There’s a reason Wheelock feels haunted

wheelock-sign-sig-smallA spooky little town as many people know it, and there’s a reason.  At one time, a thriving growing community, at least four murders in its short life mar the history of Wheelock.  It was a town destined for distinction and death.

Wheelock first showed up in Williams County, North Dakota about 1901 and became a formal community a year later.  Compared to the vacant prairie, Wheelock  was so large and affluent, less fortunate people moved down the road a couple of miles and established the town of Epping.  It was said at the time that property was too expensive in Wheelock.  It’s population hovered around 115 in the mid 1930’s and by the 1950’s it reported as many as 400 people in town.

mailboxes-sig-smallWhile there is more than a handful of residents here, it looks as though their property value has declined. The town seems haunted by its past. The solid structures of town dissolved in the last 10 or 15 years, a few old farm shacks and barns remain, but no commercial buildings.

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By the 1970’s fewer than 24 people lived in Wheelock. In 1994, the town died and was formally dissolved. (Meanwhile, that poor little town down the road, Epping continues and even has its own webpage.) http://www.epping.govoffice.com/

wheelockHere’s why it seems haunted — murders: As happens with popular bustling towns, it attracted quite a bit of good and bad attention.  Business was so robust that by the time it celebrated its 25th birthday, it was home to a hotel, general merchandise store, lumber yard, pool hall, drug store and a bank — and that’s where the first murder happened, at the bank.  It’s that brick building in the center of the three buildings in the photo above.

The bank was profitable, and was isolated, miles from any law enforcement. That could be why three armed men took over the bank in 1926. Before they ran off with all the money, they murdered the banker.  They avoided capture, until one man was caught in Kenmare, North Dakota.  He died in prison.

Of course today, Main Street doesn’t look like it would attract a bank robbery.

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It does not yet appear what it will be — a hotel? A saloon?  Someone’s brave attempt to bring life to Wheelock?

About 30 years later Guy Hall  jumped off the train on the south edge of town. He wandered around the decaying town. It obviously had seen better days, but he might find a bite to eat here.

He picked a house that he seemed drawn to.  There was no rational reason why this was the house to choose, it was the voices that told him “This one.”

Hall had a rough time in his life ending up in a Washington State Prison. When he was released, he jumped a freight and headed east.  Now in Wheelock, his inner chaos was screaming.

At the house he picked, he banged on the door and the woman told him to go away. She had her own two sons to feed.  Hall got mad, left and returned.

She still would not let him in.  He’d picked up a crowbar at a construction site on main street and swung it to get in to the house.  He killed her.  Her sons tried to protect her, and he bloodied them up mercilessly, hitting them repeatedly. He killed them. No one knows for sure why he attacked her, except for what he later said in his own words..

A few days later, he was found dead. He’d shot himself and left behind a note that said, “Please excuse me for I am insane.”

 

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One of few residences we could find in town.

Wheelock has been on a downhill slide ever since the 1950’s.  A few attempts at cleaning up and building up the town never seem to get very far.

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dish-on-wheelock-shack-sig-smallInterestingly, a drive through town, and you’ll see an essential item on the shacks: a satellite dish.

The Bakken boom created a bit of interest in the town, but then when the boom was over, the town became ghostly once again.  It sits in the shade of its much larger neighbor to the west, Williston. Epping, the little town built from those who could not afford Wheelock, is still functioning. To the east, the towns of Ray and Tioga thrive in the new economy of oil.

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If you want to invest in a ghost town, property is for sale.

Death has centered on Wheelock. Each time we return, it’s less and less of a residential collection of homes, and more of a ghost town.  People who visit say they feel “creeped out” by the town. Some write of their experiences as being very quick — they have written they felt an evil presence in town.

What is your experience when you visit Wheelock?

Not been there yet?  Drop a comment here after you have visited Wheelock to tell me what you think.

Free! An amazing history tour #3 is memorable!

Badlands mary 11 sgntre

Labor Day weekend is a great weekend to get away from your neighborhood without spending a lot of money.

Ready for some freedom? This is the weekend! It’s a 3-day weekend for you to rest from your labors, and here are opportunities for you to get out and get away!

Free –  The added bonus for the weekend is for families who’ve spent a ton on school supplies.  It’s free educational support for geography, geology, history, math, engineering, physics and geometry.

Fairview Bridge late summer horz long shot sig

Fairview Lift Bridge is so impressive that by the time you get across the bridge and through the tunnel, you will say “Wow” at least once.

1 Fairview Lift Bridge and Tunnel

While the day is cool and everyone has enough energy for the walk you will want to take, head out on Highway 200 west of Watford City to the state line at Cartwright and Fairview.

Cartwright well bb

Main Street Cartwright offers clean, cool well water for thirsty people — and their horses.

Once you get to Cartwright, stop on main street for a memorable cool drink of water, from the town pump that’s been there since the last century.  You can’t miss it, but you better because those are pretty strong guard rails around it.  It sits right in the middle of what would be “Main Street.”

Gunnar explores the bridge sigAs soon as you cross the Highway 200 bridge turn south in to the Sundheim public park on the west bank of the Yellowstone. Drive up the ramp to the parking area and take a hike.  It’s safe, secure, handicap accessible and above all, you don’t have to worry about meeting a train like travelers worried about 30 years ago. Both the bridge and tunnel are closed to all traffic except pedestrians.

 

There was almost no steamboat traffic on the Yellowstone when the bridge was built, but it was still considered a navigable waterway. So, the U.S. Government required one span over the channel to be lifted for steamboats.  The machinery was installed to raise the 1.14 million pound lift section of the bridge.

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Overhead, the 300-ton counterweight still sits ready to be used.

It operated only once, as a test, and was never used for commercial river traffic.

When it was built, with the required, but unnecessary lift section, there was not enough money to also build a highway bridge, so this bridge was modified to include vehicles as well as trains by adding planks across the bridge. Traffic was controlled by a watchman who make sure there were no trains coming when a car or truck wanted to cross.  The bridge owner, Great Northern Railroad charged a toll.  Late in the 30’s the North Dakota Highway Commission took over the bridge and the toll was dropped.

While you’re at the Fairview Lift Bridge go ahead and walk on in to the Cartwright Tunnel. It’s bout 1500 feet long with a slight bend in the middle so that you cannot see one end from the other.

It’s a wooden-planked tunnel large enough for trains to pass through, and most importantly, it was built by hand.  Sure, they used dynamite to blast the rock, and horse-drawn carts to carry out the rubble, but the labor was provided by local farmers and ranchers who needed a job in 1913.

Cartwright Tunnel

Built by hand, trains passed trough this tunnel until about 1986.

 

During the years of shared use with cars, trains took the tunnel while cars drove overhead and down to the bridge.


historic lift bridge and tunnel. Bill Shemmory Collection

State Historical Society of North Dakota,  William E. (Bill) Shemorry Collection                  (1-44-12-29)

There are no lights in the tunnel, so be prepared for dark. Most cell phones have a flashlight feature to use. Or take that one from your glove compartment.  You do carry a flashlight, don’t you?

Tunnel without flashlights sgntre

Your next stop is just 20 minutes down the road and is another free educational moment – agriculture.  As you travel along the Yellowstone River, you’ll see irrigation farming that uses more than one techniques such as traditional overhead irrigation sprayers, or ditches and tubes.

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1 (alternate B) if you want to expand your lift bridge experience,  head north up highway 58 and then highway 147 to the twin of the Fairview Lift Bridge to the Snowden Bridge in Montana. It’s about 20 minutes up the road, and is still in use.  It too once carried automobile traffic until the mid-1980s.

Snowden Bridge with Flowers in tight slight vignette edit 3-1

 

In addition to, or instead of the Snowden Bridge, stay on highway 58 and head to Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center and the Fort Buford historic site. You can picnic here, if you skipped Sundheim Park.

2. Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Center 13958191_1733049450290235_6939199483645982407_o 

When you stand here, you stand in a place of significance that goes way back before the wild west of cowboys, even back before there was a United States of America.
Your educational opportunities here include geography and history as you trace the flow of the water from south and west to this location.  The museum also includes the rich history of trappers and traders who passed through here in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s as well as the Corps of Discovery’s mission through here.The Confluence Center has a gift shop and a museum.13923703_1733049440290236_8796213656820432287_o

Take a moment to check out the large images of the Fairview and Snowden bridges, bison  from the region, views of the Badlands, and of Fort Union Trading Post, all from the Beautiful Bakken Collection of Mary Tastad’s photos and mine.

Mary walks pathWalk the 6-block long blacktop trail from the Confluence center down toward historic Fort Buford where an actual cemetery withDSC_0409 less-than-actual headstones inform you about how tough it was living here 150 years ago.

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Fort Buford had a military mission, but it is probably best remembered as the place where the famous Sioux leader, Sitting Bull, surrendered in 1881. When the fort was first under construction, the first or second day, Sitting Bull attacked the Fort, killing one soldier.  Not one to give up easily Sitting Bull and his warriors kept up their attacks on soldiers and wood cutters who were passing through the region.  Civilians, soldiers and Sioux warriors were killed.

You can walk past the Fort Buford site for free. To go inside, you’ll have to pay a $5.00 fee for adults, less for children.DSC_0431

3. Fort Union Trading Post

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Finally, plan your day trip to end at the Fort Union Trading Post. It about 10 minutes away. An interesting factoid is that to get in to the Trading Post, you actually drive in to Montana for a few feet on Highway 1804, then back in to North Dakota.

Entering ND bb

Plan to arrive bout 5:30, but make sure you stay until just before sundown, about 8:00. (Sundown is about 8:45).  That’s the last Bell Tour.  This is the pinnacle of your day’s free educational events.  This Labor Day weekend, is also the Living History Weekend where you’ll see how things were done 150 years ago, including a shooting demonstration. Costumed re-enactors will help you visualized how life was lived before statehood.

Buckskinners at Fort Union bb

Labor Day weekend is “Living History” weekend at the Fort Union Trading Post.

 

The Fort Union Trading Post was not a military or government institution. It was a privately owned facility to provide a shipping point of furs and pelts out of the region to points east, including Europe. As many as 200 people were employed here.  As a business enterprise, it is estimated that each year, more than $100,000 worth of business was done here. (Imagine how much money that would be in 2016 terms!)

The buffalo hides, beaver pelts and other furs were carried over long distances to reach the Trading Post.  In what are now the states of Wyoming, Montana South Dakota nad North Dakota, trappers and traders would rendezvous back here to make their exchanges.   In exchange trappers and traders could get necessities such as rifles, cookware, coffee and food stuffs.  At least five indigenous tribes (Assiniboine, Crow, Cree, Ojibway, Blackfoot, Hidatsa, Mandan) traded buffalo robes and other furs for trade goods such as beads, guns, blankets, knives, cookware, and cloth, including the Assiniboine who are said to have requested the American Fur Company establish this “shopping center.”  The Assiniboine tribe also protected the Trading Post from less friendly tribes.

 

The folks at the Fort Union Trading Post shared this about the Last Bell Tour:

During the tour, participants will discover why the summer of 1832 defined Fort Union’s future importance in the western fur trade. They’ll hear from the first artist to visit Fort Union, find out what industrial advancements revolutionized how Fort Union was re-supplied, and observe the effect a new trade partner, one formerly loyal to the British Hudson’s Bay Company, had on the peaceful coexistence between Fort Union’s traders and its visiting tribes.

The family-oriented tours will begin in the parking lot closest to the fort. Departing at 15-minute intervals, each guided tour will include 20–25 people who will be lead through a series of five inter-related scenes portraying events from the summer of 1832. Refreshments for participants will be available at the registration table in the parking lot. During the tours, the only illumination will be provided by candlelight, lanterns, and lit fireplaces.

Click here to learn more about visiting the Fort Union Trading Post

At the end of the day, you are just 30 minutes from fine eating at Sidney, Montana or Williston, North Dakota.  We’ll tell you more about fine dining, family dining and night life in those two communities another time.

Until then, enjoy your free educational tour of Western North Dakota.

Fort Union unites time, traders, trappers and tribal merchants

Fort Union, from across the Missouri River just yards from the ND/MT state line

Fort Union, from across the Missouri River just yards from the ND/MT state line

A cool wet September morning…and a traveling pair head for the trading post.  Word had reached them in their homes near Bismarck and Fargo that this was the weekend of a good gathering at the Fort Union Trading Post. For nearly 40 years, this fur trading post on the upper Missouri provided peaceful trade between traveling frontiersmen, trappers, traders and Native American merchants. Assiniboine, Crow, Blackfeet, Ojibwa, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara and Sioux merchants all traded at the post.  From the days of Lewis and Clark until the Civil War, this was a cultural and economic nerve center in the middle of the North American Continent.

Earlier in the season, the couple had spied the trading post from across the Missouri River.  The water was up; the distance was great, so they didn’t try to ford the river or cross at another point.  Instead they vowed to return when they were within range.  That day was the first Saturday in September.

The couple navigated the 25 miles of back roads and watched for signs of the trading post.  “Turn north and follow the river,” she counseled him as she consulted a series of maps. He directed the surefooted horsepower in the direction she indicated.  Bluffs and buttes around, they found the trading post and crossed over the state line in to Montana to enter the compound from the west just feet in to Montana, heading east back in to North Dakota.

The southwest basion was designed for defense. George Catlin used it as a studio in 1832

The southwest bastion was designed for defense. George Catlin used it as a studio in 1832

They crossed the low-lying spaces below the trading post.  There, down below the trading post their time was one hour off.  The low-lying area is in mountain time zone. It changed as they walked the rise up in to the  structure where they entered central time zone. The tall tower and wind vane they had spotted from across the river was now above them as they entered in through the garrisoned walls.  At the entrance a couple discussed their evening plans for socializing, food and sleep at the trading post.

At the main gate and entrance of the trading post

At the main gate and entrance of the trading post

Across the entrance, a young woman navigated her way across the muddy grounds. Frog-drowning rain the night before had left a lake in the compound and more rain was expected.

A boardwalk keeps visitors out of the mud from last night's rain

A boardwalk keeps visitors out of the mud from last night’s rain

At the moment, water slowly seeped in to the ground, leaving behind soft mud bridge by planks.

Different cultures, different ages and different families converge on the trading post

Different cultures, different ages and different families converge on the trading post

Despite the mud and rain, families moved about the post freely, playing and enjoying the social event. fort union boy

 

 

As much as the trading post is about commerce and products, it’s also about families and social gatherings.

Hardware is made, then traded and sold in booths and tents along the permiter of the Fort Union Trading Post

Hardware is made, then traded and sold in booths and tents along the perimeter of the Fort Union Trading Post

Since the days of John Jacob Astor and the American Fur Company, this has been the largest trade, shopping and supply post in the western frontier U.S.  Positioned up-stream from the joining point or confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, the trading post merges several cultures in to one moment on the northern plains.fort union two young mothers and daughter

Nearby, buckskinners took shelter in the warmth of the trade house at the entrance of post.

Inside the west Indian Trade House, a fire keeps visitors warm and dry.

Inside the west Indian Trade House, a fire keeps visitors warm and dry.

Here is where ledgers, inventories and business records are kept.  It’s also the room where important meetings with visiting tribal merchants could strike a deal. A fire crackled in its work to ward off the damp chill of the day.  “We meet here as often as we can,” the older trader told a visitor while he nursed his precious hot coffee.  “We’re happy to have visitors like you.  We like to swap stories and share our adventures.”

 

fort union buckskinner sepia vig sigThe old-timer’s words were demonstrated;  a gathering and multiple conversations were housed on the front porch of the Bourgeois House.Fort Union two buckskinners 2 sepia vig sig

This is where the field agent lived in 1851 after a smaller building was enlarged in to this two-story house with a porch.

Fort Union Bourgeois House 2 story sepia vig sig

Just outside the palisades, young marksmen prepared his muzzleloader.

Preparing the flint

Preparing the flint

Fort Union ramrod muzzle loader sepia vig sigHis target, down by the river, was out of sight at the moment.  By the time he got his shot ready, the target would be visible again.  His efforts attracted the attention of friends and strange visitors.  After a couple of misfires, his shot echoed across the valley.

Fort Union Muzzleloader shoots

Fort Union mothers and daughters watachA few spectators watched as the shooter demonstrated his skills.  Some, chose to stay inside, including a small gathering of men who sat and swapped stories.

The trading post provided a chance to not only swap goods and stories, but to kick back and relax.

Fort Union Three buckskinners sepia vig sig The visitors who had come so far to visit the Fort Union Trading Post were warmly received and learned much from this annual gathering. Fort Union Lief and another sepia vig sig The visit extended until nearly sunset when the gathering broke up and headed to their lodging for the evening, some outside the post, and some farther down the river in more civilized settlements. There, they spread the word of the days’ events on Facebook and in the Beautiful Bakken photo gallery.Ft Union Front Porch gathering sepia vig sig

 

5 FREE things to do in North Dakota’s Badlands

Quick! Now that school is on break!

You’ve got a bit of time to gather the tribe of kids, family and friends to get out west and see a part of North Dakota that’s easily missed.  The best part is, the biggest cost will be your gasoline because there’s plenty to do in Western North Dakota that will build memories.  Here are five free things to finish out your summer memories.

#5 Fort Union Trading Post

Fort Union Trading post -- an authentic reproduction. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Fort Union Trading post — an authentic reproduction. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

If you and your family like regional history or Lewis and Clark experiences, then head to the northwestern part of the state, and get right up to the Montana border.  About halfway between Sidney, Montana and Williston, North Dakota is the Fort Union Trading Post.  Late summer, it’s a fairly quiet place for you to explore.  In June the rendezvous brings the era  of the early 1800’s to life.  Decades before the Civil War, settlers, trappers, soldiers and tribes from the Northern Plains met here peacefully to trade goods.

This free stop on your late-summer tour of western North Dakota is best enjoyed by older children and adults. (But don’t worry, there are several other nearby sites such as Fort Buford and the Confluence Center that will keep the younger ones entertained. Or the best for all family members is nearby. It’s #1 in this list.)

Approaching from Sidney, take a gravel road north to the river to see how the trading post must have looked to trappers and tribes from across the river -- minus the wheat fields.

Approaching from Sidney, take a gravel road north to the river to see how the trading post must have looked to trappers and tribes from across the river — minus the wheat fields.

From inside the Fort, looking back to the other side of the river, in the trees where the shot above was taken.

From inside the Fort, looking back to the other side of the river, in the trees where the shot above was taken.

  To keep the youngest members of your group entertained, you probably won’t stay here long, but there are two more stops nearby.  Head around the bend to Fort Buford where you can camp (for a fee) or explore the Confluence Visitor Center and get three views of early Plains life.

#4 Wander Medora (but is this really free? Ice cream has a cost.)

It doesn’t cost anything to wander the streets of Medora.  There are several good places to eat.  If you’re an ice cream lover you’ll get surprisingly large servings.  Ice Cream at Medora is actually a summer goal for many families.  It’s easy to get to Medora, right off of I-94, about 25 miles from the Montana border.

If you and your family want to take advantage of the exercise opportunity, take your bicycles.  It’s free to pedal the streets and trails nearby. Many families do. There’s no cost to bicycle the town, take the East River Road south of town,  or take the recreation trail across the Little Missouri River to the west of Medora.

An option that is not free is to rent bicycles in town. Or bicycle in to the south unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, you’ll have to pay the entrance fee.  Its entrance is on the edge of Medora.

A family takes advantage of the paved bicycle trails around Medora and out in the country.

A family takes advantage of the paved bicycle trails around Medora and out in the country.

Pay the entrance fee and take a bicycle ride in to the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Take supplies, though. You will need to carry plenty of water.

Pay the entrance fee and take a bicycle ride in to the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Take supplies, though. You will need to carry plenty of water.

North Dakota’s legendary Maah Daah Hey trail is a mountain biker’s dream. Families can get access to as much or as little of it as they want — free.  You don’t need a bicycle. Your feet go with you, right? Take them and use them.

Maps of the trail are available on-line, or buy the most comprehensive map from the U.S. Forst Service.

The U.S. Forest Service map costs about $13 and is the most valuable tool (other than your camera) that you can take.

The U.S. Forest Service map costs about $13 and is the most valuable tool (other than your camera) that you can take.

#3 Hike the Maah Daah Hey — head to the Ice Caves

Even short little hikes will keep the youngest in your family entertained if they know the destination is right down the path.  For a short hike with a rewarding destination, park at the Ice Caves Maah Daah Hey parking lot and take a half-mile hike to a cooling spot.   The Ice Caves is part of the Maah Daah Hey trail. It’s about 10 miles south of Grassy Butte on Highway 85 and then 10 miles west on a gravel road #713.  In the spring, snow run off melts in to the cave and freezes on the floor.  This time of year, there’s no ice, but it’s a great place to climb inside to cool off.

Inside the Ice Cave

Inside one of the Ice Caves

Hike around to the north of the Ice Caves to get a spectacular view of the North Dakota Badlands.

Hike around to the north of the Ice Caves to get a spectacular view of the North Dakota Badlands.  The caves are directly below where I’m sitting on the edge.

The Maah Daah Hey trail is marked with the turtle-branded sign posts, so it’s easy to follow the route.  Markers along the way give you information of different trails you can take

Hike the Maah Daah Hey to the Ice Caves. It's a short jaunt, less than a mile from the Ice Caves Parking lot. From the Magpie Campround it's about 3 miles, a full afternoon hike.

Hike the Maah Daah Hey to the Ice Caves. It’s a short jaunt, less than a mile from the Ice Caves Parking lot. From the Magpie Campround it’s about 3 miles, a full afternoon hike.

#2 North Dakota grasslands

A short hike in to the Long X Trail south of Watford City will open the valley to your family’s challenge. You can stay on the trail at the bottom of the valley, or pick a point and climb to the top.

Some of the best trails for a family are the Long X Trail south of Watford City on the southern edge of the Little Missouri River.  Near Grassy Butte are the Beicegel Trail and the Bennett Creek Trail.  Signs on Highway 85 direct you to both trails. They are easy trails, both give you a flat starting out point and provide hill-top challenges that reward you with a spectacular view.  Tall wooden markers along the trail are easy to follow.

The best views are from up on high.

The best views are from up on high.

Climbing seems is a favorite passion of children, so pick a high point that matches their skills.  Even the shortest of the tall bluffs and buttes gives kids a chance to build their muscles and their confidence.

A rest break is called for on the climb up a bluff off the trail.

A rest break is called for on the climb up a bluff off the trail.

Oliver, my grandson likes the challenge of a good climb

Oliver, my 6-year old grandson likes the challenge of a good climb

Click here to Read more about the Maah Daah Hey south of Medora

#1 Fairview Lift Bridge and the Cartwright Tunnel

North Dakota's only lift bridge was retired from service before it ever lifted for a steamboat.

An autumn shot of North Dakota’s only lift bridge was retired from service before it ever lifted for a steamboat.

This free exploration will entertain the entire family.  It’s on highway 200 at the North Dakota-Montana state line.  To the west of the Fairview lift bridge, or on the right side of this above photo is the parking log and entrance to the fenced-off walkway across the bridge.

The safety fence gives families a safe place to walk the Fairview Lift Bridge. Children love the view from high above the water.

The safety fence gives families a safe place to walk the Fairview Lift Bridge. Children love the view from high above the water.

Once you start the walk across the bridge, you’ll get a great view of the well-maintained park below where you can enjoy a picnic in the shade of the trees.

Below the Fairview Lift Bridge is a park where you can fish.

Below the Fairview Lift Bridge is a park where you can fish.

The final reward of the Fairview Lift Bridge is the Cartwright Tunnel.

Built by hand, trains passed trough this tunnel until about 1986.

Built by hand, trains passed trough this tunnel until about 1986.

Until the mid-1980’s trains passed through the tunnel across the bridge.  It’s a quarter-mile long pass through the hill and provides children with a memorable experience — but take a flashlight. It gets dark in there until you get close to the opposite end.

The Cartwright Tunnel has a slight bend in it. Flashlights illuminate the way.

The Cartwright Tunnel has a slight bend in it. Flashlights illuminate the way.

Exploring the tunnel thrills youngsters, but oldsters will be impressed with the knowledge the tunnel was built by hand by local ranchers and farmers using picks, shovels, ox or donkey carts.  It’s guaranteed that you will at some point utter one word: “wowl!”  It’s more impressive than you would think of a bridge and tunnel.

Click here to see the Facebook Page called “Beautiful Bakken” for more on the bridge and tunnel

The nearby Snowden Lift bridge is still in use. It’s downstream about 12 miles.  You can see more about it here.

Downstream (north) of the Fairview Lift Bridge is the Snowden Lift bridge. Though it no longer lifts, trains still cross the river on the Snowden bridge.

Downstream (north) of the Fairview Lift Bridge is the Snowden Lift bridge. Though it no longer lifts, trains still cross the river on the Snowden bridge.

Click here to see more about the Snowden Lift Bridge

Admittedly, these free family features are on the sparsely settled region of North Dakota. So, if you’re planning a visit, pack a picnic, or plan to stop in Sidney, Mt, Williston, ND, Medora, ND,  or Dickinson, ND for a bite to eat and a break from your day of discovery.  It’s all free, if you take a lunch, pack your bicycles if you want, and explore legendary North Dakota.

An amazing find — a little known Indian Scout Cemetery honors fallen U.S. Soldiers

Indian Scout Post #1 on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation between White Shield and Parshall is a nearly forgotten veteran cemetery. The Old Scout Society has kept alive the memory of the tribal members who served in the U.S. Army since the time of General Custer. (photo courtesy of Mary Tastad of Mary's Photos)

Indian Scout Post #1 on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation between White Shield and Parshall is a nearly forgotten veteran cemetery. The Old Scout Society has kept alive the memory of the tribal members who served in the U.S. Army since the time of General Custer. (photo courtesy of Mary Tastad of Mary’s Photos)

There’s no other place on earth like this place.  There is only one Old Scouts Society and this is the graveyard where the Society honors their war dead.  Here lay members of the Three Affiliated Tribes, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara who served in the U.S. military.

Relatives leave memorials at the site of their ancestors who served in the U.S. Military.

Relatives leave memorials at the site of their ancestors who served in the U.S. Military.

The tradition of scouts from the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara goes back nearly 200 years.  Today, the Society is a group of relatives of those historic soldiers.  They honor the U.S. Army veterans of the Indian Wars and other tribal members who served in all branches after the Indian Wars.old scouts_0005

old scouts_0009

 

old scouts_0002Go back to the first Hidatsa scout, Sakakawea (Hidatsa pronunciation suh-CAG-a-wee-uh).  She and her husband Charbonneau helped the Corps of Discovery find its way west and back again.sagawea-picture-1

Later when the U.S. Army occupied this region to protect the railroad expansion to the west coast, Army commanders relied on scouts from these tribes to provide intelligence about the tribe’s hostile opponents, the warriors of the Sioux Nation. The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara scouts carried dispatches, found food and water, tracked game and served as interpreters.

Several unrelated events converged to create the birth of the long-standing tradition of tribal members joining the U.S. military.  In 1873, Colonel George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Cavalry were stationed at Fort Lincoln, south of Mandan, North Dakota.  The Seventh Cavalry was to protect the Northern Pacific Railroad Survey crews who had been attacked by hostile Sioux.

A rebuilt blockhouse above Fort Lincoln marks the uppermost reach of the Fort where General Custer and his scouts once lived.

A rebuilt blockhouse above Fort Lincoln marks the uppermost reach of the Fort where General Custer and his scouts once lived.

Before Custer, hostile Sioux were at war with neighboring tribes, including the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara who had withstood the Sioux attacks, at first.  Then, small pox wiped out nearly all the three tribes so they banded together to defend themselves against the Sioux.  Forming a confederacy between the three tribes, was insufficient, they were not strong enough to battle the Sioux, so they aligned themselves with the new and stronger opposition to the Sioux – the Blue Coats or the Seventh Cavalry – the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

At first, the Arikara or Ree were the principal tribe to supply scouts for Custer.  From 1872 until the late 1800’s Arikara scouts were the backbone of the Army’s scouts.

A few soldiers are buried at Fort Abraham Lincoln south of Mandan including some of Custer's scouts from the Hidatsa and Arikara tribes

A few soldiers are buried at Fort Abraham Lincoln south of Mandan including some of Custer’s scouts from the Hidatsa and Arikara tribes

One of the earliest scouts was Red Bear who later was joined by his younger brother Boy Chief.  He was one of the first scouts to die in a skirmish with the Sioux while stationed at Fort Lincoln along the Missouri River south of present day Mandan.

Bobtailed Bull, one of Custer's favorite scouts in the Indian Wars against the Sioux is second from the left.

Bobtailed Bull, one of Custer’s favorite scouts in the Indian Wars against the Sioux is second from the left.

Boy Chief tells the story of his enlistment like this: “Bobtail Bull brought me to Fort Abraham Lincoln in 1872.  Bobtail Bull took me to headquarters to ‘touch the pen’ to my enlistment papers.  I thought the medical examination would throw me out, as I was very young.  But I passed.  In another building, an officer gave me a gun, clothing and two gray blankets.”

Bobtail Bull was one of the first Indian scouts to be promoted and receive a commission under Lt. Col Custer who often bragged of this Arikara scout when in Washington.  Custer said of Sergeant Bobtail Bull that he was a man of good heart and good character.  He promised that if anything happened to Bobtail Bull and his fellow scouts that “their reward will not be forgotten by the government.”

It is said that a good scout who was promoted as Bobtailed Bull was promoted, could earn more than the $13/month paid most soldiers and in some cases earned as much as $50/month

Sgt. Bobtail Bull was one of the first under Custer to fall at Little Big Horn. That was despite the fact that Custer would not use his scouts as a fighting force except for skirmishes. Bobtail Bull, however, boasted of his experience in fighting the Sioux and stood ready for whatever battle commands Custer ordered.

Custer used the scouts to find the enemy, report their movement and act as couriers.  On the day of the Battle of Little Big Horn, Custer ordered Bobtail Bull and other scouts to “take the horses away from the Sioux camp. Take away as many horses as possible.”  Custer knew that a warrior on foot was no match for a soldier on horse.

Bobtail Bull's grave site is at Little Big Horn, one of the few Hidatsa Scouts in a marked grave off the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

Bobtail Bull’s grave site is at Little Big Horn, one of the few Hidatsa Scouts in a marked grave off the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

Bobtail Bull got separated from the rest of the troops. Sioux warriors grouped behind him, separating him from help and from escape.  A dense swarm of Sioux rode against him and he attempted to fall back. He was left as a solitary horseman, surrounded by circling warriors.  He was shot off his horse and so became one of the first to fall at the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Like Bobtail Bull, Red Bear, Boy Chief and others the scouts who served in the U.S. Army from 1866 to 1914 at most western forts, these scouts served with fidelity, placing their unique skills at the disposal of the frontier army.  To the shame of the U.S. Government, many of these brave soldiers were harshly treated after they served the U.S. Army.  For some, prison, poor health, disabilities or even death was the future they faced after serving the United States.  Many have been completely forgotten.

(A contemporary of Custer who worked with tribal members of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara left an influence on the people who remains today.  To learn of Harold Case’ missionary work see this link: http://wp.me/pOdPo-HP )

In 1979 the Old Scouts Society of White Shield was established. The group cares for and maintains Post #1 Cemetery at White Shield where several of the scouts of the Seventh Cavalry are buried alongside veterans of WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam.old scouts_0003

In 1983, the Fort McKeen Detachment, Old Scouts Society was officially formed. Organizers included the grandsons of Bears Belly who was one of the original scouts who served under Custer at Fort Lincoln.

The Fort McKeen Detachment of the Old Scouts Society is dedicated to correcting misconceptions about the scouts who served in the U.S. Army.  Members educate the public about the military scouts and work to keep alive the stories of how the historic scouts influenced American and North Dakota history.  They work to preserve and honor the gravesites of the scouts buried at Fort Abraham Lincoln south of Mandan.  They also help maintain the Old Scouts Cemetery west of Garrison, North Dakota on Highway 1804.

The Indian Scout Cemetery, also known as the Old Scouts Cemetery is near White Shield, North Dakota. On New Years Eve, 2014, it stood quietly against the setting sun.

The Indian Scout Cemetery, also known as the Old Scouts Cemetery is near White Shield, North Dakota. On New Years Eve, 2014, it stood quietly against the setting sun.

As often as possible, I go past the cemetery, usually on motorcycle. I stop to tend to fallen flags and other markers left to honor this group of war dead who contributed much but received so little recognition for their sacrifice.  old scouts_0001Have you taken the scenic drive past Garrison, up to Parshall on 1804?  Did you see the Old Scouts Cemetery?

(This article is excerpted from a script I wrote for a documentary on the Old Scouts Society — yet unproduced. It is the product of months of research at the Fort Berthold Library, the Three Affiliated Tribes Museum and the North Dakota State Historical Society. For more information see http://www.mhanation.com/main2/history.html)

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From elegance to atrophy, a Northern Pacific Railroad landmark disappears

A wooden passenger rail car once carried passengers across the U.S in an marketing effort, now it marks its decay in to the prairie.

A wooden passenger rail car once carried passengers across the U.S in a marketing effort for the rail company to promote tourism, now it marks its decay in to the prairie.

Once again, headed down Highway 2, we eyeballed the rail car in the middle of the gravel pit.  It was so out-of-place that we mentally marked its location between Minot and Williston.  Each time our curiosity grew.  We apparently were not the only ones.

rail car horz bw

After we posted an image on our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/beautifulbakken we got an overwhelming response from people wanting to know more.  A few chipped in what they knew of the steel-wheel reminder of another era.  Our search yielded very little, not much on-line.

At one time, the wooden rail car may have been similar to this.

At one time, the wooden rail car may have been similar to this.

“Wait a minute,” I said, “I know a guy.” One or two lifetimes ago I had met Fred back when I was a local weekly newspaper editor.  So, I called him, and he knew exactly what I was talking about.  He gave me a name and that’s where the search started.  From that name I got another name, and from that name a third name, name after name, I finally got to the owner, Robert.  He seemed like a nice enough guy talking to him on the phone, so I asked to meet with him to get more information on the car.  “Yeah, I’ll meetcha on Monday.  I’ll bring my briefcase.”

Briefcase?  What had we gotten in to?  Were we about to go head to head with some high-powered negotiator who kept his life in his briefcase?

We knew where we were going, we just didn’t know how to get there.  We followed his directions and the snow tracks in to the farm-yard, past the house to where a pickup truck was parked outside a large metal farm shop.  That was about as good a sign as any that the man with the briefcase was nearby.

The shop door was locked.  I called him on the phone and after a couple of minutes, he unlocked the door from inside.   Were we about to meet the high-powered negotiator with a briefcase?  No. Robert was anything but; in his late 60’s, smiling, charming, a bit of a silver pony tail under his cowboy hat.

Robert met us with a warm casual greeting.  “Hi there! C’mon in!”  He held the door open, we made introductions and he ushered us through a large shop building that most farmers would be glad to have. Equipment parked neatly in the dark room on the dirt floor.   “Go on back,” he said and we threaded our way to another door on the back wall.  We had just been in the foyer. We got back in to his brightly lit, clean and colorful domain. LQ-1-4Here, an extra-large shop housed a wooden cook wagon for a cattle drive, an old John Deere, and old Ford tractor and an endless selection of well-organized memorabilia extending as far as the eye could see in his shop – and a couple of recliners next to a table.  This was Robert’s “office.”

He opened the brief case, and out came the goods.  He had it all.  “Here’s a letter to the railroad history group,” he started.  “Here are stories, and here is a diagram.”

The original layout and design of the wooden rail car.

The original layout and design of the wooden rail car.

Robert told us how the spur started up a slope to the north and the rail company could let cars roll back in to the gravel pit then load them before being pulled out by an engine.  He said that was how the fancy wooden passenger car got in to the gravel pit.  Then later, a crane lifted it off the tracks, set it on the ground to become a bunk house and office — from 1st class passenger car to gravel pit bunk house. He said, “The Mountrail County Historical Association wanted to move it to Flickertail Village in Stanley.”

The drawings and illustrations showed the car at one time was quite ornate.  “Yeah, it had stained glass windows and a lot of fancy work on it, but vandals got in there and broke all the glass and pretty well tore it up,” he said.

The long windows n top and the arched windows in the side were stained glass.

The long windows n top and the arched windows in the side were stained glass.

“Senseless,” we shook our heads.  “Why do people destroy things like that?”

The interior bears the marks of vandals and weather.

The interior bears the marks of vandals and weather.

Robert is a good conversationalist, good to talk to. He took us back in time to show us his restored antiques and rare collectibles, including brass hinges and door knobs.  He’s a collector and a wealth of regional history – a wealth to uncover with patience and time.

However, we were on our way to Williston and couldn’t spend much time with him, so we made a disappointing departure – our disappointment because Robert is a rare life-long fixture of the prairies.  We told him, we’d like to come back and he said that would be good.

He had given us a start. From the newspaper stories of years ago, the drawings and letters, we learned enough about the rail car to hunt for more information on-line.  Just as Robert had said, Barney and Smith Company of Dayton, Ohio built the car in 1906.  The company started 70 years earlier, before the Civil War by two men who met at a local Baptist Church in the 1840’s.   barneysmith_ad1They built rail cars and eventually inner-city trolleys.

This rail car, parked along Highway 2 in Mountrail County, North Dakota had been all over the upper Midwest pulled by the Northern Pacific rail company before selling it to the Great Northern Railway.

A similar car carried Teddy Roosevelt through Fargo in 1912

A similar car carried Teddy Roosevelt through Fargo in 1912

The N.P. built the line through southern North Dakota and Montana, from Fargo, Bismarck and on to Billings and west.  It invested heavily in a new idea called “Yellowstone Park” and helped pay for the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone.  N.P recovered it’s investment by promoting tourist trains from the east, across the prairies to the Rockies and to Yellowstone National Park.  Tourists paid to travel by N.P. rail for a day or two to get to near Billings, and then take an N.P. spur to Yellowstone. The gravel pit rail car was likely one of the cars the N.P. used to carry passengers.

The Northern Pacific built the rail line through southern ND and MT, built and promoted Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone, then attracted tourists to ride the line to near Billings and then to Yellowstone.

The Northern Pacific built the rail line through southern ND and MT, built and promoted Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone, then attracted tourists to ride the line to near Billings and then to Yellowstone.

In 1941, The Northern Pacific sold the rail car to the Great Northern Railroiad, the company that ran the northern line across North Dakota and Montana.  The Great Northern. used the rail car as a bunker car for workers at the gravel pit.  Between 25 and 50 workers, earning $1.80/hour lived in nearby Blaisdell or at the pit, some turned the rail car in to a temporary home and office for the gravel pit.  The G.N.. used the gravel for rail beds until it became apparent that the gravel in the pit was too smooth and round; a sharper-edged granite was needed.  The G.N.. abandoned the site in 1958, pulled up the tracks, but left the rail car.  The Mountrail County Historical Society floated the idea of moving the car to the Flickertail Village in Stanley, but when the group learned the car had no wheels, it abandoned the plans, and the car was left to rot.

rail car wood siding vignette sgntre

Robert gave us permission to check out the rail car when we got the chance. Vandals and thieves have stripped the car of most of its detail, unless you look very closely.

DSC_4796DSC_4800 (1)

We found it wasn’t hard to imagine the stately high-end decor of the car.   It has a spirit about it, a feel that causes a visitor to slip in to a romantic nostalgia of another era.

rail car porch vignette signtre

It’s an impressive structure, about 70-feet long, but I don’t think I’d trust the floor or the walls.  Weather has done its thing for the last half century. It wasn’t difficult to imagine standing on the back deck and watch the woodlands of Minnesota turn in to prairies of eastern North Dakota, and then the ruggedness of the Badlands and finally the kingly Rocky Mountains.

rail car end vigntte sgntre

Our few minutes with the old rail car would have been longer if it were not so cold and windy.  We shot around the car from different angles.  It’s a horizontal monolith of the prairie.  It’s a reminder that today’s industry in the Badlands of North Dakota, the Bakken is not a new phenomena, that the region has been home to different industrial enterprises for decades.  Wooden rail cars dot the prairie as farmers converted them to shops and storage space.  We’d like to find more, are there any near you?  What can you tell us about the abandoned rail cars in your part of North Dakota?

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The “new” Maah Daah Hey Deuce opens new explorations

Get out of your vehicle to explore the Badlands, the Bakken Oil region of North Dakota.

Get out of your vehicle to explore the Badlands, the Bakken Oil region of North Dakota.

Near the Ice Caves along the Maah Daah Hey trail, two bicyclists navigate the easy part of the ride, through the grass before hitting the trail

Near the Ice Caves along the Maah Daah Hey trail, two bicyclists navigate the easy part of the ride, through the grass before hitting the trail

Exploring western North Dakota outside the comfort of your vehicle is possible for nearly everyone. You can pick a comfort level on the Maah Daah Hey Trail and enjoy the region that matches your physicality.  Portions of the trail are wide, easy and flat through the grasslands.

The turtle markers of the Maah Daah Hey trail guide travelers along the prepared route, but you don't have to stick to the trail, you are free to wander on public lands.

The turtle markers of the Maah Daah Hey trail guide travelers along the prepared route, but you don’t have to stick to the trail, you are free to wander on public lands.

Other portions are challenging. The Deuce is a bit of both. It’s not even a year old yet, but it’s getting a fair amount of attention.

Next to the Deuce trail, an outcropping of rocks, a shelf, invite hikers to walk along the side of a butte.

Next to the Deuce trail, an outcropping of rocks, a shelf, invite hikers to walk along the side of a butte.

Custer Trail, the route of the 7th Cavalry passes by the Deuce

Custer Trail, the route of the 7th Cavalry passes by the Deuce

It starts south of Medora near the Custer Trail and is about 40 miles long, and extension to the south of the original 100 miles to the north. Its real name is Maah Daah Hey II, the second reach of the world-famous cross-country trail. It snakes across hills and valleys until it reaches near Amidon and the Burning Coal Vein.  At the south end, the trail, as we explored it last winter is fairly easy. Like the 100 miles to the north, the trail is great for hiking, biking and horseback riding. With a series of camp grounds on the route, a multi-day hike, bike or horseback ride will now take a person 140 miles from near Amidon in the southwest to near Watford City in the northwest. Previously it was about 100 miles from Medora north to near Watford City. Easter Sunday, we looked for an early-season hike to celebrate Resurrection Sunday in God’s creation.

The road to where Custer and the 7th Cavalry crossed the Little Missouri River

The road to where Custer and the 7th Cavalry crossed the Little Missouri River

Out of curiosity we  first took a bit of a detour before heading out on the Deuce.  We drove toward the Little Missouri River, following map markers to check the Custer Trail.  If the Forest Service map is correct we drove a quarter-mile or so on the actual trail, then got out and walked where Custer and the 7th Cavalry crossed  the Little Missouri River.  On the other side, we could identify the pass on the west side of the river where the 7th Cavalry undoubtedly marched to Little Big Horn. Then we doubled back to catch a good start place on The Deuce, parked the truck, packed our day-packs and camera gear and started out on an easy grassy stretch—for a while.   Deuce crocus 1deuce crocus 3   Along the way we saw several signs that spring is here, that there is new life after a long cold winter. Like some people celebrate the first robins, ranchers and prairie folk celebrate the first crocuses of spring.

The Deuce starts out gently as grasslands before getting in to rougher terrain.

The Deuce starts out gently as grasslands before getting in to rougher terrain.

We used the Forest Service map of the National Grasslands, checked the topography of the region and found a place where narrow lines on the map indicated steep terrain. At first it didn’t seem accurate because the start was so easy and flat. Then the valley opened up to some of the greatest hiking in the southern part of the Maah Daah Hey. (Generally speaking the southern sections of the Badlands are smoother, less rugged, and “older” than the northern end.)

The valley along the Deuce to the west.  The red hills are scoria.

The valley along the Deuce to the west. The red hills are scoria.

We didn’t go too far, just a couple miles, but in that space we came to the kind of terrain we were looking for. The narrow, hill-hugging trail wrapped around a butte, along a ridge and over a crest to give us a view of miles of The Badlands, the Bakken region of North Dakota.

The Deuce wraps around a bluff and follows a narrow ridge.

The Deuce wraps around a bluff and follows a narrow ridge.

Our Easter Sunday ham (sandwich) dinner and communion were in a sheltered area high on the ridge and out of the wind.

Easter Sunday's ham dinner resting spot next to a petrified log.

Easter Sunday’s ham dinner resting spot next to a petrified log.

From there we could look back to the pass where we had been earlier that afternoon, where the Custer and the 7th Cavalry crossed the Little Missouri and headed west through a pass.

In the distance, the low cut of the hills is likely where Custer and the 7th Cavalry marched 140 years ago.

In the distance, the low cut of the hills is likely where Custer and the 7th Cavalry marched nearly 140 years ago.

We could look the other direction and saw a reminder that it is not 1876; a Burlington Northern train pulled its way from Fryburg to Medora before heading west to Montana.

A Burlington Northern train heads north from Fryburg to Medora and west to Montana

A Burlington Northern train heads north from Fryburg to Medora and west to Montana

It’s our intention to go back to The Deuce to follow it closer to the Burning Coal Veins.  It’s a worthy addition to the Maah Daah Hey trail.  What would it take for you to explore The Deuce? Get more tips to visiting the North Dakota Badlands. Follow me here on Facebook at Beautiful Bakken https://www.facebook.com/beautifulbakken Or check out the website featuring western North Dakota and Badlands http://www.beautifulbakken.com

TR’s Elkhorn Ranch is easy, but not always.

Undeveloped historic site, the Elkhorn Ranch.

Teddy Roosevelt’s backyard at the Elkhorn Ranch. The house stood on the foundation blocks which are all that’s left of his ranch home

Off the beaten path – it’s exactly where Teddy Roosevelt wanted to be in 1883 – and so the Elkhorn ranch became his refuge. He’d just suffered a string of losses, including the deaths of his wife and his mother.  To get his life back on track he went where others have gone for more than 100 years – and you can go there too, if you’re willing to get off the beaten path.

Teddy Roosevelt in his buckskins as a  Badlands rancher

About 20 years before he became the 26th U.S. President, Roosevelt lived the life of a wilderness rancher.

To find the healing place TR called home for many years, you’ll travel more than 25 miles of gravel road through wilderness ranch area.  It’s a place of few people and many miles.  “The lives of such places were strangely cut off from the outside world,” TR wrote. “The whole region is one vast grazing country.”

To the ear, there is a great amount of peacefulness, but that does not mean quiet. Birds carry on loud conversations, particularly in the early morning and evening.  The wind itself is a sound that travels the musical octaves. In the evening, it’s the melody of the coyotes’ songs you’ll hear.

To the eye, distance and color become a stimulating visual entertainment.  When you think you can see no further in the distance, the next hill-top will unveil further horizons.  When you think you know what green looks like you’ll find more variations in the landscape – or in the autumn, brown takes on a rainbow of variations.

Teddy Roosevelt raised cattle, hunted and lived in these hills surrounding his Elkhorn Ranch

Teddy Roosevelt raised cattle, hunted and lived in these hills surrounding his Elkhorn Ranch.  A thin red ribbon shows the road to his ranch.

The Elkhorn Ranch site is a national treasure, undeveloped and barely marked. We needed a good map to find it; the U.S. Forest Service map is perfect for a search like this.  After a bit, we began to recognize the repeated Elkhorn sign posts directing us further down the road.

It's easy to get lost in the Badlands, if it were not for road signs like these, including the one to the TR ranch

The small sign with an Elkhorn icon indicates the way to the ranch.

The campground up the road from the Elkhorn Ranch site offers a bit of protection from the hot Badlands sun.  Tent camping is more than sufficient with the campground’s supply of water, firewood, and privacy.  Even though, we were in a public campground, it was still much like getting away from it all. In fact, one night, there were only two other campers in the campground.

To really get away from it all, a short hike up the hill to the north gave us a glimpse of the road we’d follow to get to the campground. The red scoria road winds down through the bottom ground trees to the clearing where Roosevelt set up his ranch.

The scoria road to the national landmark of Teddy Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch.

The scoria road to the national landmark of Teddy Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch.

The Elkhorn Ranch site is undeveloped, so it will exercise your imagination skills to envision what it was like 150 years ago.

“Just in front of the ranch veranda is a line of old cottonwoods that shade it during the fierce heats of summer, rendering it always cool and pleasant.  But a few feet beyond these trees comes the cut-off bank of the (Little Missouri) river. … The shallow stream winds as if lost.”

— from Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail by Theodore Roosevelt 

elkhornranch

 

The Little Missouri River is a wilderness through-route today, just as it was for Roosevelt.  It is a challenge to canoe or kayak, and the spring seems to be the best time to attempt a float, but it’s always a beautiful walk through the Badlands where Roosevelt ranched.

The Little Missouri River in front of the Elkhorn Ranch house.

The Little Missouri River in front of the Elkhorn Ranch house.

“The stream twists down through the valley in long sweeps, leaving oval wooded bottoms, first on one side and then on the other; and in an open glade among the thick-growing timer stands the long, low house of hewn logs.”

— from Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail by Theodore Roosevelt 

We have hiked, canoed and driven the Little Missouri River as it flows northward from Wyoming and Montana to the confluence near Williston, North Dakota.  It’s a pleasant and non-stressful hike to follow its river banks. It’s easy to see why Roosevelt wrote often and vividly of the river.  We recommend hiking the river trails near the ranch.  Hiking the hills, bluffs and buttes above the Elkhorn is a minimal challenge to anyone is good condition and who has hiked some of the rougher terrains further downstream.(See the post on hiking the Long X Trail along the Little Missouri River — http://wp.me/pOdPo-Gi ).

Elkhorn campground sgntre

The Elkhorn Ranch campground offers shade next to the trees — a rare luxury in the nearly tree-less Badlands. The white dot along the campground road is my pickup at our campsite.

While the riverbank hike is enjoyable and calming, it’s the views from top that exhilarate.  Not only are the views mind-numbingly expansive, but there’s a sense of accomplishment from having hiked to the top of what appears to be an unpassable slope.  The key is “switchbacks.” It’s wise to never get in a hurry when heading up to higher ground – don’t attempt to go straight up.  Follow gentle rises back and forth across the face of the hillside, pausing to not only catch your breath, but to scope out the next set of switchbacks to take you to the next level.

Once at the top, you can see why Roosevelt lived here. He built his stamina and his skill at strategic thinking.  You can get a sense of the challenges he faced as an Easterner turned rancher.  When picking a trail for his cattle, or just for himself to get to Medora or Dickinson, Roosevelt planned his route. It was not easy to get any where.  He wrote, “The course outlies across great grassy plateaus, along knife-like ridge crests, among winding valleys and ravines, and over acres of barren, sun-scorched buttes.”

The Elkhorn ranch area is undeveloped and perhaps that’s best. It gives a visitor a chance to see Roosevelt’s nature as it was when he was here, an experience that prompted him to establish conservation measures and advance the national park system. Thanks to his time in these valleys and hills, Theodore Roosevelt became “the conservation president,” and doubled the number of sites within the National Park system. As President from 1901 to 1909, he signed legislation establishing five new national parks.

For the day-visitor it’s a moment of spiritual rest, visual stimulation, and a sense of accomplishment when you climb a hill, turn, and look back at how far you’ve come – a good life lesson.

What would it take to make you want to check out the site — accessibility, directions, time?

Elkhorn hills

The Elkhorn ranch trip is part of the exploration of Beautiful Bakken.

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Riding in to Medora

Riding in to Medora

Summer in North Dakota means at least one ride to the old west town of Medora. It’s an unparalleled ride in North Dakota, and on August 4, I headed out there to see how successful tourism officials were with their first promoted biker gathering in town.

Hangin' out in Medora

While the event itself was nothing to speak of, the ride, the town and the scenery are always top drawer.  In fact, an ebook to be published next spring of Great North Dakota rides will highlight Medora as one of the great rides in the state. (kickstands up)

Riding in to TRNP

Shooting bikes in Medora on this day was one of my favorite shoots of the summer.  I positioned myself where ever I thought I’d catch a motorcycle riding in or out of town. I didn’t get there until mid-to late afternoon, so I only had an hour or so to shoot. BIG MISTAKE.  There is no hurry-up in Medora.

A Medora Street Musician

Don’t make the same mistake. Take your time, enjoy the Theodore Roosevelt National park, ice cream on main street, or even the local variety of a street musician. 

The North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame and the remnants of the Medora Packing plant tell a story around which you can wrap your mind and imagination, harkening back to a romantic period of Americana.

December 26 – McLean County basks in winter sun

Last winter for McLean County Courthouse

Exiting 2010 gives everyone a chance to catch a glimpse of something they won’t see again.  Yes, a year gone by, but so will be this stately seat of local government — the McLean County Courthouse.  It’s a health hazard. It’s been standing on the hill overlooking the Missouri River for 100 years.  It’s had a couple of upgrades but now it’s in such bad shape it is will be replaced. It took two elections for voters to approve the replacement, but by December 2011, this will not be the scene.  One of the last Romanesque courthouses will be gone.

Some places in North Dakota hang on even though they’ve outlived their usefulness. That’s the story with this abandoned farm house south of Washburn.  Though it’s been empty for decades, it still resists winter’s blows and snows.

Images of days gone by, captured by camera will be  increasingly rare. As courthouses and other stately structures give way to modern buildings, I hope to capture all I can of what once was.