Dr. Fitzhugh and Anthony Mullan come west this week to a land of a lofty family legacy.

No one person is more memorialized in stone in the Pacific Northwest than their great-great uncle John, who scouted and built what became known as the Mullan Road from Walla Walla, Washington, to Fort Benton in the 1850s and ’60s.

The first of more than two dozen marble monuments to the Mullan Road, including seven similar ones in Montana, was dedicated nearly a century ago – Oct. 5, 1916 – at the north end of Higgins Avenue in Missoula.

There wasn’t a Helena in 1862 when the historic road was completed. But the Capital City is hosting the annual Mullan Road Conference for the third time in 11 years Friday through Sunday.

It's where the Mullan brothers are headed after taking time out from busy schedules in Washington, D.C. – Fitzhugh as head professor of medicine and health policy at George Washington University, Anthony as a cartographic reference specialist at the Library of Congress.

They’ll be the keynote speakers Saturday night at the Best Western Great Northern Hotel and plan to accompany more than 80 “Mullanites” who’ve signed up for a Sunday bus tour that traces the road over Mullan Pass to the historic Sieben Ranch in the Little Prickly Pear Valley.

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Anthony Mullan said it'll be his first trip to Montana. His brother Fitzhugh, father Hugh Mullan, their wives and daughter Caitlan traveled to St. Regis in 1989 to help celebrate the relocation of the town’s Mullan Monument.

It was that event that spurred an annual Mullan Day in Mineral County, which evolved 10 years ago into the regional Mullan Road Conference. Since then it has made stops in Walla Walla and Spokane in Washington; Kellogg and Mullan in Idaho; and Missoula, Helena and Fort Benton in Montana.

“We’ve kept in touch with various people who are interested in the Mullan Road and the history of the Mullan Road, including Keith Petersen, who strongly urged us to come again,” Anthony Mullan said.

Petersen, the Idaho state historian at the time, had just completed the first full biography on John Mullan when he was featured dinner speaker at the conference in Missoula in 2014. Much of his research for "John Mullan: The Tumultuous Life of a Western Road Builder" was based on a collection of personal papers donated by Mullan's daughter, May Flather, to Georgetown University upon her death in 1962. It went largely untapped by researchers until Petersen discovered it after the records were organized and indexed a dozen years ago.

The Mullan brothers’ topic Saturday night is “A Century Later: John Mullan’s Family in the 21st Century.”

Anthony Mullan said Tuesday he’ll be talking about John Mullan’s nuclear family based on photos and documents he’s found in the Georgetown collection. He’s not certain, but he thinks his brother will discuss Mullan’s siblings, including their great-grandfather Dennis. John Mullan, who died in Washington, D.C., in 1909 at the age of 79, was the oldest child of John and Mary Bright Mullan.

Dennis Mullan, 13 years his brother’s junior, became a commander in the U.S. Navy. He passed away in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1928. His son Eugene (1878-1965) was a surgeon who had five children, including Hugh. A colonel in the U.S. Army in World War II, Hugh Mullan was buried at Arlington National Cemetery after his death in 2003. Fitzhugh, 73, and Anthony, 68, lost their mother Mariquita, a poet and part of the Mullan party to Montana in 1989, in 2011.

Pam Attardo, Helena and Lewis and Clark County historic preservation officer, said the family ties at the Mullan Road Conference will extend beyond the Mullans. Five descendants of Gustav Sohon also plan to be there.

Sohon was an artist, interpreter and topographical assistant on both road-building expeditions (1859-60 and 1861-62). He served with Mullan on Gov. Isaac Stevens’ railroad survey in 1853-54 that paved the way for construction of the military wagon road several years later. Much of Interstate 90 from Spokane to the Deer Lodge Valley follows the route. The Mullan Road passed over the Spotted Dog Creek divide into the Little Blackfoot valley near Avon, then passed over Mullan Pass northwest of Helena before making a beeline to Fort Benton.

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For Anthony Mullan, the weekend in Montana will be a pioneering experience.

He said he’s especially looking forward to the bus tour over a pass that bears the family name, as do so many roads, streets, banks, schools and baseball leagues in the Northwest. He said his schedule will be too tight to see up close the Mullan monuments, the nearest of which are in Great Falls, Deer Lodge and Drummond. Besides the Missoula statue there are others in Fort Benton, on the Blackfoot River near Milltown, and on the west end of St. Regis, on the road up to Camel’s Hump, one of the many landmarks on the 624-mile road.

Designed by Missoula and Butte artist Edgar S. Paxson, the statues depict a bearded John Mullan in buckskin leggings with a wide-brimmed hat clutching the barrel of a rifle in one hand and a pistol tucked in his hand. Six other reproductions still stand in Idaho.

Deadlines for dinner reservations Saturday night and sack lunches on the Sunday bus tour at the Helena conference have passed, but Attardo said late registration is welcome. A Friday night reception in the lobby of the Montana Historical Society starts at 5:30 p.m., and a full slate of speakers is on tap for Saturday morning and afternoon at the Great Northern, 835 Great Northern Blvd. 

Contact Attardo at 406-447-8357 or pattardo@lccountymt.gov to register. 

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian