Early Days in the Forest Service
Volume 2

October 1955

By Charlie E. Powell
(Retired 1955)

I was employed on the Bitterroot Forest in 1911. In August of that year a band of sheep burned in the Burnt Fork fire as I recall, some 800 or 900 head. In October of that year, while working on Big Creek, we put our pack stock above the Narrows and erected a barricade across the trail. One of the horses tried to get around this barrier, slipped on the sloping bedrock, slid about 100 feet and fell off a cliff 50 or 60 feet into a deep pool in the creek below. We had quite a time getting him out. Except for a few scratches and being almost chilled to death after 12 hours in the water, the animal was O.K.

The "boys" on the old Selway were having some trouble with fire on Rhoda Creek in the late summer of 1918, and the Elk Summit-Blodgett Creek trail was in heavy use. The trail on the Montana side at Blodgett Pass was dangerous and a few pack horses had been killed by falling off of it. Three of us were sent by Ranger W. H. Young to improve the trail. We spent several weeks, as I remember, drilling rock by hand steel and blasting to widen the trail. One day I told the foreman I could hear cattle bawling. He said, "Boy, I think it's time you were going to town or the next thing you will be hearing bell birds. If you said you heard elephants trumpeting I would just as leave believe you." Nevertheless, I still maintained I could hear the cattle. A short time later we looked up the mountain to see a herd of cattle winding their way down the trail. I later learned that the owners had taken some 180 or so head up the Selway River to summer, and having no feed to return on, they decided that since cattle were bringing a little better price in Montana and they would have fresh feed to trail through, the cattle would be driven out on the Blodgett Creek trail. They were owned by Swingler and Cox.

In September 1918, I met a prospector, Old Billie Evans, on the trail. He told me that he burned upper Blodgett Creek in 1881 because "there were too damn many windfalls" for his pack stock to get through.

In August 1919, I noticed the sourdough batter that a Frenchman then living on the South Fork of the Bitterroot was mixing up, was full of vinegar flies. I told him he was getting too "toney" for me. He said, "How's that?" I told him because he was putting currants in the sourdough batter. He replied, "Hell, he not currants, that's them damn little flees." I did not eat hotcakes that day.

Also in August of that year, Ranger Jim Vance showed me the graves of the Rombo party that had been killed by Indians. This was on Ronibo Creek, and I doubt if this spot has been marked.

In October 1919, I noticed a party of Indians camped at Fales Flat on the West Fork, now called Nezperce Fork. This was the last time I ever saw them "boxing" yellow pine either to use for medicine or to eat. There is still evidence of this on the "cat-faced" trunks.

That same month, while hunting for a pack string on the headwaters of Schofield Creek, Nezperce Forest (now Bitterroot), I ran across a platform made of poles and about 15 feet high. On top lay a human skeleton. I got out of there and never returned. No one would believe me, and I had no desire to go back to prove what I had seem.

Christmas Eve, 1919, while descending the slope on the Montana side of Blodgett Pass, I heard what I thought to be thunder. Looking back over my shoulder, I could see the whole mountain moving down. Running as fast as I could on snowshoes, I just managed to reach the old-growth timber when the slide passed. It had gained such momentum by the time it reached the creek that it went up the other side enough to set the south side in motion, which resulted in two slides piling up snow estimated to be 80 feet deep.

In August 1924 I spent 12 hours putting a ring around a two-acre fire on the divide between Skalkaho and Sleeping Child Creeks - with nothing to eat during that time. The forest officer who was to send aid and grub forgot.

December 16, 1924 at 4:00 p.m., farmers were still plowing fields in the Bitterroot Valley. At 10:00 p.m., a northeaster hit and temperatures dropped well below zero. At that time the Bitterroot Forest's pack stock was wintering on Piquett Creek. When the storm hit, the stock began to drift. The ranger who was looking after the stock that winter hunted for several days, but was unable to locate them. The supervisor, becoming somewhat alarmed, rounded up all of us younger rangers to go locate the stock.

The next morning we split up in three groups. About 3:00 p.m. the clouds parted just, for a second, and I happened to be looking the right way to spy them atop Piquett Mountain. The next morning we all took off at 4:00 a.m. to get the stock off the mountain. I don't remember just how long the stock had been there, but I do remember that everything, including bear grass had been eaten and they had even started on each other's Manes and tails. We had to beat them with clubs to get them to go down the mountain through the deep snow. We kept changing the leader and just literally poured the animals straight down the mountain over logs and rocks, and were successful in getting them to lower elevation and feed.

In August 1931, had a fire camp on the U.S. side of the line about five miles west of Gateway. The Canadian boys were camped just across the line from us. We had to haul water for our camp and they did likewise. A hot fire was burning further up the draw. A few days later the Canadians had to move because of water coming down the gulch, and later on water flowed into Montana. The ash from the burn seemed to puddle the stream bed.

In September 1944 fire burned out most of Conrad Creek on the St. Joe. A man by the name of Magers told me that his father had moved to Conrad Creek in 1896 and the creek dried up every summer. Since 1945 it has been running water.

Stockade used in defense against Indians, Big Hole Basin, Montana. Beaverhead National Forest, 1920.

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Last Updated: 15-Oct-2010