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MacDonald Pass in Montana
July 28, 2007.
We are staying in Lincoln Road RV-Park Helena, MT less than a mile west of I-15 at exit 200. Lincoln Road RV-Park is about 10-miles north of downtown Helena but in a very good position to access everything in the area. $25.04 with Good Sam discount plus-taxes for FHU in nice gravel pull thru sites with some shade. Free wifi was available but no cable TV.
This picture was taken on MacDonald Pass looking east toward Helena. We are also standing on the Continental Divide, elevation 6,325'. MacDonald Pass and two other Continental Divide crossings link Helena with points west. These passes, all with roads leading into Helena are the reason Helena survived as a town, after the gold played out.
Mullan and Priest Passes, to the north of this route, had roads as early as the 1850s. In 1870, a toll road was constructed over this portion of the Continental Divide. During the 1880s a half dozen six-horse stages a day passed this way to and from Helena and western Montana.
The MacDonald Pass is also noted for being where Cromwell Dixon earned a $10,000 prize when he became the first aviator in America to fly over the Continental Divide. The year was 1911 and he flew out of Helena over the Continental Divide then returned to Helena.
From here west to the Idaho line, US 12 and I-90 follow the old Mullan Road that I told you about in travelogue #125bb Mullan Road. This important 624 mile road connected Fort Benton on the Missouri River with Fort Walla Walla in Washington. It was the "connecting link" between water transportation available on both sides of the Rocky Mountains. Originally a centuries old Indian trail, Mullen mapped the road over the pass in the 1850s. In 1860, it was incorporated into the military road that would bear his name.
Mullen, aside from his engineering ability, was a man of considerable insight as evidenced by the following excerpt from his final report. He prophesied "... the locomotive engine will make passage of the ... wild interior at rates of speed which will startle human credulity." Indeed, two decades later, in 1883, the Northern Pacific Railway constructed its main line over Mullan Pass.
Mullen himself might have been astonished had he seen the "freight train" that crossed this divide in 1865! Seven camels, each laden with 600 pounds of flour, made the trek from Helena to the Deer Lodge area mines. Not even Mullen could have imagined that. Camels were one of the less successful experiments in American transportation history. The dromedary carried tremendous loads, was sure footed, had great stamina, but the horses, mules and oxen of the teamsters and mule packers stampeded at sight and smell of them. Camels were gone from Montana by 1867.
This is what you can expect between MacDonald Pass and Helena. Go back and take another look at that picture that looks east toward Helena in the valley. The grade does not look that bad but I suspect things are a bit distorted by the smoke. Whatever, it is a fairly steep grade for six miles and from there it continues dropping but at a more moderate 6% or 5% grade. Out west these grades seem to go on forever. At least the engine seems to think they go on forever.
MacDonald Pass warning sign
This is good advice. Heavy loads don't want their speed to get out of control and losing control of downhill speed is an easy thing to do on grades like this.
Falling off MacDonald Pass
As we fall off the Continental Divide a beautiful valley emerges.
This is a few miles west of Helena on US-12.
Until next time remember how good life is.
Mike & Joyce Hendrix