Sunday, October 4, 2015

Crossing the Rocky Mountains (but not by wagon train)

As we zipped along a lovely mountain road, sidelined occasionally by construction, I was struck again and again by how resourceful our early settlers were. We got to stop at lovely, well kept places, one of which had a fun red food cart.

But the trip wasn't any fun for engineer John Mullan. In 1859, Mullan, 230 workmen, teamsters and solders began construction of a 624-mile road from Walla Walla Washington, through the Rocky Mountains to Fort Benton, the head of steamboat navigation on the upper Missouri River in Montana. The land between Lake Coeur d'Alene and the Missoula valley was a tangle of mountains, rivers, rigged hillsides, low swampy areas, deep ravines and fallen timber.

 Courtesy photo

The crew celebrated July 4, 1861, on a high mountain pass east of present-day Coeur d'Alene. They carved the words "M.R. July 4 1861" into an old white pine. The pass became known as Fourth of July, and the tree remained intact until 1962, when it blew over in a fierce windstorm.

Today, the carved stump is on display at the Museum of North Idaho.
After seven years of surveying and construction, the Mullan Road was finally finished in 1862. It connected two military installations, but more notably, it linked the Columbia and Missouri River watersheds - an overland Northwest Passage. Mullan's men build 47 bridges! Forty-Seven bridges and a road that tied together two gigantic and important river systems.

Mullan went on to become a farmer, lawyer and politician, and would eventually move to San Francisco. In time his road fell into disrepair; the foundation decayed, the bridges washed out. But the track was revived in the late 1870s, after Gen. William T. Sherman traveled the Mullan Road and ordered its restoration.

We would stop on occasion and look down those hillsides and marvel about the beauty of the settings while being astonished that any body had managed to carve a road out of the wilderness.

What I didn't know was how much wealth had been taken from "them thar hills. " Five billion dollars of lead, silver and zinc from towns that most of us have never heard of: Burke, Kellogg, Murray, Mullan, Osburn and Wardner. Unfortunately we didn't have time to explore those old mining towns but if I ever come back that way again, I really want to go up into the hills and see what I can.

We went around Wallace which is, according to their web page: "Wallace is also known for the fact that every downtown building is on the National Register of Historic Places... which is why the government finally had to go over us instead of through us in order to complete the Interstate Highway system in 1991. Now the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes paved bike path is directly under Interstate 90 as it passes above Wallace, following the famous South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River through the narrow Silver Valley: the only place on earth where more than a billion ounces of silver were mined in 100 years."

Historic Wallace

We got into Cour d'Alene late in the afternoon so we didn't have much chance to see anything. Apparently most of the "tourist" attractions close down after Labor Day so we missed the boat trip on the lake which we were all looking forward to. The outskirts of the town were pretty much generic strip mall boring but the lake itself is simply beautiful.

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