Contemplations about the Yellowstone Trail and its Precedents near Columbus, Montana
Below, there is a small map of the area being discussed. Larger, more useful maps can be seen/printed at www.yellowstonetrail.org/ColumbusComposite07Part1.pdf Part2 Part3 Part4 Part5
A few months ago a YT Association member from Montana asked us for information that would enable her to correct local publications which reported that Columbus, Montana, started as a stage stop on the Yellowstone Trail. The Montana book of the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project also makes that claim. That question (see 1, below) led us to several discussions including the problems of having an auto highway called a trail. Another publication she cited, a 1931 county commissioners’ report, mentioned a need to abandon a section of the Yellowstone Trail. That raised a discussion of obtaining rights-of-way for the Yellowstone Trail (see 2, below.) Her last concern was about an error in the reporting of the location of the stage stop (see 3, below.) And finally, her questions led to a lot of thinking about the flow of events as Americans settled the West (see 4, below.)
1. Well, Columbus was founded in the late 1800s and the YT was founded in 1912. It certainly is at least misleading to say that Columbus started as a stage stop on the YT! Our conclusion is that this is primarily a problem of carelessness of language use, a problem nagging many a discussion. Answer: a) there was a road (no doubt created by use and not engineered) upon which the stage was routed in the late 1800s. Other wagon roads came into use and some roads were improved enough (that means they were at least graded) to allow use by the new-fangled autos. Those improvements were probably made by the township or county. When the Yellowstone Trail Association decided to route the YT through the area they (with the guidance of local members) simply chose the best combination of roads they could find. They didn’t build a new road. The language problem is simply that when we refer to the “stage road” or to the “Yellowstone Trail,” we are not clear as to whether the road or route is the referent. We can assume (hope) that the statement that “Columbus began as a stage stop on the YT” was meant as “Columbus began as a stage stop on the section of the road that was later called the YT.” Having a stage stop on the Yellowstone Trail is a bit like having people chased by dinosaurs.
One other explanation was that the road was called the Yellowstone trail in the 1800s because it lead to Yellowstone National Park – along the Yellowstone River. This explanation would have more merit, it seems to me, if the stage road had not been recorded (as shown on the map) as Billings and Bozeman Stage Rd, in part, and Road to Tongue River in another part.
2. According to a document sent to us by our Montana correspondent, the 1931 county commissioners wanted to abandon the right-of-way of the Old Yellowstone Trail between two specified points. There is no doubt that the YT Association had no involvement with right-of-way questions. The Association just established a route on whatever road was available. We might note that the stagecoach route was established before the area was surveyed, and seems to have used a road of their own creation, probably on public land, probablly without the grant of a right-of-way by the county. With the survey of the West, of course, came standards of road placement and governments to record ownerships and rights-of-way.
The referenced abandonment seems to be the road between points A and B on the map. Modern maps show no road there, but irrigation ditches were there, and, in places, I-94 is seen to have hidden the old road. Keep in mind that that road was probably graded dirt which would quickly fully recede to nature.
3. We can be of no help in determining the correct location of the referenced stage stop. Our correspondent seems to have that nailed. The ranch at location S on the map is known as Stage Stop Ranch. Seems like a good location for a YT interpretive sign?
4. The area of Columbus records a great deal of transportation history. I assume that wagons were the first to haul settlers’ goods into the area. We have solid evidence of the stagecoach route established before 1879. And in 1884, a telegraph line along parts of the stage road is clearly evident. (The map refers to the 1879 and 1884 sections of the stage road; those dates are dates of the map. The date of beginning of the road were not found by me. The Northern Pacific Railroad seems to have appeared c. 1882-3. (This needs confirmation.) The YT found a route through the area in 1913, presumably located as marked on the map.
Highway route US 10 was designated in 1926, but probably instituted in 1927. The US 10 bridge (one of the Twin Bridges a few miles southwest of Springtime) was built at just about that time, so I do not know if US 10 was ever routed on the northern road from Springtime to Reed Point along with the existing YT route. Moreover, information from Jon Axline of the Montana Department of Transportation, states that state money was dedicated in 1930 for building that bridge, whereas the state map and gasoline maps show the southern Twin Bridge route being used in 1928 and 1929. We need a research volunteer here!
We do know that the route of US 10 west of Columbus did not quite follow the original YT. Assuming the road used in that area by US 10 was new when the Twin Bridge was built, the YT would have followed that re-alignment from c. 1928 on. Another little research project!
Another enigma: In that same area, the old Road to Tongue River followed an alignment that was very close to the alignment followed later by the railroad. US 10 followed the railroad closely. Why, then, did the YT use a road that in most places is back further from the river?
An unrelated observation: the 1897 channel of the Yellowstone river differs a great deal in the indicated area with the channel on the 2009 base map.
More questions than answers. Maybe a Columbus high school student or class (or the nice local history museum) might take these history questions on as a project?