Sheridan – Heart of the Ruby Valley
Sheridan, originating from the 1863 construction of a sawmill on Mill Creek sits in the heart of southwest Montana’s Ruby Valley. It’s defined not only by its 20-mile-long valley that holds the constantly meandering Ruby River but also by the prominent rises of the Tobacco Root Mountains on the northeast and the Ruby Range to the southeast.
A nationally celebrated blue-ribbon fishery, the Ruby River is near the west edge of town.
Historically this area was a part of the Shoshone nation’s traditional hunting and gathering grounds. Shoshone bands, mainly the Bannock, used the river and creeks as passageways through this landscape. Mountains near Sheridan hold several archeological quarry sites where Native Americans made stone tools extracted rocks high in silica.
Montana’s largest ever gold discovery occurred in spring 1863 just a short distance southeast of town. Rich deposits in Alder Gulch brought thousands of people to the area giving birth to Virginia City, Montana’s second territorial capitol. Shortly thereafter, in 1864 the first residents settled in, and Sheridan came to life. It was named for Philip Sheridan, a general in the Union Army during the Civil War.
In the 1860s when gold fever in southwest Montana was raging, the Tobacco Roots and the Ruby mountains were well combed by prospectors.
Road agents, prospector’s and vigilantes, all real-life characters portrayed in western films, passed by this Ruby Valley settlement on their way to and from Montana’s gold camps.
To commemorate those days interpretive signs are plentiful along the 28 mile stretch of roadway between Virginia City, Sheridan, and Twin Bridges. The notorious Road Agent Trail that todays’ highway approximates, originally followed former Indian passages. Created to connect Bannack and Virginia City it was said that the 70-miles of distance could “ordinarily be completed between the rising and setting of the sun”. With upwards of 17 hours of daylight in Montana’s early summer that seems plausible if one’s horse was fast.
The trail is “indelibly associated with Sheriff Henry Plummer of Bannack and his infamous outlaw gang. For eight months beginning in the spring of 1863, the gang systematically terrorized travelers on the trail through intimidation, robbery and occasionally murder.” Historian Nathaniel Langford said, “the area through which the trail passed was admirably adapted to the outlaw’s purpose with ample means of concealment and advantages for attack upon passing trains with very few chances for defense or escape.”
Originally established to support the people passing through as well as area agricultural, today Sheridan is a business center for the valley. Ranching and cultivation are the main drivers of the economy. The Ruby Valley Medical Center, Tobacco Root Mountains Care Center and Garnet USA are the largest employers. The population of about 700 the year round grows in summer and fall months as people come to recreate.
Compared to other places in southwest Montana the climate of the Ruby Valley is mild. This is owing to mountains that block some of the more extreme weather Montana can experience.
Many opportunities including fishing, hiking, mountain bike, hunting and exploring exist in this beautiful area. The towering Tobacco Root Range with 43 peaks exceeding 10,000 feet is a draw for hunting, hiking and alpine lake fishing. Although there are numerous access points to reach the interior of the range, the road up Mill Creek is a favorite. And as the area witnessed significant mining activity many other roads extend into the fringes of the range and some climb higher. Historic relics left behind from the search for minerals are scattered throughout the lower reaches.
Sheridan serves as a base to not only learn of Montana’s earliest decades but also as a place to explore this quiet corner of Montana. Seven mountain ranges are clearly visible from town. Aside from the Tobacco Roots and Rubys, the Highlands Mountains, Pioneers, Greenhorns, Snowcrest and Beaverhead are easily reached.
Fishing in particular is popular. The Ruby River is considered one of the region’s best fly-fishing waterways. Fed by clear cold waters pouring from the Ruby, Gravelly, Snowcrest and Tobacco Root mountains it is mainly inhabited by Brown trout. Both midge and caddis hatches draw anglers to the river.
Tourism has only become a popular business in the last few years. The town now highlights recreation activities while also hosting events. One such celebration is Sheridan Days, a summer festival held in late July. In past years the 2-3 days have been filled with car shows, live entertainment, and a community brunch.
A Sheridan highlight is Jackson’s Garden, a community plot with event space. The gardens have been the scenic backdrop of many occasions, including weddings, private parties, and memorial services. This flower and vegetable patch was created in 2009 with the mission to establish a shared community gardening experience.
In the higher reaches above town the forests are of Lodgepole pine, Spruce and Douglas fir and are interspersed with mountain meadows and sagebrush valleys. The Tobacco Roots are often marketed as one of the most scenic mountain ranges in Montana. All the nearby mountain ranges are laced with trails that allow people to access alpine peaks and mountain lakes.
Locals are passionate about fish having supported an effort to reintroduce the endangered Fluvial Arctic Grayling into the upper Ruby River. It was chosen in 1997 to be a part of restoration efforts for this species.
About 20 miles from town the Ruby Reservoir is another Sheridan fishing and camping asset. Its location off the beaten track means it receives moderate use. It was developed to supply irrigation to ranchers in the valley. Well stocked with trout, boat access is available, and the fishing is good when water levels are at their highest. Later in summer, irrigation demands draw the level lower.
Sheridan is one of those places in Big Sky Country that says this is the real Montana. Its backdrop of mountains, forests, fast running streams, cattle and horses grazing in nearby pastures, a recent wild west past that can still be imagined and a welcoming atmosphere is what folks from elsewhere visualize Montana and the Mountain West to be.
Ruby Loeffelholz is a junior in UM’s Davidson Honors College majoring in Anthropology and minoring in International Development Studies