DeBORGIA – Take, say, Exit 18 off Interstate 90 in Montana.

It's one of 20 off-ramps in Mineral County that become on-ramps to a new, diverse tour of one of Montana's most sparsely populated counties.

Go east until the frontage road that parallels the interstate peters out.

Behold, with all the imagination required from your Next Exit History app ... Cantonment Jordan.

Cue a rolling guitar riff.

"By December 1859, (John) Mullan knew he would not make it to the proposed winter camp in the Bitterroot Valley," a man's voice tells you from your smartphone. "Snow had come early, and there was no forage for the pack animals. Mullan stopped the men and built Cantonment Jordan in a small valley 'sheltered from the winds by friendly rims of mountains.' "

There’s nothing but a tangled grove of pine trees. But the location makes sense, now that you're here.

Or say you're on the Alberton end of the county, at Exit 75.

You're almost out of the walls of “friendly” mountains that have funneled glacial lakes and game trails, Indians and railroads, power lines, gas lines, roads, highways, great roaring fires and us since time immemorial.

Alberton is tucked above the interstate, sucking in its breath to make room for the Clark Fork River, highways, and two transcontinental railroads to pass.

"Originally a spread-out farming community, early settlers took up homesteads here in the 1890s and platted the town in 1905," the voice on your phone informs.

"Once known as 'Browntown' after early settler Louis Brown, there wasn’t much of a town here at all until 1907, when the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Puget Sound Railway (Milwaukee Road) bought the town site from Brown and renamed it Alberton."

How to handle controversy?

"Most accounts attribute the name change to an effort to honor Albert J. Earling, president of the Milwaukee Road. Other local sources maintain that the town took its name after homesteader Alexander Albert.”

 ***

Call ‘em 21st-century gold nuggets.

From Lookout Pass to the Missoula County line, and all the gulches between, the 75-mile swath we know as Mineral County offers more in the way of heritage, history, culture and drama than even the latest digital technology can embrace.

Next Exit History, a new “powerful suite of mobile and web applications,” was launched last week.

It’s “a portal into the history and heritage of the entire county,” Dave Strohmaier of Missoula-based Historical Research Associates Inc. told a gathering Thursday afternoon at what must surely be Mineral County’s first "digital initiative celebration" in the St. Regis Community Center.

Did someone say St. Regis?

Click on that bubble and you’ll read, or hear, that the confluence of the St. Regis and what’s now Clark Fork rivers was once a popular campsite for native tribes.

That’s borne out by the number of artifacts found there dating from the days before white men arrived. Not to mention written observations from after they did, including those of travelers of the Mullan Road in September 1862 who said they camped here among Indians. Next Exit History calls this “Confluence Camp.”

“They also reported encountering other Indians utilizing the new wagon road for their own travels through the region,” the voice says.

 ***

Imagine the impact that interstate highways, off-road vehicles, coffee shops and mobile devices would have on folks way back when. Many, maybe most, of us don’t still don’t quite grasp the concepts of “apps” and "platforms."

A woman at the St. Regis gathering asked Alan Newell, founder and past president of HRA, how those of the pre-digital age can come to understand the nuances of Next Exit History.

"Grandchildren?" he offered, only half-joking.

Truth is, it's as good a way as any to reach the eureka moment that you don't have to grasp all the concepts or memorize all the web addresses to navigate something like Next Exit History. You just have to do it.

Included in what you’ll find are two short videos featuring longtime locals.

“It’s really exciting to see those two worlds merge,” said Marcy Allen, former executive director of the Bitter Root Economic Development District.

It was Allen, through BREDD, who marshaled successful efforts to land a grant of more than $40,000 from the Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development.

The recipient, the Mineral County Historical Society, had been toying for years with the idea of a driving tour of the history of mining.

“Next Exit History was the perfect solution,” Allen said.

They partnered with Historical Research Associates, one of the oldest private history and archaeology firms in the U.S.

Founded in Missoula in 1974, HRA has opened offices in Seattle, Spokane, Portland, Kansas City and Washington, D.C.

Working with the University of West Florida, it developed Next Exit History mobile apps (they work on your computer, too) for some 60,000 sites worldwide, including downtown Missoula and a “backpack” bundle for runners and spectators on the Missoula Marathon course.

Now a spinoff, Three21 Innovations Inc., has been created to handle the digital field.

In March, an updated version, Next Exit History 5.0, will be launched. Newell, now a managing partner of Three21, said it will incorporate an economic development component and enhance "offline capability." The latter will make it easier to save packages of sites so you can access them on your smartphone even if you're out of cell service, as is the case with a lot of Mineral County.

One such "backpack" includes text from all the interpretive signs along the Hiawatha Trail. Strohmaier envisions the day when, via GPS technology, your phone will "ping" when you approach a site on your bike and start the audio interpretation.

“From my standpoint it’s exciting that a Montana firm like HRA was involved in this from the ground floor,” he said.

Likewise for the locals.

“This is a big thing for Mineral County. Nothing like this has ever been done,” said Sue McLees of the Mineral County Historical Society.

It was her group, headquartered at the Mineral County History Museum on Second Avenue East in Superior, that got the Next Exit History ball rolling. They were experiencing what all small museums do – a lot of fascinating historical artifacts and stories in hand but looking for more innovative ways to share them.

Strohmaier said the mission of Next Exit History is to “peel people” off the interstate to see what made and makes this rugged swath of Montana and the Rockies tick. Enfolded in that is the not-so-subtle idea of enticing travelers to stop and spend some money.

It’s a vast county of a mere 4,100 people that was built on the industries of mining and timber. Both are diminished if not bordering on defunct, which underlines the importance of heritage ventures.

“Next Exit History is intended to be an engine for economic development,” Strohmaier said.

It comes with games and activities meant to especially interest youngsters. When you’re at a site click on “History Hunters” at the top of the home page, mineralmthistory.com. It prompts you to answer trivia questions and play a scavenger hunt to earn points for Mineral County Badges, much like the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger program.

***

Sites on Mineral County Next Exit History are bundled under six headings: culture, natural resources, exploration and settlement, industry and transportation. The Hiawatha Trail is a separate backpack.

Skiing at Lookout Pass. Summer swarms of bicyclists on the Hiawatha. The beautifully manicured grounds of the U.S. Forest Service’s historic Savenac Nursery, resurrected from the destruction of the 1910 fires.

Camel's Hump Road. The Alberton Gorge. Fish Creek State Park. The Superior Ranger District. Glacial Lake Missoula.

When you look at it this way, the landmarks and the stories are darn near endless.

What do you know about the State Line Trail? Pardee and Iron Mountain? Lozeau Lodge? The Cedar Creek Stampede? The CCC in Mineral County? If you're from these parts, probably more than those who aren't. But the allure is clear once you do.

The first gold rush to Mineral County began in 1869 and petered out a few years later. Alphonse and Treffle Lacasse and their cousin Tom Asselin arrived in Cedar Creek in the 1890s looking for gold. Their claim, worked by modern equipment shipped by rail, supported crews of 50 workers some summers.

Gold mining gained traction again during the Depression years. Higher up the creek, the Gildersleeve family built a seasonal mining camp in the 1930s. They made just enough to get by on. The camp is still in the family, and LaCasse descendants own their claim as well.

The town of Superior has a Vista Trail. It's a steep climb for 1.3 miles starting from a trailhead behind the NAPA store north of the bridge. It’s doable even now, in the heart of a Montana winter. At your feet, Mullan's road builders chopped their way through, hopeful miners and those who mined them streamed along the riverbanks, great electric locomotives chugged by.

One vista directs attention upriver, toward Trout Creek and the site of the Diamond Match Co. mill. It's one of several lumber operations, now defunct, that meant so much to so many generations of families in these parts. Tourists from near and far can identify with Diamond matches. Maybe they tote a box or two in their camping gear.

The Busy Bogle Spur? You’ll need a bicycle to behold it.

It was a steep, seven-mile railroad spur up the North Fork of the St. Joe River, now discussed on a marker and the Next Exit backpack of the Hiawatha Trail. Built by logging contractors Bogle & Callahan, the spur was used to salvage timber killed in the 1910 fires. Two 60-ton Shay geared locomotives could haul 126 tons of lumber down a steep 6 percent grade. It operated from 1912 to 1915.

Tiny as it is, the Mineral County Museum in Superior covers a lot of ground, much more than the Next History Exit app does. It includes what’s reputedly the best repository of John Mullan and Mullan Road papers anywhere. And where else can you see the briefcase of the first county attorney, Wilfred Hyde?

“We found it one day by the door,” said Kay Strombo, longtime museum volunteer and secretary. “We have no idea where it came from.”

The first ferry across the Clark Fork River in Mineral County was built by Mullan’s men in the winter of 1859-60. It allowed the military wagon road to gain the north bank and stay there for 110 miles. Cost to cross in the 1860s? $4 per wagon, 50 cents a man.

That was at St. Regis. Take Exit 33.

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

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