GIBBONS PASS – It was easy last Tuesday, standing high on a sun-baked ridge overlooking Lost Trail Hot Springs, to picture past travelers on the Nez Perce Nee-Me-Poo National Historic Trail.
Up through the centuries came hunting parties of Bitterroot Salish, their horses laboring at each step on the steep incline.
Down came Frank Woody and company with freight teams of oxen in 1856 – wheels rough-locked, and teamsters whipping the two steers tied behind each wagon to pull back and arrest the sliding descent.
Then, seemingly at our feet, the honking began.
Two car or truck horns, in unison or competition, blared long and loud from U.S. Highway 93 as it approached the bottom of Lost Trail Pass. A runaway semi? A mountain case of road rage? One of the blasts droned on for minutes, just out of view of climbers who could never identify the source.
Truth be told, Missoulian editor Arthur Stone may not have followed any trails at all before writing his weekly “Following Old Trails” column for Aug. 19, 1911.
If he did, he didn’t talk much about what the paths connecting the upper Bitterroot and Big Hole valleys over Gibbons Pass were like then.
Instead, he reminisced on his first trip over the pass 10 years earlier with Judge Frank Woody, and dovetailed those memories with the history of Gibbons Pass as he understood it.
“There is more history connected with every foot of this mountain path than with any other with which I am familiar,” Stone maintained. “It is one of the most remarkable trails in Montana.”
Woody figured into that history. He was the oldest white resident in Montana at the time Stone wrote. Missoula’s first attorney and its first mayor (1883-84), Woody clerked for C.P. Higgins and Francis Worden when they established the first settlement in the Missoula Valley at Hell Gate in 1860.
Four years earlier, the 22-year-old former schoolteacher from North Carolina had arrived in the valley via the treacherous pass, driving a four-yoke team for a Salt Lake freighter to trade with the Flathead Indians.
Stone, a good friend of Woody, devoted an entire column to that trip a couple of months later. He called it “A Quick Descent,” a reference to the rapid drop from the pass down to Camp Creek at what’s now called Lost Trail Hot Springs.
Stone quoted Woody as calling the experience “a regular toboggan slide.”
“I never traveled so fast before down any hill and I know I haven’t since,” said the aging judge, who died in 1916. “There was just a streak of wagons and oxen in an atmosphere of dust and profanity.”
Stone also championed the cause of Gibbons Pass as a historic gem by invoking the travels of Lewis and Clark (erroneously, it turns out), of Father Pierre Jean DeSmet (a stretch), and its longtime use as a route to the buffalo by area tribes.
Of the latter – specifically the Flatheads and Nez Perce – Stone said it was clear when standing on the pine-clad summit that they were products of their environment. He attributed the ferocity of the Sioux and Apaches to the harsh conditions of the eastern prairies and southern deserts.
But, he wrote, “the inspiration of the mountains, the softness of their atmosphere, the fragrance of their forests, the splendor of their valleys – these had made of the Indians of western Montana a gentler race, not prone to war but brave and fearless in the defense of their rights.”
Finally, fittingly, Stone references the Nez Perce War of 1877, which for better or worse gave Gibbons Pass its name.
Some 200 soldiers and volunteers under Col. John Gibbon pursued Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce over the Continental Divide here and caught up to them just below the confluence of Trail and Ruby creeks to form the North Fork of the Big Hole.
The bloody Battle of the Big Hole amounted to yet another failure for the Army, but claimed the lives of more than 70 Nez Perce, most of them women and children.
“Trail creek ran blood on the morning of August 9, and the waters of Ruby creek verified their name,” Stone wrote. “Good lives were sacrificed there because a stubborn commander would not heed the advice of veteran frontiersmen.”
Still, he said, the spirit of the “rebellious Nez Perces” was broken and the last seven weeks of their unsuccessful flight through Yellowstone Park and north to Canada turned into “an ingenious and masterly retreat.”
Stone didn’t tell us how he and Woody traveled up the Bitterroot from Missoula in 1901, though it could have involved a train ride as far as Charlos Heights, eight miles south of Hamilton. The Bitterroot Railroad didn’t reach Darby until 1905.
The newspaperman and the judge were afoot climbing the pass – Woody, in his late 60s, chided the much younger Stone for his “knee action” – and they may have been on horseback to the bottom. They would have passed through what Stone referred to as Ross’ Hole (he remarked that the beautiful basin is “worthy of a more fitting name”), even though the post office of Sula had been established years before. It was named for Ursula Thompson, the first white child born in the valley.
Up Camp Creek, Stone and Woody stayed the night at the Waugh Ranch, where the judge caught enough trout for dinner “in a very few minutes,” Stone said. The next morning, after “some tall sleeping,” they journeyed through the pines past Gallogly Hot Springs, where the trail struck across the stream to the base of the steep mountain road.
Abraham Waugh came from Idaho in 1888 and bought the ranch near the mouth of Waugh Gulch. Mary Williams, heritage program manager for the Bitterroot National Forest, said a 1903 General Land Office survey plat shows Waugh ranch about two miles north of the hot springs.
Born in 1837 in Illinois, Waugh was probably around that night to host Stone and Woody. He died in Sula in 1910.
William and Mark Waugh may have been Abraham’s sons, Williams said. “William worked as a trapper and guide, and Mark is mentioned in several newspaper items as freighting ranch produce to Gibbonsville.”
Waugh provided horses for farmers from the Bitterroot to get wagonloads of produce over the hill to the Big Hole ranchers. The three-mile trip to the top took half a day. Mary Gallogly, in a history of Gallogly Springs that was printed Volume I of the Bitter Root Valley Historical Society’s “Bitterroot Trails, recalled that as the wagons returned down the mountain, trees were anchored behind to slow them down.
“As they scattered these drags around we put up a sign as to where we wished them left,” she said.
LEAVE DRAG HERE, the signs said.
For the past 15 years or so, the cabins, campsite, restaurant and pool above the Waugh ranch have been collectively called Lost Trail Hot Springs, though some modern maps still refer to them as Gallogly Springs.
James Gallogly, his sisters Polly and Martha, and Martha’s two children settled at the springs in the 1890s. James became a forest ranger in 1907, and the Gallogly clan spent winters at the ranger station three miles down the creek after that.
Art Stone was under the impression that Lewis and Clark had crossed Gibbon Pass to reach the Bitterroot Valley on their westward journey in 1805. In fact, they came from the Salmon River in Idaho and crossed at Lost Trail Pass.
“Where the confusion comes,” Williams speculated, “is that for a time the name Gibbons Pass got attached to what we call Lost Trail.”
It wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s that local pressure corrected the mistake.
The presence of Gibbonsville probably added to the confusion, Williams said. The mining camp arose on the Idaho side of Lost Trail Pass in 1877, the same year Gibbon chased the Nez Perce just over the divide to the north.
It’s easy to tell when you reach Gibbons Pass. A brown U.S. Forest Service sign lists its elevation of 6,941 feet, the well-marked Continental Divide trail crosses and a three-panel kiosk touts things to see and do, explains the flight of the Nez Perce and tells of William Clark’s return route in 1806.
What’s harder to find up on top is the Nee-Me-Poo National Historic Trail that you left behind 1,700 feet below. It doesn’t intersect the main road until a couple of miles to the southeast, on Road 1260, long after its precipitous climb is over.
“Foot for foot, there is more ascent to this trail than to almost any other that I know about,” Arthur Stone wrote.
The party that Woody came with in 1856 wasn’t the first to bring a wagon over the top. That honor, Woody told Stone, went to a trader named Emanuel Martin, “known as Old Manwell the Spaniard.” But his single wagon was lightly loaded and left no trace of a road.
A merchant constructed the first true wagon road over the pass in 1878 but couldn’t eliminate its steepness. In 1914, the Forest Service built the road that left the valley at the ranger station, despite lobbying by James Gallogly, by then one of its employees, to keep the old route past his hot springs and roadhouse.
Construction of the 26-mile road from Camp Creek to the Big Hole Battlefield cost $26,000 and the work “was financed by every conceivable means short of highway robbery,” Forest Service engineer Hartley A. Calkins recalled in 1944 in a reminiscence published in “Early Days in the Forest Service, Vol. 1.”
Williams noted that the timekeeper on the project was K.D. Swan, who in a long career with the Forest Service gained widespread recognition for his nature photography.
Stone ended his narrative at the battlefield, where “abundant evidences” of the battle remained in 1901.
“Now they are nearly effaced,” he wrote in chagrin. “The monument which marks the site of the disastrous fight on the bluffs has been protected by a steel cage, else it, too, would have been razed by – not time – but ruthless relic hunters.”
Today a handsome visitor center overlooks the battlefield. There are self-guided walking tours on trails through the Indian village along the river, into the siege area in the trees above and, higher at the tree line, to the site where an understaffed crew mounted an ill-fated 12-pound howitzer.
“On my desk as I write … is one of the four shells which were fired from the mountain howitzer,” Stone said. “Four times it was fired before Joseph’s Indians got behind it and drove away its crew. This one shell did not explode; it was picked up, years afterward, in the mud along Trail Creek and was given to me by Arthur Holt of Grantsdale.”