim to the food around the world, going so far as to trademark the term in the E.U. I found various sources that credited the Welsh, the Cornish, and the Irish with the pie's introduction to Butte. I found one website that claimed the pasty as Irish, and then backed up the claim with a quote from the Butte Heritage Cookbook: "the pastry-wrapped meal was an ideal way for the "Cousin Jeannie" to provide a hearty meal for the "Cousin Jack"" (that's just lazy research, and I'm not going to dignify it with a link). All I know for sure is that the pasty has Celtic roots (Wikipedia tells me that there is a Scottish equivalent called a 'bridie') and Butte has made the food its own. Whatever the origins may be, the pasty is from Butte now.


Emmons, Dave. "The Orange and Green in Montana: a Reconsideration of the Clark-Daly Feud." Montana Legacy: Essays on People, History and Place, edited by Harry Fritz, Marry Murphy, Robert R. Swartrout, Jr., 79-102. Montana Historical Society, 2002.

Hand, Wayland D. "The Folklore, Customs, and Traditions of the Butte Miner (Concluded)." California Folklore Quarterly 5, 2 (Apr., 1946): 153-178.

Lottich, Kenneth V. "My Trip to Montana Territory, 1879." The Magazine of Western History 15, 1 (Winter, 1965): 12-25.




As Old as Dirt

A drive through the Prickly Pear Canyon, on Interstate 15 north of Helena, makes a perfect afternoon drive.  The narrow, twisting canyon offers, arguably, the best stretch of driving on I-15.  Below the road, Prickly Pear Creek (and further north, the Missouri) twists like a blue cord on the narrow canyon floor.  Cliffs, in bands of red and green, rise above the road, topped by pines and the clear blue of Montana's sky. 

Cliffs through Prickly Pear Canyon
Next time you drive down that stretch of road, think on this: you're winding your way through some of the oldest exposed rock in Montana.  One billion years ago a shallow inland sea, or perhaps a massive lake, covered western Montana from what is now Butte to the Canadian border.  As the waters receded, the mud from the sea floor dried, forming (over millions and millions of years) the multi-hued mudstones that color the Prickly Pear Canyon.  Geologists have named these rocks "Spokane Shale" after the Spokane Hills to the east of Helena.  Iron in the mud caused the color differences.  Layers that formed with little to no oxygen exposure became green.  Layers that had more contact with oxygen turned pinkish-red (caused by the iron particles oxidizing-essentially rusting).  That's all well and good, but these are some seriously old rocks, normally so many other layers of rock would cover them you would never see these mudstone flats.  Thank Montana's seismic activity.  Seventy million years ago (for those of you keeping score, that's about nine hundred and thirty million years after the shale began to form) the earth crumpled and shook in a series of events that formed the Rocky Mountains. These earthquakes twisted and folded the area, giving us the Prickly Pear Canyon and the leaning layers of Spokane Shale that make it so beautiful.

Tags:  geology, intro science, Helena area, roadtrips, highway markers, Missouri River




The Old Man, Fly Fishing, and a Hat
When I grow up, I want to be Norman Maclean, author of A River Runs through It. Think about it, he spent a lifetime as one of the most acclaimed professors at the University of Chicago before retiring to the woods of Montana, where he spent his days writing, fishing, drinking bourbon, wearing an amazing hat and cussing tourists. That's the dream. Oh, and he wrote some of the most evocatively beautiful descriptions of the west ever conceived by humankind.

Norman Mclean
That hat, oh, that hat.
By now, of course, writing about Maclean is about the least original thing a Montana blogger could possibly do, but I can't very well help myself. No doubt every would-be hipster woodsman-philosopher in western Montana has a tattered copy from which they quote long passages whilst drinking fashionably cheap beer and sitting in fashionably sketchy bars. And yet, despite my instant distrust of anything hipster and fashionable, I was hooked (heh) the first time I read the novella.

In a later post, I'll justify including River in a blog dedicated to Southwest Montana, and I don't intend to bother with summary, synopsis, or even analysis of the book. What I really want to talk about is Norman Maclean. Before he was a writer, Maclean was a teacher, and one of the best. For forty years he taught English at the University of Chicago, one of the top humanities schools in the nation. Three times he won the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, an honor usually bestowed upon a teacher only once. Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Steven would occasionally tell students that the best way to prepare for a law degree was to take Shakespeare from Maclean. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds impressive. He wrote a few academic articles and worked on an unfinished history of the Battle of the Little Bighorn while teaching, but he didn't publish his first book until 1976, three years after he retired at the age of 70.  

In 1981, Pete Dexter, a reporter from South Philadelphia spent a few days in Maclean's Seeley Lake cabin, writing a profile for Esquire. In the profile, Maclean emerged as a lovable, albeit curmudgeonly, old man. In the middle of work on his second masterpiece, Young Men and Fire, he would spend the morning meticulously writing and re-writing paragraphs, then take a bath in Seeley Lake. In the afternoon, he would fish, hike, drink bourbon from a mason jar, and cuss what he called "the marijuana set" in the public campground near his cabin. A friend once described him as "frequently profane, yet never vulgar." Although he had the academic chops to rival any of his colleagues, he enjoyed his role as the rough-cut Montanan amongst Chicago's urban intellectuals. He was a man who wrote a peer reviewed neo-Aristotelian analysis of King Lear and a story called "Logging, Pimping, and 'Your Pal, Jim'."   
Blackfoot River
The Blackfoot River, made famous by Maclean.

 Maclean embodies a contradiction. Like many Montanans, he was skeptical of outsiders, yet for four decades his book (and Robert Redford's 1990 movie adaptation) has done more for Montana tourism than any campaign we could conceive. I think that many Montanans, and especially writers, struggle with this contradiction. On the one hand, we take irrational pride in our heritage, see ourselves as an exceptional breed, set apart by the virtue of place. On the other hand, Montana really is pretty amazing. And we want to share our joy of the state with others. Like Maclean, most Montanans are a blend of poet and curmudgeon, struck by constant awe of the beauty of Montana.


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