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Exerter Creek Crossing - The Outlaw Trail Part IX

Posted in Ultimate Adventure on December 1, 2007 Comment (0)
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Exerter Creek Crossing - The Outlaw Trail Part IX

About mid-May of 1901, Kid Curry and Ben Kilpatrick stepped off the train in Lewistown, Montana. They were on their way to meet other members of the Wild Bunch. There was still a lot of planning to do before they would rob the Great Northern train at the Exeter Creek Crossing.

Historians disagree as to which outlaws participated in the robbery. The Outlaw Trail book by Charles Kelley and Kid Curry by Bruce Lamb both claim Butch Cassidy did most of the planning and that the Sundance Kid boarded the train in Malta, Montana, with Kid Curry. It seems unlikely that Kid Curry would give Cassidy the credit for making those plans if it was not true. Curry was a braggart and always put himself in the leadership role when telling his stories.

On the other hand, many historians claim Cassidy and Sundance were already in South America. They argue that tickets and hotel rooms were purchased using aliases known to be those of the two outlaws. In those days, outlaws and wanna-be outlaws changed names as often as they changed clothes. It is possible that other people were using the aliases or even the real names of Cassidy and Sundance. It's also possible that Kid Curry was lying and that Cassidy and Sundance were not involved in the Exeter Creek Robbery. Another possibility is that Cassidy and Sundance went to South America and returned because they needed more money to purchase the ranch they wanted down there. Nothing can be proved beyond dispute. For this story, Lone Writer chose to use the Kid Curry version.

The road to Winifred, Montana. The road to Winifred, Montana.

Lewistown was familiar territory for Kid Curry. Before becoming an outlaw, he and his brothers ran cattle throughout the area and even had their own ranch headquarters near Landusky.

Ben Kilpatrick often rode with Kid Curry but had never been to Montana. He got a geography lesson as the two outlaws rode west for the crossing of the Missouri River on the Cow Island Ferry.

The Cow Island Ferry was one of several busy crossings until the modern-day bridge was built in 1959. Although it was referred to by that name, it was actually a short distance downriver from the island. The actual location of Cow Island provides a more shallow crossing and was used by drovers moving their cattle from one side of the river to the other.

Lone Writer spent the night in Lewistown and had breakfast at the 4 Aces Caf. On other trips, he camped in the Judith Mountains nearby. The mountains provide terrific views of the surrounding country, but it takes a little longer to get there. It is also a bad place to be during storms, and the whole area was having a dandy storm that night.

The town of Winifred. The town of Winifred.

Leaving Lewistown behind, Lone Writer followed paved roads for a few miles then turned onto county roads that went cross-country to the town of Winifred. Rains the previous night had left the roads very slippery. Within a short time, the wheelwells of the Jeep were packed with mud. The odometer readings for this part of the trip may be high due to frequently spinning tires.

Winifred did not exist when the outlaws passed through. It was founded in 1913 as a railroad town. It is now a very small supply point for nearby ranches: Gas, food, and other basics are available. It's a good idea to top off gas tanks in Winifred since there isn't another opportunity until Malta. The gas station is open during normal business hours, Monday through Saturday. Nearby bars also have tasty sandwiches to take along.

Lone Writer left Winifred about noon and took the gravel road with the sign for D-Y Trail. That trail leads to the Cow Island Ferry crossing. The first section is a major gravel road classified as "all-weather" by the BLM. It consists of mostly level and gently rolling lands that provide no indication of the wild country ahead. There are numerous ranch homes along the way.

Eventually, the gravel surface gives way to dirt, which can be impassible when wet. The grassy lands lead into lightly forested areas, and the hills become much more prominent. There are some intersections, but the correct choice is always the D-Y Trail. Eventually, one intersection takes the D-Y Trail radically downhill on a winding, seldom-used dirt road. That road leads to the banks of the Missouri River where the Cow Island Ferry had its docking ramps.

Driving the D-Y Trail to the Cow Island Ferry crossing. Driving the D-Y Trail to the Cow Island Ferry crossing.

On another trip, Lone Writer and Caveman brought a small raft and put it in the water at that point. They floated down the river to Grand Island, the most primitive hideout used by the outlaws after the Exeter Creek train robbery. After visiting the island, they hiked up Hideaway Coulee searching for remnants of the Kid Curry hideout cabin but did not find it.

On that trip, Lone Writer and Caveman continued their trip downriver all the way to the modern bridge at the Kipp Recreation Area. They had left a vehicle in an inconspicuous location near there. They used that vehicle to return to the Cow Island Ferry crossing and retrieve the second vehicle.

On this trip, Lone Writer left the Cow Island crossing and returned to the previous intersection. He followed the Two Cow Creek Road going east. That section of the road provides fabulous scenic views of the Missouri River from high above the hilltops along the southern ridge of the river canyon. There are numerous drop-offs and hillclimbs that had Lone Writer reaching for 4-Lo in the Jeep's transfer case.

At the Two Cow Creek crossing, another road can be used to access the Missouri River, but Lone Writer continued east and eventually reached the highway at the Kipp Recreation Area. After stopping for a break, he followed the highway across the bridge and continued northeast on Highway 191 to the historic marker for Landusky and the Little Rocky Mountains.

When Kid Curry and Ben Kilpatrick reached the Cow Island Ferry, they used its services as casually as any other travelers. They boarded the ferry with their rented horses, rode across, and then left the ferry behind. A few miles north of the ferry, they checked to be certain no one was watching then left the main road and cut cross-country to the entrance for Hideaway Coulee. A few hours later, they were resting peacefully inside Kid Curry's cabin. A string of fresh horses was in the corral waiting for them, and the cabin was newly stocked with supplies. Curry's longtime friend, Jim Thornhill, had everything waiting as previously planned.

The following day, Curry left Kilpatrick at the cabin while he rode to Landusky to visit Thornhill and get the latest news. Thornhill would also need to know what supplies and horses the outlaws would need during their stay in Hideaway Coulee and also for the robbery. As usual, he would be their primary source for anything needed without being directly involved in anything illegal.

Lone Writer reached Landusky late in the afternoon. He stopped at the national forest campground to use the facilities then drove into Landusky. There is not much left of the original town. The older buildings are being replaced with modern ones. There are no services available in Landusky.

The saloon where Kid Curry officially turned outlaw was burned down many years ago. There are numerous stories concerning that day. The most popular seems to be that many years of bad blood between the Curry brothers and Pike Landusky just came to a boil. Pike has been described as a cruel and violent man who took out his temper on anyone within reach. A love affair between one of the Currys and Pike's daughter added fuel to the fire.

The town of Landusky still has a few original buildings standing. The town of Landusky still has a few original buildings standing.

Pike Landusky was a lawman in the town named after him. One night, he arrested Kid Curry and tied him up in a barn. According to one account, he spent many long hours in a drunken stupor beating the younger Curry to a pulp. Eventually, Curry escaped. For him the battle had only begun, but first he needed to heal his wounds.

On the night of the deadly duel, Kid Curry entered the saloon and walked directly to Landusky. He began delivering punches without warning. The fight quickly got bloody and Landusky found he was no match for the younger man in a fair fight. Landusky was knocked to the floor. As Curry approached, Landusky pulled a gun, pointed it directly into Curry's face, and pulled the trigger. Under normal circumstances that would have been the end of the fight, but Landusky's gun did not fire. Before he could cock the hammer again, Curry pulled his pistol and put the old mountain man to rest.

Curry decided he could not win a court battle over Pike Landusky's death. He left in a hurry and never returned to the ranching profession. His visit with Thornhill in May of 1901 came many years after that fatal fight. Through all those years, Thornhill was the only one in the town of Landusky Curry felt he could trust.

Wagner, Montana. Wagner, Montana.

Jim Thornhill lived as an honest rancher. He was never accused of doing anything illegal, yet it is likely most people knew he often assisted Curry. He even took care of the property that had formerly been the Curry ranch.

A saloon at Great Falls, Montana, had been the agreed meeting place for the Wild Bunch. Sundance Kid arrived with a friend named Camilo Hanks. After some outlaw-style rest and relaxation, the four of them rode back to Hideaway Coulee.

Butch Cassidy was in Saint Paul, Minnesota, keeping an eye on westbound trains leaving the Great Northern home office. He spent time in saloons and other gathering places listening for talk of shipments which included large sums of money.

Driving the dusty county road from the highway to the ghost town of Wagner. Driving the dusty county road from the highway to the ghost town of Wagner.

Ben Kilpatrick was not known in the area, so he was used to run after supplies when needed. Near the end of June, he went to Chinook and waited for word from Cassidy. When the word came, he headed back to Hideaway Coulee to deliver it. The train with the loot was scheduled to arrive in Malta on the afternoon of July 3.

The Sundance Kid and Kid Curry rode to Malta and lazed around the stable waiting for the train to arrive. Hanks and Kilpatrick rode to the bridge at Exeter Creek and set up the ambush. Cassidy was a passenger on the train from Saint Paul to Malta.

Lone Writer left the town of Landusky and drove toward Malta on the highway for a few miles before turning north on a dusty county road. The path he took skirted around the Little Rocky Mountains in the same manner the outlaws would have chosen on the way to Exeter Creek. He was immediately rewarded with a view of an eagle sitting on a fence post. Before he could get the camera out of its bag, the eagle rose from its perch and soared gracefully away toward the mountains.

There was also a large number of antelope and even some ducks on the small ponds. One deer watched Lone Writer from a hilltop in the distance. The road was relatively flat but gently rolling in places.

The only town along the way was Wagner. It sits beside the railroad track and was the train's first stop after the robbery. Wagner is mostly a ghost town with a few buildings that appear to be inhabited.

The robbery took place at the Exeter Creek Bridge.  That track is a very busy place these days, with trains crossing about every 30 minutes.  Amtrak passenger trains use this track, but most of the traffic is freight. The robbery took place at the Exeter Creek Bridge. That track is a very busy place these days, with trains crossing about every 30 minutes. Amtrak passenger trains use this track, but most of the traffic is freight.

From Wagner, a gravel road runs alongside the railroad track to Exeter Creek. It connects to the paved highway where a historic marker tells the story of the train robbery. The tracks are now used frequently by freight trains and occasionally by Amtrak. From Exeter Creek, Lone Writer took the paved highway about 4 miles to the town of Malta for dinner.

Lone Writer spent some time in the museum at Malta. It is very well arranged and has an entire room dedicated to the outlaws, including info about the robbery and the hideout at Hideaway Coulee. It has copies of many of the conflicting stories concerning who was involved in the robbery and about what was taken. Any time spent in that museum is time well spent for anyone interested in the outlaws' activities.

On the day of the robbery, the Sundance Kid boarded the train as a passenger and casually nodded to Cassidy as he passed by. The nod was simply acknowledgement that everything was going as planned.

Kid Curry crawled on board the tinder car behind the engineer. As soon as the train began to move, he dropped down behind the engineer with gun in hand. From that point on, the outlaws had control of the train.

The train stopped at the Exeter Creek Bridge. Cassidy and Sundance kept the passengers quiet in the train while Curry used dynamite to blast open the safe in the baggage car. The robbery was over in a matter of minutes, and the outlaws rode away in a cloud of dust. They would hide out in Hideaway Coulee and on Grand Island until lawmen gave up trying to find them. From there, they would split up and head off in different directions, carrying a little more money than they came with... 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 larry@lone-writer.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 computer. 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.

View Slideshow

We used the Mountain Acres RV park as a starting point since we camped there. The only place to get gasoline is in Winifred, but it is closed on Sunday and after 6 p.m. on other days. Supplies are very limited and should be purchased in Lewistown. Some vehicles will require extra gas if not topped off in Winifred.

TRIP METER LATITUDE LONGITUDE NOTES
0.0 47 4.1770 109 25.6833 Lewistown, {{{Montana}}}. Mountain Acres RV campground on north side of town. Turn on Highway 191 and go north.
9.1 47 11.3945 109 24.4718 Left at sign for Denton on State Route 81.
18.9/0 47 14.3576 109 34.1516 Turn right on Plum Creek Rd. Reset trip meter.
12.1 47 21.0928 109 28.4561 Left fork, then left on Salt Creek Rd.
19.7 47 27.1178 109 29.3299 Stay on Salt Creek Rd.
21.4 47 28.0280 109 28.4492 Left turn.
22.4 47 28.8306 109 28.4418 Follow Salt Creek Rd. right.
24.0 47 28.9888 109 26.5370 Left on Thrill Hills Rd.
28.3 47 30.6907 109 22.9790 Left fork.
32.0/0.0 47 33.5740 109 22.5386 Winifred, Montana. Café and supplies. Road to this point was hilly and muddy. Tires spinning a lot may have added a lot to the odometer. Reset trip meter.
0.0 47 33.5617 109 22.4820 Leave Winifred on D-Y Trail at east side of town.
1.9 47 34.1713 109 20.6879 Turn right, staying on D-Y Trail toward Middle Two Calf Rd. Stafford Ferry is left.
4.8 47 35.0407 109 18.1327 Turn right, staying on D-Y Trail toward Middle Two Calf Rd.
8.8 47 35.0541 109 13.0380 Turn left, staying on D-Y Trail toward Middle Two Calf Rd. Follow main road, staying on D-Y Trail.
18.3 47 41.5305 109 10.1232 Right fork staying on D-Y Trail.
24.9/0.0 47 43.1546 109 3.4612 Left fork. Reset trip meter.
2.0 47 43.532 109 0.432 Right fork. BLM sign ahead.
3.6 47 42.861 108 58.663 Left on Lower Two Calf Rd.
4.7/0 47 42.5899 108 {{{57}}}.3568 Left goes to ferry crossing on Power Plant Rd. This is a very steep road. Reset trip meter.
2.3 47 43.7471 108 56.0817 Cow Island Ferry crossing. Back at top at intersection. Reset trip meter.
6.5 47 41.6863 108 50.4566 The view to the left is the mouth of Hideaway Coulee. Grand Island is out of view around the corner on the right.
12.4 47 38.7441 108 47.2714 Right fork across Two Calf Creek.
14.4 47 38.0267 108 45.9664 Left fork.
18.5 47 37.4234 108 41.3222 Left on paved Hwy. 191.
Take the paved Hwy. 191 to the historic marker for the Little Rockies.
TRIP METER LATITUDE LONGITUDE NOTES
0.0 47 47.7456 108 38.0160 Historic marker. Take Hwy. 66 going north.
1.5/0.0 47 48.9877 108 38.2202 Left is the turnoff for Hideaway Coulee. Stay straight. Reset trip meter.
2.8 47 51.3048 108 38.8097 Right to Landusky.
6.0 47 53.8276 108 37.6089 Left is campground; straight is Landusky.
0.0 47 47.7456 108 38.0160 Historic Marker. Go north toward Malta. Reset trip meter.
20.6/0.0 47 57.8609 108 18.1979 After Mile Post 122, turn left toward Lodgepole. Go straight at intersections not otherwise noted. Reset trip meter.
9.9 48 5.3375 108 17.1963 Left fork at the Y. Now headed north.
24.5 48 17.5151 108 15.5538 Right turn. Road going straight is paved.
32.8 48 17.5066 108 5.1132 Left turn.
38.2/0.0 48 22.1027 108 4.7808 Cross tracks and turn right in town of Wagner. Reset trip meter.
5.4 48 22.0495 108 57.9225 Exeter Creek Bridge is on the right. Turn left and go to highway. Turn right on highway for historic marker.
5.7 48 22.1418 107 57.9198 Historic marker.
9.9 48 21.8060 107 52.6921 Malta, Montana. West Side gas station. Motels and campgrounds are available but sit alongside the railroad tracks with trains passing very often.

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