Not many public places can match Milltown State Park’s multifaceted worth.
“I don’t know if folks are aware how historic that place is,” park manager Mike Kustudia said. “Most places are usually focused on specific events like Rosebud Battlefield or Traveler’s Rest. They’re heritage sites for a particular piece of history. But the story of Milltown State Park is almost the story of the American West.”
Kustudia backs up his claim with a new educational website released last week in advance of major construction efforts at the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers between Bonner and Milltown. The site ranges from the recently completed Superfund restoration of the old river floodplain, the ecological function of a complex river network and the cultural traditions of area Indian tribes who used its features as natural signposts when navigating through the mountains.
A map developed by the late Salish-Pend d’Oreille Cultural Council elder Mike Durglo Sr. illustrates that difference. While modern-day Missoulians know Bonner lies east of Milltown by looking at a roadmap, Salish hunting parties called it Naaycčstm, “The Place of the Big Bull Trout,” which signified one end of a route over the Continental Divide to the buffalo plains.
That was someplace very different than “The Place of the Small Bull Trout” a few miles west at the confluence of the Clark Fork and Rattlesnake Creek, which was important as a place for gathering bitterroot in the spring.
“Just as (Place of the Small Bull Trout) was named for immature bull trout and was an important fishing place, so Naaycčstm was named for the mature bull trout and was a key place for harvesting these large fish,” the Séliš-Ql̓ispé Culture Committee’s “Salish People and the Lewis and Clark Expedition” book recounts. “Agnes Pokerjim Paul remembers camping along the river during fall hunting trips just upstream from Bonner. The men would fish along the Clark’s Fork just upstream from Naaycčstm.”
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks recently accepted a bid to begin construction on the $1.9 million public facility at the confluence. After several years of haggling over how to get effective access to the confluence, the work will complete a road and parking area to the park, as well as a walk-in river access and interpretative plaza for displaying the site’s history and cultural connections.
The “Confluence of Stories” website also provides photographs depicting the industrial transformation of the river confluence, from early construction of Milltown Dam through the restoration of its floodplain a century later. It looks at how peregrine falcons, blue herons and western painted turtles share the riverbanks while bighorn sheep and moose roam the hillsides.
“Ideally there will be other websites that tier off each of these stories,” Kustudia said. “Things like the Salish-Pend d’Oreille presence and the Superfund cleanup all could have their own storymap atlas someday. Meriwether Lewis passed through here in 1806 and wrote a description of the confluence. It’s got the westward expansion, the industrialization of the West, and the Superfund consequences. All these stories play out across the western landscape in a lot of ways. And it’s all wrapped up in this one spot. That’s the beauty of it.”