In 1924 the State of Montana was regarded as a place for tourists to ignore.
It had the worst roads of any state in the union. There was an old saying, that when traveling over the gumbo roads in Montana you didn‚t drive over them, you took them with you. When you approached a road full of deep ruts you better be careful to pick the right one, you may not get out of it for 40 miles.
All tourists could be guaranteed a wonderful vacation or else an unpleasant experience. It was a land of wide open spaces with wood, water and miles of scenic sunsets and beautiful destinations. It was every creek or river with no thought of disease, and fire wood was always handy. With all the open country, nice camp sites were easy to find. All that was needed was roads — “then the tourists would come.”
Roads all followed old wagon roads which were very steep in places, sometimes the driver had to back up going over the hill. Some cars operated with a vacuum tank which sucked gas out of the tank into the carburetor. The tank had to be higher than the engine so in some cases depending on the make of the car, it was backed over the hill keeping the gas closer to the vacuum tank elevation.
If loaded too heavy the passengers had to get out and push, while hanging on to a rock or chunk of wood to place under a near tire to keep from rolling backwards should the motor stall.
In 1924 a new highway, dedicated by President Harding, was built crossing the continental divide at Pipestone Pass. It had many switch backs and a gentle grade. Along with other new roads being built, vacations horizons were expanded and far away places beckoned. It was now easy to travel several hundred miles a day and Yellowstone Park was a favorite destination.
The Butte Chamber of Commerce came up with the idea to call the road from Butte to Yellowstone Park the “Vigilante Trail” using the historic Vigilante number 3-7-77 as the logo for highway numbers. This was done as an effort to make Butte the jumping off place for Yellowstone Park.
There were hundreds of dirt roads all looking alike, so with the cooperation of businessmen from Silver Star, Twin Bridges, Sheridan, Alder, Virginia City and Ennis, the trail was marked so tourists would not get lost.
The first markers were made of sheet metal the size of the top of a round five gallon bucket, painted white with “Vigilante Trail” printed around the edge and 3-7-77 in the center. They were placed on posts, fence barns, rock outcroppings and cliffs that were visible to the public from the road.
Other signs were also painted on the giant boulders along the way to advertise local businesses. The paint must have been good quality because after 80 years some of the old signs are still visible on the rocks. These old signs could have been the start of the Burma Shave jingles that were so popular in later years. One I can still remember was advertising a restaurant in Silver Star.
“If you‚re hungry don‚t you weep,
Stop at Newt‚s and eat “Dirt” (then underneath in capital letters was one word)
Virginia City was known as the “Cradle of Montana History” and still had many operating gold mines. As a result there were many stores, restaurants and gas stations, also the Madison County Courthouse, many old buildings were still in use and were attractions. The Thompson Hickman Historical Museum was a fine new building and Boot Hill with the road agents graves could excite the imagination of everyone. Dredges were still turning the ground wrong side up, so it was a great place to stop en-route to Yellowstone Park.
After leaving Virginia City, Ennis was the last stop form there to the park, so from here camping was necessary. As mentioned before, the roads were all dirt and primitive. The cars were generally touring cars with a soft rubberized top of canvas, which was always laid down, to enjoy the sunshine, smells and the fresh breezes, but putting it back up in a high wind, that generally proceeds a rainstorm was not a pleasant experience.
Tourist camps were the forerunners of motels.
These were canvas wall tents with a board floor and a short wood side wall just high enough to give height enough to walk around inside. You would be greeted by a small sheet iron wood stove, an iron bed with steel springs and a canvas covered mattress, everyone carried their own bedding, food and cooking utensils. A table and few chairs or benches and an open place a kerosene lamp may be provided. Kindling was furnished to start a fire and a few sticks of wood, but the wood pile and an axe was always available close by. A bucket on a bench with a small mirror above on the wall and a wash basin was available and the water was from a well pump outside.
The campground office may carry a few staples, but nothing fresh, they were too isolated, although the mail would come through whenever the roads permitted. The last bath you had was when you left home and the next one was when you returned.
These conditions didn‚t bother people because they lived under some of these same conditions at home. Running water and inside plumbing was still a luxury found only in bigger cities. To anyone from a small town, ranch or farm it was still a way of life. Tourists today travel with comfort and luxury without worrying about roads or weather, but looking back I‚m sure all the parents, kids and dogs will never forget the old 3-7-77 Vigilante Trail.
As the old timers said, “just build a road and the tourists will find it.”
By Jim and Helen Edwards – 11/03/2004 Montana Standard