I’ve had the opportunity to write a lot about the history of the Flathead Valley during my 23 years here at the Inter Lake. To me it’s one of the best parts of the job because I marvel at the tenacity of the Flathead’s earliest citizens, and how they carved civilization out of this mountain valley.
One of the most intriguing stories has stuck with me for a lot of years, perhaps because the late, great Frank Gregg, a railroader who possessed encyclopedic knowledge about the Whitefish area, took me on a tour in 1996 to see the remnants of the Fort Steele Trail.
About 120 years ago, the Fort Steele Trail was a vital link for traders, miners and homesteaders as they wound their way from the shore of Flathead Lake northward through forested land to the prominent Canadian trading post, Fort Steele. Centuries before that, Kootenai Indians used the same trail to access buffalo hunting grounds.
Bigger, better roads have obliterated most of the old trail, but sections of the road are still there if you know where to look. It’s those glimpses into the past Gregg showed me.
He led me to a towering Ponderosa pine off U.S. 93 near Olney. Sometime in the 1800s Indians carved a circle of bark off the tree and filled the circle with painted artwork.
Another landmark tree on the Fort Steele Trail still stands near the Kidsports complex in Kalispell. When travelers started their long trek from Demersville on Flathead Lake, they’d stop to water their horses and have lunch under the shade of the towering Ponderosa pine. More than 25 years ago lightning destroyed a portion of the tree, and historians had it listed as a state historical landmark.
One of Gregg’s prize findings were a number of cook ovens used by railroad crews at the turn-of-the-century when the rail line was built along portions of the Fort Steele Trail.
“It was 1952 the first time I saw those cook ovens,” Gregg told me as he brought me through the woods to one of the ovens. “I stopped to light a cigarette and here’s this beautiful rock oven.”
Railroad cooks built the makeshift ovens from local rocks. They’d fire the ovens until the rocks were hot enough, and then bake bread for the crews. When the crew moved on to the next section of railroad construction, the ovens were left behind.
The trail traversed the Flathead and Stillwater valleys, going over the divide at Stryker, onto Eureka and crossing the Canadian line at Gateway. Part of today’s KM Ranch Road is a portion of the Fort Steele Trail, as are sections of U.S. 93.
A popular roadhouse along the trail was the Stillwater Inn on the shore of Lower Stillwater Lake. Though not the original building, the Stillwater Bar operates in that location. A piece of the original trail still accessible by vehicle is the road that leads to Upper Stillwater Lake. The view from the bluff overlooking the lake is as spectacular today as it was 120 years ago as travelers trudged along the trail.
News stories from Fort Steele’s newspaper shed light on the quantity of goods that passed over the old trail. In February 1898, a load of 10,000 rolls of wallpaper arrived in Fort Steele from Kalispell, and later that year, machinery and huge vats were sent from Kalispell for a new brewery at the fort.
It was a gold rush in 1864 that developed Fort Steele. By the turn of the century, though, the railroad bypassed Fort Steele and the vibrant settlement soon declined into obscurity.
Gregg told me he wandered along part of the trail from time to time, hoping he’d find more artifacts. For 45 years he tucked small jars at various points along the trail containing a few pennies and a note to contact him. He passed away many years ago, and I often wonder if anyone ever found one of his notes. His love of local history was infectious, and I’ll never forget that special day we trekked along the remnants of that once-glorious trail.
News Editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.