Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Early-day Travel on the Helena to Fort Benton Road

By the mid-1860s, Helena had surpassed Alder Gulch in population. Roads ran in all directions to Gallatin City, Virginia City, Deer Lodge, and Fort Benton. The road between Fort Benton and Helena was an especially well-worn path used by stagecoaches, horsemen, and freighters traveling between these two key settlements. The road saw heavy traffic from the earliest days of Montana Territory until the advent of the railroad in 1883. Bullwhackers performed an essential task, walking alongside the laboring teams. Their cracking whips kept the animals moving, especially on uphill grades. Way stations along the route offered respite as it was hard going for both humans and livestock. Malcolm Clarke’s ranch, today headquarters of the Sieben Ranch, was among the early stops.

A small span of mules and their freight wagon await unloading on Helena’s Main Street in 1874.
Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, 954-200.
The Benton Road, not the same as Helena’s Benton Avenue, entered Last Chance Gulch via North Main Street as did the other major routes to Prickly Pear Canyon and Gallatin City, Deer Lodge, and Virginia City. The popular notion that the Benton Road entered Helena by way of Benton Avenue and wound its way down through Reeder’s Alley is physically impossible. Until 1893, buildings spread into and up the alleyway toward the dead end that was Benton Avenue, preventing all types of traffic except horseback. Freighters could never bring six or eight span of oxen, or a mule team, or several thousand-pound wagons hooked together down that steep, narrow alley. The well-traveled North Main Street route into Last Chance Gulch was flat and plenty wide enough.

All roads entered Last Chance Gulch via Main Street, as illustrated in this 1868 map. Streets on the grid from left to right: Clore (today’s Park) Street, Main (today’s Last Chance Gulch), Rodney Street, and Davis Street.
Click on the map for a bigger image. Courtesy of DNRC.
Freighters coming into town pastured their animals on the outskirts of Helena and camped overnight in the wide open spaces north of town. Sometimes the gentle, distant lowing of the oxen carried on the breeze as the animals bedded down in the evenings. The next morning, freighters hitched up the animals—but not necessarily the entire team—and brought the heavy freight wagons into town to unload.

No comments:

Post a Comment