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Roaming The Country - The Missouri Breaks

Front View
Larry E. Heck | Writer
Posted January 1, 2008

South Of Malta, Montana

When most people first hear of the Missouri Breaks, they wonder, "Where in Missouri?" Actually, you must follow the Missouri River upstream all the way into Montana to reach these scenic and historic lands.

American Indians were the first to call the Missouri Breaks home. Fur trappers and traders were the first white men to move in. In 1805, Lewis and Clark passed through the Missouri Breaks during their 8,000-mile journey in search of a route to the Pacific Ocean. They mostly pulled their boats upstream by hand.

In 1860, the first steamboat, the Chippewa, navigated the river upstream to Fort Benton. They could only make the journey in the spring during high water, and even then the boat had to be winched through the more shallow sections. Improvements were made to the steamboats and freight was hauled in both directions through the Missouri Breaks during the ensuing 30 years.

In 1901, Kid Curry, Butch Cassidy, and the Sundance Kid robbed a train at the Exeter Creek crossing near Malta, Montana. The hideout they used was in Hideaway Coulee located in the Missouri Breaks. Much of their time was spent on Grand Island at the mouth of that coulee.

(In 1976, Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson starred in a movie called The Missouri Breaks. The story is about cattle thieves and a gunman hired by a rancher to track them down.)

In 2001, most of the Missouri Breaks was gobbled up by the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument. This was one of many monuments established by presidential proclamation during the Clinton years. It was the last of such proclamations and was signed into law just hours before Clinton's term as president ended. The monument includes all of the Missouri River from Fort Benton to the boundary for the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. The monument is managed by the BLM through the Lewistown office.

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Very little has changed in the Missouri Breaks during the last century. It is wild and remote with a variety of wildlife. Visitors to the area should take extra gas since it is not readily available without driving a long distance. Lewistown to the south and Malta to the north are the only major cities in the area. A few small towns such as Winifred and Grass Range have gas available during normal business hours. A small store at the corner of Highway 19 and Highway 191 east of the town of Roy is the closest gas for those using the Kipp Recreation Area as a basecamp.

Lone Writer began his trip in Lewistown with a stop at the BLM headquarters. He expected to pick up a road map of the monument but found no such map exists. The office could only provide a brochure for the backcountry byway that runs along the south side of the Missouri River, and its quality was very poor. The BLM also had some USGS quadrant maps and lots of information for anyone traveling the river in a boat. After looking over the options, Lone Writer decided to rely on his DeLorme Topo USA mapping program and trusty laptop.

From Lewistown, Lone Writer continued to the town of Winifred. He topped off the gas tank and purchased a hamburger at the local caf then proceeded down the winding ferryboat road. That narrow, one-lane, graded dirt road turned out to be a pleasant drive. It descended gradually into the breaks and soon arrived at the south dock for the McClelland/Stafford Ferry.

Crossing on the ferryboat is free to travelers and managed by the Blaine County Commissioner's Office. The current ferryboat is only 3 years old. The original was made of wood, whereas the new one is made of steel. It weighs 60,000 pounds and measures 22 feet wide and 50 feet long.

There are two ferryboat captains who alternate days of operation. They live in the ferry quarters on the north side of the river. Travelers going north drive up to the dock on the south side of the river and honk the horn. Hopefully, the captain will hear the horn and begin the short hike from the quarters to the dock on the north side of the river. The ferryboat is then powered up and driven to the south side where the traveler and vehicle are loaded on board. If honking the horn doesn't work, the second option is a mailbox with a small two-way radio. The instructions are to turn the radio on, call the captain, and turn the radio off. On that day, honking the horn was the only thing needed.

There are only three ferry boats still in operation within the Missouri Breaks. The use of ferryboats on the Missouri River began in the 1860s. The McClelland/Stafford Ferry began operating in 1915. Some sources claim more than two dozen ferryboats were in operation before bridges began replacing them. Fortunately, the three remaining boats have been kept in operation in an effort to retain some of Montana's ferryboat history.

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