In 1915, Yellowstone National Park was opened for automobile traffic, and in the first 10 days, 321 cars entered the park; 151 at the west entrance, 86 at the north entrance, 83 at the east entrance and 1 car entered at the south entrance.
Vacationers who were traveling from the Pacific Northwest on the Yellowstone Trail could use a cut-off road southeast of Butte, Montana, which was the shortest and most direct route to the west entrance of the park. This cut-off road was also a shorter distance than the main route to Livingston and the north entrance to the park at Gardiner that was promoted by the YTA.
To capitalize and to increase the traffic on this cut-off, the commercial interests of Butte organized a meeting on October 22, 1919, where 250 citizens from Silver Bow, Jefferson and Madison counties attended. The result of the meeting was the formation of the Vigilante Trail Association. The route was touted as a road, where almost every mile was the scene of a robbery, murder or hanging.
The trail began about 20 miles southeast of Butte at the junction of the Yellowstone Trail, at Cedar Ridge, and ran through the towns of; Twin Bridges, Sheridan, Nevada City, Virginia City, Ennis and terminated at the west entrance to Yellowstone Park.
The sign adopted for the route was a circle painted with red, white and blue stripes and included the mystic figures, "3-7-77." which was used by the Vigilantes to warn the criminals that their presence in the country was no longer desirable.
Near this junction of the two trails was the reputed spot where Sacagawea was captured by a hostile tribe and had to be rescued from her captors. Years later, she guided Lewis and Clark up the Jefferson River and they passed near the spot where she had been taken.
The trail ran on the old Ruby Valley Road through the historic gold mining district, of Alder Gulch and Virginia City. Virginia City is located 7 miles west of Alder Gulch and is one of the oldest settlements in the West. In the 1860s, it was the temporary home for thousands of placer miners.
This was a lawless place, where robbery and murder were the order of the day. The Road Agents, as the organized desperadoes were called, had control of the sheriff and the justice of the peace, and the good citizens were left without any protection for their rights, their property or their lives.
It all began with the discovery of gold on Grasshopper Creek near Bannack and at Alder Gulch near Virginia City in the spring of 1862. Word of the discovery reached the masses by the summer of 1863, which triggered a stampede of thousands of prospectors rushing to the region.
Among the later arrivals were desperadoes and outlaws, who scenting the prey from afar, flew like vultures to the carcass. From the west came a gang of thieves who would become the "Road Agents" and would terrorize and rob people who were traveling between Virginia City and Bannack.
Between these two mining camps, a correspondence was kept and the roads throughout the territory were under constant surveillance of the agents. They devised a system that would mark the horses, men and coaches that were worthy of robbing, and that information would be passed to the highwaymen in time before their victims could escape.
The road agents, who were also known as the “Innocents,” levied toll on every traveler by robbing and murdering with the greatest impunity. At every turn from Bannack to Virginia City, they held up stages, pack trains and individual miners, killing those who resisted, and beat those who had nothing.
So complete their sway, so stern their rule, more than 200 lives were lost along that road. Sheriff Henry Plummer was the chief and everyone knew it. He and some of his men eventually were hung at Bannack in 1864.
In 1870, the first chief justice of Montana Territory Hezekiah L. Hosmer had said; "The attraction brought those who came to work and those who came to profit off the labor of others. Had the convicts been set free by the approach of Napoleon, on the condition they burn Moscow, and had instead been thrown upon these new settlements, it could not have been worse than it was with the crowd that entered and took control of Bannack and Virginia City in 1862 and 1863.”
If a man brought suit to recover a stolen horse, he would be apt to meet in court with a band of dishonest witnesses who would swear that the contested property belonged to the thief. Thus the man was not only robbed of his property but had to pay the expenses of the suit as well.
Gambling and wild women were the main features of every mining camp and these activities were another place for the miners to lose their money. Ladies of the evening plied their trade in the open daylight and the brothels were the lures where many a man was entrapped for robbery and murder.
Dance houses sprang up and everyone who visited these establishments were in some way relieved of the money they brought with them. Many good men who dared to show any signs of disgust were shot down by a member of the gang at the first opportunity.
The headquarters of these desperadoes was at the Daley ranch otherwise known as the “Robbers’ Roost.” The old inn was located beside the road 4 miles southeast of Sheridan. Of all the villains and criminals who rested at the roost, the most renowned and despised of them all was George Ives, a ruthless servant of the devil.
This state of affairs could not go on forever. All of the friends of justice were relentlessly, threatened and watched by the agents. Things began to change when Virginia City and Nevada City formed a Vigilante Committee.
The committee was approved and supported by all those who had anything to lose, or who thought their lives were at risk. Merchants, miners, mechanics and professional men alike joined in the movement until, within an incredibly short space of time, the Road Agents were in a state of constant fear
George Ives was the first victim of the newly formed vigilante committee. They captured him not far from Robbers’ Roost. Ives was transported to Nevada City where they put him on trial. Ives begged to be taken to Virginia City claiming that the populace of the lower town must, be prejudiced against him, for he had once killed a dog that had bit him while he was there.
He was loaded with logging chains, hauled into court and on December 21, 1863, he was hanged. His companions in crime, Red Yager and G. W Brown, the bartender at the Robbers' Roost, were rounded up and hanged within the next two weeks.
The Vigilantes, now warmed up to their work, roamed up and down the trail, seeking desperadoes to devour. They traveled south to Bannack where they hanged Sheriff Plummer and his two deputies, Ray and Stilson.
They then rode over the pass to Deer Lodge and down to Hellgate, and on their way they hanged a half dozen assorted thieves and highwaymen. In all they executed extreme justice on 32 desperadoes.
They left one poor soul dangling from a tree that had the governor’s pardon. They hanged him with all of the official seals and ribbons sticking out of his pants pockets.
The Vigilantes soon rid Montana of the Road Agents and were the saviors of Montana.
On July 9, 1922, Frank Bell had just returned from a trip to Yellowstone Park and reported that the Vigilante Trail is the best road leading to the park.
"The Vigilante Trail is a boulevard all the way," said Mr. Bell "It's no trick at all to leave Butte early in the morning and make the west Yellowstone entrance to the park the same day. That's a jump of about 200 miles, but with the excellent roads it is not a tiresome drive.”
“I am sorry to state that the very opposite is true of the Yellowstone Trail. This transcontinental road is in very bad condition, and its main artery, the section on which the Yellowstone Trail association makes its effort to concentrate all travel from Livingston to Gardiner is a disgrace to any trail association and to the counties which are supposed to take care of the trail.”
“The road between Livingston and Gardiner is treacherously rough, badly cared for and in many stretches should be resurveyed before it can properly be designated as a road inviting the travel of all the country.”
The day Mr. Bell left Butte, he met a tourist who wanted to go to Yellowstone Park via the Yellowstone Trail through Bozeman and Livingston. He had by mistake turned onto the cutoff road for the Vigilante Trail at the top of Cedar ridge.
Bell told him he could get to the park that way and it was shorter, but he did not know the condition of the road. They both traveled all the way to West Yellowstone and before they got there, the tourist thanked Bell for putting him on the best road he had traveled for many miles.
Today a trip from Butte to West Yellowstone on the modern highway will take you about 2 hours and 24 minutes and a trip from Butte to Gardiner will take you about 2 hours and 28 minutes, a 4 minute difference.