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The Missouri Breaks - Montana's Missouri Breaks

River Valley
Larry E. Heck | Writer
Posted November 1, 2009

A Land Of History And Mystery

The road to the ferry from Winifred is graded and offers beautiful scenery as it descends into the river valley.

In 1976, Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson starred in a movie about cattle thieves and a gunman hired to put them out of business. Much of it was filmed on location in Montana's Missouri Breaks. The location was well suited to host a story about outlaws. The infamous Kid Curry, a high-ranking member of Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch, owned a ranch on the north side of the Missouri River. It was located near the town of Landusky. After the train holdup at Exeter Creek, Curry hid out in Hideaway Coulee and Grand Island waiting for things to cool off.

The Missouri Breaks is wild country, where winters can be ferocious and settlements are sparsely scattered. The first mapping of the area was done by Lewis and Clark in 1805. They were searching for a river route to the Pacific Ocean. All they found were Indians and a few fur trappers.

The Missouri River's water flow is controlled by dams in this century but there was a time when it ran wild and free. During the spring, when water levels were high, steam boats ran upstream to Fort Benton. The first one to complete the journey was the Chippewa in 1860. The area around Cow Island was always a problem. Sand bars caused the boats to come to a halt and winches had to be used to get them going. Quite often, Cow Island was the end of the trip for the boat. Its cargo would be loaded onto wagons and the trip would be finished to Fort Benton by way of the Cow Island Trail.

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.

The Missouri Breaks is still wild and remote with a variety of wildlife. The view of the river from the high valley rims is spectacular and the variety of colors across the landscape comes to life on a bright sunny day. On the other hand, if rain begins to fall, the roads become impassable. The vehicle will move in whatever direction gravity dictates taking the driver along for the ride. The mud builds up around the wheels and fenders packing in so tight the drive train can no longer function and the front wheels cannot turn. If not removed quickly, the mud will dry like concrete and is very difficult to remove.

Gasoline availability can also become a problem if the driver has done a poor job of planning. Towns are few and far between. Some have gas and some do not. If the needle is on empty with 60 miles to the next town, there can be some tense moments. The author fueled in Winifred, Grass Range, and Roy during his visit. He also carried a 5-gallon supply on the luggage rack.


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