Telephone Butte Sun. June 30th, 2024

Participants: David and Julie Kahl

We gave it a gallant try. It was a perfect day, in the 60’s/17c and overcast, not much wind. We were concerned that the section of the old Wagon Mt. Road, from the Grave Cr. -Petty Cr. saddle, we had to drive for about 1 1/2 miles/2.41k to a parking area would be wet. It was mostly dry, but had like six very large puddles -2-3 truck lengths -to drive through. One was so nasty folks had made a new route around it. We were last here in 2022 and the road was a lot more eroded, now, then it had been then, with those “gullies” that form down the center of the road, with still good tread on either side. The parking area is an over look with camping spots. It is possible to continue up the road from there in a road vehicle, but not recommended. About 1/2 mile/0.80k up there is a “failed” Kelly hump which looks like a quick rise in the road until you top it off and see a six foot/1.83m, sheer drop off on the other side. ATV’s could by pass it on one side. At least, that is the way it was two years ago. Now enough ATV’s and off road vehicles have gone across it that the low side is worn down to a less steep pitch. Still could snag a road vehicle pretty bad. Shortly beyond the Kelly hump is a switch back corner with the traces of an old road, overgrown now, going off from it. The switch back goes out on to the west slope of the ridge and as it turns onto the north slope, and the brow of the ridge, starts to become steep, first in short uphills with a little more level land in between, all the inclines with badly eroded exposed, loose rock. Gradually it becomes more longer, steeper inclines and very short level patches. Eventually the Road/Trail comes to a switch back, where, though it is still the width of a road, it goes up a series of rock steps, erosion patterns show how in wetter conditions, there probably were little water falls here. On the top of the steps was a grassy knob. Though all maps and the GPS showed the road continuing up the brow of the ridge from here, in reality, on the ground, there was no obvious route that way, this was essentially the end of the road from this (west) side. Now a footpath trail lead out onto the south- Grave Cr. side, of the ridge. The first 2/3rds of it were easy walking in forest and grass, the last 3rd was a very steep uphill section, mostly dirt but with a few loose rock sections. We could see “sky at ground level” at the top and decided to hike up it and at the top stop for a break. Of course, when we got to the “sky” point the trail turned slightly and went up some more to another, larger grassy knob. This was a good look out point with views off into both Graves Cr. and Petty Cr. Rain clouds were lowering into Petty Cr. From our lunch spot we could see the route, now a two track road again, that probably could be accessed from above, pretty much going straight up the ridge. Looking around we couldn’t see anyway that a road could have left this knob, going west, it dropped off steeply on the other three sides. We had started at 4800 ft/1463.04m, and now, about 2 miles/3.22k in, were at 6000 ft/1828.8m, with 900 ft/274.32m more of elevation gain to meet the old freight road that ran along the top of the ridge. This ridge -known as The Graves Creek Range – forms the west wall of the drainages that flow east down into the Missoula Valley (like O’Brian Cr.). At the junction, if you  turn west on that road it goes to Petty Mt., east, it goes across the top of Telephone Butte, which is actually lower than the 6900 ft/2103.12m

 we needed to intersect the road. On the GPS it looked like we were at least still another mile/1.61k out, I had estimated 2 1/2 miles/4.02k to the junction, now it would be at last three/4.83k. We discussed turning back but decided to go on, what we could see wasn’t any worse than what we had already come up, and I had noticed that the steeper sections usually gained us about 100 ft/ 30.48m before leveling out again. In about 1/8 of a mile/0.20k we climbed another 200 ft/60.96m, then, mid slope, decided to turn back, we sidetracked off to a rocky grassy spot and had another break. The decision wasn’t so much made because of rain coming in from Petty Cr. -there were places you didn’t want of be if they were wet-, or because of the steep climb, but because we didn’t want to go back down the very badly eroded, loose rock conditions we were climbing up. Looking at the route on the GPS, in the next 800 ft/243.84m of “trail run” it would climb another 300 ft/91.44m, then the remaining 400 ft/ 121.92m would be in the remaining distance of that final mile/1.61k. We tightened up our boots and got out our trekking poles. I noticed that there were four types of decent; no poles – free walking, there was some of this in the first mile up, one pole walking – there were enough loose rock that you may need a quick support if something slipped, two pole -easy, you could walk freely but steep and broken up enough to be a bit cautious, and two pole-critical, where you had to test every step to see if it would hold before you trusted it. This was the conditions back down the 200 ft/60.96m, to the lookout knob, there were quite a few shorter sections in other parts of the trail, but none as bad as this. We also used two poles going down the steep 1/3rd of the ridge side trail, two feet/0.61m wide with a dirt bank on one side and a few hundred feet/meter drop off on the other, this was not a place you wanted to lose your balance (or be tired-stumbling). Back down on the lower, western, section of the road we stopped to put our rain coats on as the Petty Cr. rain had hit us. Back to the truck, it started to rain in earnest as we drove out.

So this was the route of a wagon road, you say? So how the hell did they get wagons over it? First off you need to consider that, though, this was the standard route to Lolo Hot Springs (“the” Wagon Mt. is actually about 1 mile/1.61k east of Lolo Pass), taking two days, in the past, it’s been a long time since it was actually used as that. The railroad went to Lolo by 1887 making today’s Hwy 12 route much more use able. From 1925-28 the “Lolo Curves” section of Hwy 12/93 was broken though, eliminating the need to use Woodman Saddle, behind Blue Mt., as a major thoroughfare, the Wagon Mt. Road left from Woodman Saddle. Pack trains and individual riders, like from the south end of Petty Cr. going to Missoula, could still probably use the route for a long time, but we can only guess how over 100 years of weathering and erosion has obliterated the original road bed. And, in the technology of the time they did have ways of taking wagons up and down very steep sections. To go up, if you had more than one wagon, you hitched the draft stock from multiple wagons to one and pulled it up, then go back down for the others. If alone, you could bring an extra draft animal to hitch up in addition to the already hitched stock. Or, in either scenario, there was the option of unloading part of the load, transporting and dropping it and going back for the other part. Going down, if it wasn’t too steep you could put the wagon brake on, so the wheels didn’t turn and let the stock skid it down the slope. If it was somewhat steeper, you could hitch the stock to the back of the wagon and let their weight steady the wagon as it went down. Only— picture it, the wagon would be hanging like a pendant in front of the stock, with a tendency to swing right to left, possibly dragging both wagon and stock off one side of the brow of the ridge. The sway needed to be countered but wagon roads often had deep wheel ruts that would have kept the wagon “on” the road. Then, if it was too steep even for that, you can do what the guys that brought the first wagons across Gibbon’s Pass from the Big Hole into the southern Bitterroot Valley did. Use pulley systems -like a rope wound around a tree — and tied to the stock, let the stock move slowly and lower the wagon as they moved. Or any combination of the above. It was a wagon road, so they must have had some tricks to make it down what is today a miserable trail.

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