Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Travel: Adrift in the Sweet Grass Hills, MT

(click to enlarge)

On a clear day Gold Butte and the rest of the Sweet Grass Hills in northcentral Montana dominate the northern horizon and are said to be visible from as far away as 150 miles; while we can't confirm or deny that we can say "the distance is mind-boggling, much farther than we at first suspected."

The reason for this is of course the buttes--West, Gold, Haystack and East--jut up about 2000 feet above the surrounding, relatively flat High Plains.

The Sweet Grass Hills are located north of US 2 (HiLine) northeast of Shelby and northwest of Havre just a few miles from the Canadian Border. 

Trees are scarce, largely confined to the buttes themselves. With nothing much taller than the namesake grass to block it the Hills are notoriously windy--even on those rare calm days on the surrounding prairie you can bet the wind will kick up here.

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

Big and empty beyond imagination ranch and farm buildings are few and far between--as such tourists are rare and the few folks you do encounter are almost sure to be ranchers, farmers or hunters. Judging the size (the main structure is about 10 X 10) of this long ago abandoned one-room school house (Hill County School, circa 1910) in past times might have even been emptier.

Prior to settlement the Hills were Blackfeet Indian territory. Considered a sacred area, extensive petroglyphs can be found carved into the sandstone bluffs.

The area also holds a prominent place in the history of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In the 1870s Mounties were dispatched from eastern Canada in an attempt to bring order to the area and put an end to the whiskey trade with the Indians. White traders, mostly from the Fort Benton area, were doing a brisk business trading whiskey with the Blackfeet. Eventually successful the Mounties were at first woefully unprepared and somewhat ignorant of the challenges before them. One account tells a harrowing tale of the troops being hopelessly lost and near death in the country north of West Butte. Knowing Fort Benton was somewhere to the south, two were dispatched in a desperate attempt to get help. Ironically the very traders the troops were sent to end the whiskey trade, sent supply wagons north and the party was rescued.

Not long after the whiskey trading days, gold was discovered in the vicinity of Middle Butte. The town of Gold Butte quickly sprang up and boomed for a time. Eventually the town was abandoned, cattlemen bulldozed the buildings and all that remains today is a cemetery and scattered mining debris.

The public land is primarily BLM, and a few scattered State sections; the BLM land is managed as a Special Recreation Use Area.


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