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'Alarm bell' sounded over Travelers' Rest
Pat and Ernie Deschamps walk their property that has been determined to be the site of Travelers' Rest in this photograph taken in November 1997. Photo by KURT WILSON of the Missoulian

Endangered designation for Lewis and Clark campsite could attract conservation funds

Travelers' Rest, the streamside bench outside Lolo where explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark took respite before crossing the Bitterroot Mountains, is one of the most endangered historic places in the nation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced Monday.

"This is an alarm bell," said Barbara Pahl, director of the trust's regional office in Denver.

Subdivisions cover some of the historic campsite. And the encroachment continues, said Nancy Maxson, president of the Travelers' Rest Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, which is leading the campaign to preserve the site.

The only untilled acreage is on bottomland about a mile and a half up Lolo Creek from its confluence with the Bitterroot River.

But the endangered designation could bring Travelers' Rest the attention - and possibly, the money - needed to prevent further development, said Allan Mathews, the city of Missoula's historic preservation officer.

"This is the best thing we could have hoped for," said Mathews. "This opens all sorts of funding opportunities. It brings our site to the attention of large philanthropic organizations interested in funding historic projects. It shows how important Travelers' Rest is nationally."

"Our record is perfect," said Pahl. "Of 102 sites designated as endangered over the past 11 years, not one has been lost."

"Losing these sites is unthinkable," she said. "But saving them isn't someone else's job. It is our job."

The first priority, Pahl said, is to protect Travelers' Rest while historians and archaeologists determine more precisely its location and extent. "Then we can work on long-term protection."

When the campsite was named a National Historic Landmark in 1960, the marker was placed a few miles south of Lolo on Highway 93. But studies of the expedition's journals have since placed Travelers' Rest on Lolo Creek upstream from the Bitterroot River.

The coordinates of latitude and longitude recorded by the expedition match the creek-side bench owned by Ernie and Pat Deschamps. So, too, does the map drawn by Clark, as do survey maps from the 1870s.

Infrared photographs taken in July 1996 revealed two rows of tepee rings on the Deschamps property, proof of the ground's historic use as an Indian campsite. An informal archaeological survey taken last October on land adjoining the Deschamps' place turned up a pewter button dating to the early 1800s, plus another tepee ring.

"We believe that we are hot on the trail," said Tim Hall, a rural planner for Missoula County. "But we need more money, more expertise and more time."

The National Trust will provide $8,000 to help with additional archaeological work, and Mathews has applied for a $30,000 grant from the National Park Service. More money may be available because of the site's recent designation as a project of Save America's Treasures.

The entire site likely covers 40, 60 or even 100 acres, Hall said. The Deschamps' untilled creek-bottom pasture covers just 15 acres.

"So we are starting to talk with other landowners as well," Hall said. "And we're talking with the Lolo community." There is, in fact, a public forum at 7 p.m. Tuesday to collect ideas on how the state should commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

(The meeting is in the Lolo Community Center and is sponsored by the Montana Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission.)

Once the boundary of the campsite - which was used by generations of Indians before and after the Lewis and Clark encampment - is mapped, work can begin on land purchases and development of an interpretive center, Maxson said.

"We would like as much land as possible for interpretation," she said. "But some of this area is developed. There are trailer houses and septic systems sitting on some of the land. The archaeological value is lost."

Maxson said her organization is committed to the project "for the long term, even if it takes 50 years. But we would like to have something in place in time for the bicentennial."

The Indian guide Toby brought

the expedition to Travelers' Rest to prepare for their trip over the Bitterroot Mountains. The explorers stayed for three days - Sept. 9, 10 and 11, 1805 - before beginning their arduous 11-day crossing of the mountains. On their return - on June 30 and July 1, 2 and 3, 1806 - they made plans at Travelers' Rest to split, Meriwether Lewis going north to the Marias River, Clark going south to the Yellowstone River.

Millions of people are expected to visit sites along the expedition's cross-continent trail during the bicentennial. And the influx alreday has begun.

Pat Deschamps showed her land to 110 people last week, schoolchildren and Elderhostel students. On Tuesday, she's expecting another busload of Elderhostel students and a congressional staff member. On June 21, the National Trust is bringing a group of 60 to tour the site.

"Everybody gets such a thrill out of standing on this piece of ground," Deschamps said. "I keep telling them, there's nothing here. But they all just want to see Travelers' Rest."

"It's surreal," she said. "I still can't believe that of all the places we could have bought, this was the place. And that we never changed it, it's amazing."

Deschamps said she and her husband are willing to sell their property for use as an historic site. "But it will still be hard to leave. We love it."

Travelers' Rest is the sixth historic site in Montana to be named to the endangered list in recent years. The others: Little Big Horn Battlefield and Reno-Benteen Battlefield (1988), Virginia City (1992), Sweetgrass Hills (1993), historic structures in Glacier National Park (1996) and the Flathead Indian Reservation (1997).

Tuesday - 6/15/99

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