On September 18, 1897, the Sundance Kid, Kid Curry, and Walt Putney rode into Red Lodge, Montana, with the intent of making a withdrawal from the bank. Of course neither of them had an account at the bank, so their plans would not have been too popular with anyone who resided in the booming mining town.
Red Lodge had already been a town for 15 years and existed long before that as a place of worship for the Crow Indians. When coal was discovered in huge quantities, the Rocky Fork Coal Company moved in. The once quiet valley came to life with hundreds of people who kept 20 saloons buzzing during off-duty hours.
In an attempt to establish some sort of control, a man known as "Liver-Eating" Johnston was hired as deputy sheriff. Although Johnston was a vicious man, he did not actually eat the livers of his enemies. On the other hand, he had been known to strangle law breakers with his bare hands to save the time it would take to hang them with a rope. Fortunately for the Sundance Kid, Kid Curry, and Walt Putney, Johnston was retired before their visit to Red Lodge.
Red Lodge coal mining flourished until strip mining in southeastern Montana became popular. Coal could be produced in greater quantities and at reduced costs. By the 1930s, only a few mines still operated. The final blow to the mining industry was the deaths of 74 men as a result of an underground explosion in 1943. The mine was never repaired.
Red Lodge was not condemned to die simply because the coal mines closed, however. After the depression, the town's primary product became cough syrup. Some say it was nothing more than a legal version of bootleg liquor, but regardless of what it was called, the cough syrup helped keep Red Lodge thriving with shipments to nearly every state west of the Mississippi.
The sands of time continue to bring change to Red Lodge. The mining and cough syrup export have been replaced by tourism, recreation, and agricultural activities. Even so, much of the past still remains, including the bank building where the outlaws intended to make their withdrawal.
As with every escapade that involved the Wild Bunch, there are numerous versions as to what happened. All versions have certain details in common but vary widely after that. The common threads holding the attempted Red Lodge bank robbery together are scarce. First of all, there were three outlaws who were arrested. Secondly, their getaway route took them north toward the town of Columbus. From there, they crossed the Yellowstone River and headed north to the Little Snowy Mountains. They were captured somewhere near Flatwillow Creek in the eastern foothills of those mountains. Since no robbery had actually taken place in Red Lodge, the Sundance Kid, Kid Curry, and Walt Putney were shipped back to Belle Fourche, South Dakota, to stand trial for a bank robbery there.
Some stories claim the outlaws sent a message to the sheriff of Red Lodge before they arrived, telling him they were on the way and he should go fishing. It seems unlikely that any outlaw would announce his plans to rob a bank, especially to any member of the law. A more likely story is that Sheriff St. Clair saw them ride in and recognized Kid Curry from having seen him in Wyoming years earlier. So before the Wild Bunch members were even able to execute the bank heist, St. Clair began rounding up a posse to arrest them, and word got back to the outlaws that it would be a good time to leave town.
The bank building in Red Lodge is still standing, and the word "bank" is etched into its side, but it is no longer used for that purpose. The hotel across the street was also there at that time but was not yet owned by the Pollard family.
The getaway route used in this story attempts to stay as close as possible to the one used by the outlaws. Driving it is the only way to get a true vision of how much territory men of the Old West could cover on a horse. Lone Writer spent most of a day getting between Red Lodge and Flat Willow Creek. The outlaws did it on horseback in three days.
Lone Writer laid out the route by using county backroads that cut through lands used for ranching and farming. It is an easy trip that does not require the use of four-wheel drive unless it rains. The route is quite scenic, with plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities. There were hawks, rabbits, antelope, deer, and of course plenty of horses and cattle. The valleys are green and grassy ranchlands with numerous ranch headquarters.
After about 20 miles, Lone Writer reached Cooney State Park, with campgrounds and picnic areas scattered around the shores of a very large lake. The next 5 miles were spent driving along the east side of the lake until reaching the dam, where a short paved road crosses to the west side. From that point, the route returns to being a scenic drive through grassy valleys all the way to Columbus.
According to the Kid Curry account of the getaway, they crossed the Yellowstone River near Columbus on the second day. That story can be found in the book titled Kid Curry by Bruce Lamb. Although this book is often accused of being historically incorrect, the stories are based on tales told by Kid Curry and those who knew him very well. It is the only book Lone Writer has found that even attempts to tell these stories from an outlaw's point of view. Although it is currently out of print, copies can be obtained through Internet searches and also on eBay.
The town of Columbus was first established as a stagecoach station on the Yellowstone Trail. It continued to grow through the years and is still a thriving community.
After crossing the Yellowstone River, the outlaws camped nearby then continued north and rode past Battle Butte on the third day. Battle Butte is about 7 miles south of a small community named Rapelje.
Lone Writer reached Rapelje in time for lunch at the Stockman Caf. This unique town came to life during the early 1900s, thus it did not exist when the outlaws raced north from Red Lodge. It had become an "end-of-tracks" town and was named after a general manager of the Northern Pacific. Today, it serves the many ranches that surround it. For travelers along the route in this story, it is a great place for lunch.
This Outlaw Trail route leaves Rapelje and continues north toward the Little Snowy Mountains where the outlaws were captured. Of course there is no way to know the exact route they used; however, this one follows backcountry roads through very remote country in much the same way they might have traveled. The route is hilly but less so than those south of Columbus. Numerous plateaus scattered across the horizon form a distinctive contrast to the many fields and grasslands.
One interesting land formation along the way is an enormous plateau. The road climbs up the south wall, travels across the flat top, then uses a series of switchbacks to get down the north wall. The views are spectacular, and wildlife sightings include wild turkeys and deer.
At the end of the third day, the outlaws had reached the foothills of the Little Snowy Mountains. They had intended to camp on Flatwillow Creek but decided they were not being followed and stopped somewhere nearby. Walt Putney was chosen to be the lookout and sent to a higher perch.
According to an account written by the sheriff in the posse, they were following the tracks of the outlaws and caught a glimpse of Walt Putney on a hilltop. They were not spotted by the outlaw. The posse split up and began to circle the outlaws. One group came upon Kid Curry unsaddling his horse. Curry drew his gun but was shot in the wrist by a member of the posse. He mounted his horse to get away, but another posse member shot the horse out from under him. Curry tried to get away on foot but dived for cover when a volley of bullets filled the air. He surrendered when it was obvious he had no other way out.
Sundance had also been caught alone and did not put up a fight when he saw how badly he was outnumbered. Putney was still doing a bad job as a lookout when he suddenly found himself looking into the barrels of several rifles.
The outlaws were taken to Billings, Montana, and locked up while telegraphs were sent back and forth to Belle Fouche to determine if they should be sent there and charged with bank robbery. They hadn't actually committed any crimes in Red Lodge, but Belle Fouche was eager to get them. Unfortunately, the jail in Belle Fouche had burned down when an inmate started a fire to keep warm. The nearest jail that could still hold them was in Deadwood, South Dakota.
Kid Curry, the Sundance Kid, and Walt Putney were taken to Deadwood on a train. Once they were behind bars, the lawmen no longer considered them to be a threat, and security became relatively lax. That was all the opportunity the outlaws needed. Kid Curry and the Sundance Kid overpowered their jailers and were once again on the run. This time, they were not captured.
Lone Writer arrived at the crossing for Flatwillow Creek late in the afternoon. No attempt is made to claim that point was where the arrest was made, but it is a fork off the same creek. Most likely, the arrest was made a few miles farther east. The exact location was not documented. The account written by the sheriff simply stated it was about 20 miles from the town of Lavina. Kid Curry simply claims it was on the east side of the Little Snowy Mountains.
Regardless of where the arrest occurred, driving the Red Lodge getaway route is a great trip with endless scenic views and mild-mannered backroads. Be aware that the weather can change dramatically as clear skies become filled with clouds that dump rain and hail.
Lone Writer continued a few miles farther north to Lewistown for dinner and a shower. Lewistown began as a trading post and blossomed into a city. For a while, it was the end of the tracks for the railroad. In June of 1901, Kid Curry and Ben Kilpatrick arrived on that train and rented a horse for a ride into the Missouri Breaks. They were on their way to meet other members of the Wild Bunch with the intention of robbing a train west of Malta... but that's another story.
Larry E. Heck has been writing backcountry adventure stories since 1985. If you have an idea for a historic backcountry trail that you think Larry should consider, write to email@example.com or call (303) 910-7647. Those who are interested in driving the Outlaw Trail as featured in this series, can do so best by purchasing DeLorme's TopoUSA 6.0 mapping software for use on a laptop. The exact track used in the preceding account can be purchased from Lone Writer and loaded into TopoUSA. By using a GPS, the exact track can be followed. Visit www.lone-writer.com for more details.
Go to the visitor center on the north side of Red Lodge. The road to begin the trip is on the north side of the visitor center. Exit the parking lot on the backside of the building onto Villard Ave. N. Turn right and then go to the stop sign. Turn left on Third St. W. going west. Set your trip meter at this point.
|0.0||45 11.6872||109 14.8326||Corner of Villard Ave. and Third St. W.|
|2.6||45 12.8137||109 16.3211||Turn right on Red Lodge Creek Rd. Pavement ends.|
|17.4||45 24.3057||109 19.5325||Turn right staying on Red Lodge Creek Rd.|
|23.2/0.0||45 26.1696||109 14.0810||Cooney State Park with campground. Reset trip meter.|
|0.9||45 25.5109||109 13.7675||Stay left, staying on Red Lodge Creek Rd. along the side of the lake.|
|3.6||45 26.4615||109 11.4988||Left on Cooney Rd.|
|4.2||45 26.9083||109 11.2351||Left on pavement. Short paved section.|
|7.8||45 28.3727||109 14.5884||Right on Shane Creek Rd.|
|19.6/0.0||45 36.8438||109 16.7282||Right on Highway 78 to Columbus. Reset trip meter.|
|3.2||45 38.1980||109 15.1484||This is Columbus, MT. Turn right on Highway 10 which is E. Pike Ave. Follow it east to Columbus Molt Rd.|
|5.9/0.0||45 37.7705||109 12.0414||Turn left on Columbus Molt Rd. Reset trip meter.|
|5.0||45 41.7730||109 11.1088||Left on Lone Tree Rd.|
|12.9||45 47.8949||109 10.3477||Stay left around curve on Flat Rd.|
|18.4||About halfway between Columbus and Rapelje, using TopoUSA 6.0, you can pick out the landmark of Battle Butte in the distance on the left.|
|25.3||45 58.3357||109 10.3253||Turn left on Rapelje Molt Rd.|
|29.4/0.0||45 58.4544||109 15.2821||Rapelje lunch stop. Reset trip meter.|
|1.0||45 58.4750||109 16.5277||Turn right for Ryegate on Big Coulee Rd.|
|9.9||46 5.2760||109 15.8123||Left toward Ryegate staying on Big Coulee Rd.|
|13.8/0||46 7.9222||109 16.3189||Left on Golden Valley toward Ryegate. Reset trip meter.|
|0.3||46 7.9419||109 16.6820||Stay on main road going right.|
|6.3||46 11.4277||109 14.2874||Stay left around curve.|
|14.9/0||46 17.8354||109 15.3838||Cross Highway 12 in Ryegate. Gas and supplies available. Reset trip meter.|
|22.8||46 36.3978||109 15.7497||Right toward Lewistown on Red Hill Rd.|
|26.9||46 36.3984||109 10.7273||Left on Red Hill Rd.|
|29.5/0||46 38.1400||109 9.4493||Left on Red Hill Rd. Reset trip meter.|
|11.3||46 46.1674||109 11.4606||At this point the road follows the south fork of Flatwillow Creek. Anywhere along this creek could be the place where the outlaws were arrested.|
|41.3||47 4.1469||109 25.6535||Dinner in Lewistown.|