It has stood for generations, windowless, locked and unblinking. There's nothing onsite to explain the cool-looking old stone building at the southwest corner of Fort Missoula.
“We’ve been coming here for years, and we’ve always walked by and looked at it,” Wayne Groubert said Friday, as he and his wife, Lynn, strolled by. “I go: That’s got to be an ammunition bunker of some kind, to put it out here away from things.”
Yep, said Tate Jones. The executive director of the Rocky Mountain Museum of Military History said the powder magazine housed the Army's gunpowder stash from the time it was finished in 1878 until the National Guard discontinued using it in the 1960s.
Munitions were stored elsewhere after that, Jones said, and “by the '60s, of course, there was a lot less call for powder.”
Jones invited the Gouberts to take a rare look through the open door. It’s soon to be not so rare.
A three-panel exhibit is set up in the gloom. It tells the story of the Nez Perce War and Flight of 1877, which unexpectedly baptized the new military installation of Fort Missoula a month after the first troops arrived.
The military museum and the Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail have teamed to create the dedicated space to interpret the events of 1877. The powder magazine exhibit will be unveiled next Saturday, Aug. 24, with help from Jim Zimmerman of Kentucky, president of the Nez Perce Trail Foundation. Zimmerman will portray Lt. Charles Erskine Scott Wood, the aide-de-camp to Gen. Oliver O. Howard, who chased after the Nez Perce Indians in Idaho and Montana but never caught them.
From Aug. 24 on, the magazine door will be open whenever the museum is — seven days a week from noon to 5 p.m. until Labor Day, then on weekends until next Memorial Day.
“This is the first public exhibit access that’s been done in it,” Jones said. “It’s just always been here in the corner for years and years.”
“That’s what I think is exciting,” said Roger Peterson, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Forest Service’s Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail. “We’re excited to partner with the military museum to be able to open probably one of the oldest historic structures in the valley to the public. I’m like, hey, I drove by this for years growing up and thought, well, that’s a great building. I wonder what it looks like inside.”
The opening comes six years after Jones and the military museum board applied to the Forest Service for a Challenge Cost Share Agreement (CCSA) to help fund the exhibit.
One panel focuses on the Nez Perce leaders of the flight, and not just Chief Joseph, the most famous one. Toohoolhoolzote, Looking Glass, White Bird, Poker Joe and Joseph’s little brother Ollokot all played important roles on the trail.
Another panel presents a map of the flight trail. It started for the main body of Nez Perce at White Bird Canyon in Idaho on June 17, 1877. They entered Montana over Lolo Pass, survived a surprise attack in the bloody Battle of the Big Hole on Aug. 9-10, and wound their way through Yellowstone Park and western Wyoming before heading north. In late September the exhausted Nez Perce were camped within 40 miles of Canada and safety when troops under Gen. Nelson Miles caught them in the foothills of the Bearpaw Mountains near Chinook.
That’s where Lt. Wood transcribed Joseph’s “surrender speech,” interpreting its ending to say, “from where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
A third panel highlights the horses used on both sides and breaks down the 1,170-mile flight by number, from the 2,000 soldiers deployed to catch an estimated 750 Nez Perce, to the 400-plus Nez Perce, soldiers and civilian volunteers killed and wounded, to the 106 days the Indians evaded their pursuers.
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Alongside the panels, visitors will find a stack of period military crates, built by museum trustees Bill and Becky O’Donnell, and replica Nez Perce trail gear.
One of the most fascinating artifacts is the penciled autograph on the door of Sgt. Horace Bivins. Bivins was a “buffalo soldier,” a member of the all-black 10th Cavalry who fought in the campaign against Geronimo, was wounded in the Spanish-American War and proved himself a crack rifleman.
He’s said to be the only man to win three Army marksmanship gold medals in one year (1894). Under Bivins' signature in the same handwriting is a number — 436224.
“He was a national marksmanship champion so he had a special rifle,” Jones said. “He wrote down the serial number of his rifle so that no one would take it.”
Two companies of U.S. Seventh Infantry troops under Capt. Charles Rawn arrived in late June 1877 to start building Fort Missoula.
Jones said it’s “undocumented, unsupported speculation” on his part, but he believes construction of the powder magazine had already started by July 25, when Rawn’s 35 soldiers and 50 civilian volunteers rode up Lolo Creek to block the Nez Perce flight on Lolo Creek. They failed. The Indians slipped around their breastworks at what came to be called Fort Fizzle. The soldiers then joined the chase up the Bitterroot Valley and participated in the Big Hole battle.
Rawn and the Seventh were replaced at Fort Missoula in November by the U.S. Third Infantry. The Third was involved the following year in skirmishes up Rock Creek east of Missoula and on a fork of the Clearwater River in Idaho with uncaptured Nez Perce returning from Canada.
Jones said a notation by Rawn indicates he “might have picked a foundation site for (the powder magazine) and somebody might have started digging the foundation in the summer of 1877.
“We do have it documented it was completed by the Third Infantry in 1878.”
The noncommissioned officers' quarters, a log building across the way at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, was finished that year as well. The historical museum also houses St. Michael Church, which was built in 1863 near Hellgate Village west of Missoula and moved three times, the last to Fort Missoula in 1981. The oldest building at its original location in Missoula might be the George White house built in the early 1860s below old Hellgate off Mullan Road. It's still in use as a private residence.
The military museum has long had an area dedicated to the Nez Perce War and Fort Missoula’s role in it. The powder magazine exhibit adds a special dimension to the story.
“Tate has been doing an admirable job for visitors of his museum, with the maps and videos playing,” Peterson said. “This is an opportunity to preserve the building and have a dedicated exhibit, and to open up the structure to the public, which is great.”
It got a thumbs-up from the Grouberts.
“I just think what they’ve done here is totally cool, every part of the park,” Wayne Groubert said before resuming his walk. “I’m a big fan of Fort Missoula."