LOLO — Once again, Travelers’ Rest owes a note of gratitude to Hugh McNeal and Silas Goodrich for a dose of national recognition.
The two privates suffered from sexual dalliances on the Pacific Coast when the Lewis and Clark expedition returned to the Bitterroot Valley in 1806.
The mercury in the Rush’s Thunderbolt pills used to treat their venereal diseases provided evidence almost 200 years later of where the 33-person party camped for several days both going and coming from the ocean.
That thrust Travelers’ Rest onto a national stage as the only archaeologically documented Lewis and Clark encampment, a distinction it has retained through the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial and the more than 10 years beyond.
Now it’s back there.
In marking the 30th anniversary of its America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has recognized Travelers’ Rest as one of its top 11 success stories.
It’s rubbing shoulders with some of the big boys — Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland; President Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home in Washington, D.C.; Governors Island in New York, and Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco.
“It’s pretty cool, especially when you look at other places on the list,” said Loren Flynn, manager of Travelers’ Rest State Park. “To be in that company is pretty humbling.”
Travelers’ Rest was on the National Trust’s most endangered list in 1999, before the site of Travelers’ Rest was positively identified. It’s a couple of miles or more up Lolo Creek from the Bitterroot River, but for years had been believed to be at the mouth and was so designated by the National Park Service.
The endangered listing helped spur the likes of the Mellon Foundation, the Conservation Fund, the state of Montana and the National Trust itself to protect the site. They helped fund the purchase of a 15-acre site just west of Lolo that has since grown to 65, with creek access and trails.
“We’re becoming the spot local people come to go birdwatching or go for an evening run or something like that,” Flynn said. “There’s a real diversity to our visitation that we don’t normally see at some of the other state parks.”
Travelers’ Rest became a state park in 2001, with the Travelers’ Rest Preservation and Heritage Association agreeing to take on its management, outreach and funding. Flynn was initially the association’s executive director, and one of those who took what he called “a great leap of faith.”
“I think those people were not sure what they were entering into either,” he said.
It was also in 2001 that Missoula archaeologist Dan Hall began searching for evidence left behind by captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who were in command of McNeal, Goodrich and 27 others, including Sacajawea and her son, nicknamed Pomp, who was roughly seven months when they camped there in 1805, and 17 months old when they returned in 1806.
In 2002 Hall found what he was looking for on the south side of the creek: high concentrations of mercy in the “night soil” at what turns out to be the site of the encampment’s trench latrine.
Fire hearths and lead used in the repair and manufacture of firearms were also unearthed. Combined with infrared aerial photographs, carbon dating, extensive historic research and Frederick William Baron von Steuben’s Revolutionary War Drill manual, the discovery survived rigorous peer review to earn Travelers’ Rest its unique place among Lewis and Clark sites.
The men of the Corps of Discovery laid out their multi-day camps according to von Steuben’s specifications, which stipulated that the telltale latrine be exactly 300 feet from the kitchen area.
Both locations are marked and interpreted at Travelers’ Rest today. A copy of von Steuben's manual, which is credited with helping turn the tide of the Revolutionary War, is in the visitors’ center.
“One of the things for us that seems like a good success is that we went from this place where just a few people — George Knapp is the name that comes to mind — kind of saying, 'I wonder if we could find it,' to this place that’s now a thriving state park with visitation that’s growing every year,” Flynn said.
With a staff of just two bolstered by a corps of critically important volunteers numbering 25 to 30, Travelers’ Rest drew a record 37,000 visitors last year. That compares to the peak years of the bicentennial in 2004-2006, which topped out at around 25,000.
None of which escaped the attention of the National Trust, headquartered in Washington, D.C.
“As the only place where archaeological evidence of a Lewis and Clark encampment can be found, visitors to Travelers’ Rest can truly walk in the explorers’ footsteps in an area that is virtually unchanged since their visit in the early 1800s,” Stephanie Meeks, president and CEO, said in a release announcing the park’s success recognition.
“Now protected for posterity as a 65-acre state park, Travelers’ Rest ... brings to life a place that was pivotal to the Lewis and Clark expedition and utilized by Native Americans for centuries.”
"We're certainly not done here protecting and preserving the site," Flynn said. "But it's pretty good evidence that grassroots preservation can work. It's nice recognition, especially for our volunteers and all the people who were involved at the very beginning. "
The 2017 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places Success Stories:
Angel Island Immigration Station – San Francisco, California
Antietam National Battlefield – Sharpsburg, Maryland
Cathedral of St. Vibiana – Los Angeles, California
Governors Island – New York, New York
Historic Boston Theaters – Boston, Massachusetts
Little Rock Central High School – Little Rock, Arkansas
Nine Mile Canyon – Utah
Penn School – Frogmore, South Carolina
President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home – Washington, D.C.
Statler Hilton Hotel – Dallas, Texas
Travelers’ Rest – Lolo, Montana