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Celebrating our two-lane highways of yesteryear…And the joys of driving them today!

National Parks Highway - Lewis & Clark, Olsons And Red Trail

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This is a great adventure, and it has taken me through the most beautify country imaginable, introduced me to some great people, and filled my heart and mind with the joys of this great country. This morning I drove out to Makoshiko State Park outside Glendive, Montana expecting your standard grass and picnic tables, and instead was treated to miles of the most fascinating badland formations imaginable. One vista seemed to present an impossible geologic structure with streams running fully around mountains.


I put the top down and turned the stereo up with Placido Domingo, perhaps not your traditional road music, but an early morning with the clouds parting over a vast and beautiful landscape called for something uplifting, and he always has that effect on me.


For the past seven days I have been doing my scouting, photographing bridges, the old road, hotels, and even a garage or two that all existed when the National Parks Highway was one of two widely recognized routes between Chicago and the Puget Sound. And I saw what may be the only remnant of National Parks Highway signage, a faint P__K_ on a bridge just west of Sanders, MT. Harold Meeks who wrote a book about the Yellowstone Trail saw it in the late 1990's and noted that it was well faded. The last ten or more years have just about erased it. If I didn't know what it was, and where to look, I would have had to be a forensic scientist to identify it. Big deal to me, but not to anyone else. But the bridge is clearly on the NPH.










Speaking of big deals the National Parks Highway and the Yellowstone Trail follow the Yellowstone River for miles and are within a stone's throw of the route Lewis and Clark traveled. Sacajawea's son was called Pomp by William Clark, and Pompey's Pillar was named by Clark for Pomp. Clark carved his name half way up the pillar to mark the expedition's passing. His signature carved in the rock still exists and is of course protected by a glass covering.












It is the only sign if the expeditions passing anywhere on their route. I climbed the 100 stairs up to the site, and wished I kept myself in better shape. But it was worth every bead of sweat. I am a follower of Lewis and Clark and seeing that carving was moving.


Coming into Miles City, I was reminded of Alex, our man about Hudsons. In front of me was a nice little Hudson Jet, with Montana plates. I followed him around a few blocks in town, hoping maybe he would stop or lead me to a vintage auto show, but no luck. I did get a grab shot through the windshield.






I have seen quite a few great bridges from the auto trails era (which I sort of look at as ending in 1926 when we got our national numbering system.) along this route. I can't post each of them, and the same goes for the hotels and garages from the same period. Time just won't permit it, but the 1925 Glendive Bell Street bridge across the Yellowstone River stands out because of it length. It no longer carries traffic but you can walk it.





In the category of great people, I stopped at Olson's Service Station in Sentinel Butte, North Dakota. A huge rain cloud was gathering and I wanted to get a couple of quick photos of the old station before it started to pour. I sort of felt that I should buy something if I was going to photograph the place, so decided to go in. When I walked inside several members of the community were gathered around a table talking. I don't remember what I said, but knowing me I'm certain I interrupted.



Before I tell you about Olson's and the fine folks there, I have to say something about Sentinel Butte. I don't think there is a paved road that reaches it, but it had at least two hotels and a couple of garages in 1917 when the National Parks Highway went through it. I know because they are listed in the guide. In 1917 it had a population of 347.


Today, the only businesses I recall were the service station and the post office. Maybe the big grain silo is also a business. Old and largely abandoned US 10 went through the north end of town, and that's where Olson's Service Station sits. The interstate is at least 2 miles away over dirt road. Today the population of Sentinel Butte is under 50, and we all know there is no need for a service station there. But Rick, the owner is second generation Olson's Service Station, and he says the town needs a place to gather. You won't find a nicer guy between Seattle and Chicago.


Rick's Dad owned the place before Rick did, and his Dad was also Post Master, so I guess he had the employment market in Sentinel Butte pretty well cornered. Rick's Dad was one of the folks at the table, and like all of them, he was friendly and ready to trade some chat with a city boy.


There folks are proud of their community, and they should be. And like so many small town people, they would take you in and feed you in a heart beat if you gave them a chance. Maybe its the old west tradition of putting up the stranger who appears at your gate. I don't know, but Rick was determined to share the vittles he had spread out for his friends. I had just had breakfast an hour before, so I begged off the watermelon, potato salad and corn on the cob, but I couldn't pass up the venison jerky sausage, spiced with jalapeno. I even took a second.


I can't do these good folks justice, with my words or photos, but I promise that anyone will find people like this in every little town along our heritage roads. I am an inherently a bashful person, but once you show an interest in their community, small town people are proud to share it with you. They won't let you feel shy.





I learned the location of every hotel and garage the town had ever had, and Rick's Dad promised to show me every site if I came back through. I haven't mentioned that the station and Dad was highlighted on an Oprah Show, and Harry Smith, who I thought was maybe a presidential candidate, had been there. Dad was a little miffed that I didn't watch more TV, so I told him that it was enough that some of his fame was wearing off on me..... just being there!


Good people, in a really good place to be.


Oh, did I mention that the National Parks Highway remains a secret? Through Montana where the two overlap, it is recognized as the Yellowstone Trail. When we parted at Fallon, I breathed a little sigh because I thought from here on, its the National Parks Highway. But when I mentioned the National Parks Highway at Olson's, they recognized it as the Red Trail...which is how it is recognized today in North Dakota.


And I think I know why it is the Red Trail, the dirt they used to build it is red. At least the parts I have thus far traveled in North Dakota are usually red.






Keep the Show on the Road!

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There are literally hundreds of those small town scattered throughout that area - Montana, North and South Dakaota. They don't hold many people; they don't attract big box stores; they just exist out there on the edge of nowhere.

I know, from traveling with my late friend, Cloyd, thru Montana that the definition of a small town in Montana is any place that has 3 things - a name, a post office and a bar!!! There are people in these towns - but this is ranch country and some of those ranches are huge affairs, in terms of land. So the post office serves the ranches and the bar is a convenient place to stop and catch up with the local news. The ranchers go into the nearest larger town - out there you're talking miles - for provisions.

I liked the bridge shots - and the Hudson Jet. Those are nice little cars to run around in. In case anybody's wondering about the high roof line, Frank Spring designed the car with a lower roof line - but the company president, A. E. Barit, had a mind mired in the 1930's. He decreed the higher roofline so "a gentleman would have clearance for his hat!!!" In the minds of many that high roofline really destroyed the overall look of what Spring designed.



Alex Burr

Memphis, TN

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This is a great adventure...

It certainly is, David! And an inspiring one. The all-but-gone P__K on the bridge near Sanders and Olsen's Service Station (and Gathering Place) almost make the trip worth while by themselves while Clark's 1806 "tag" puts it over the top. And that's just one section. I certainly have to get that northern tier of states (ID, MT, ND) off of my never-been-there list.


Alex: The tall roof did catch my eye and I wondered if the car might have targeted the taxi business. The truth is much more interesting.

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I'm sitting here thinking that I should have quit my job, flown out your way, and ridden along on this trip. It just might have been worth every moment of upheaval in my life when I returned, to have seen these places and met these people.


I am hanging on your every photograph. I can't pick a favorite this time; I like them all too much.




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I'm much enjoying the accounts of your journey!

Akin to your mention of Lewis & Clark, I'm currently researching taverns on Gen. Braddock's Road, circa 1770s, in Allegany County, MD. The approximate route of Braddock's Road was the predecessor of the Cumberland (National) Road. If memory serves, I believe Lewis passed through this area at least once.


~ Steve

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  • 2 weeks later...

Sacajawea's son was called Pomp by William Clark, and Pompey's Pillar was named by Clark for Pomp. Clark carved his name half way up the pillar to mark the expedition's passing. His signature carved in the rock still exists and is of course protected by a glass covering.


It is the only sign if the expeditions passing anywhere on their route. I climbed the 100 stairs up to the site, and wished I kept myself in better shape. But it was worth every bead of sweat. I am a follower of Lewis and Clark and seeing that carving was moving.


We visited Pompey's Pillar back in October 2003, and the gate was closed for the season, but there was a sign stating that we were welcome to walk the lane back to the site. I fondly remember walking over half a mile from the highway back to the pillar with my wife and our kids who were 6 and 4, then climbing up all of the steps there to view the historic graffiti, and then walking the half mile back to the car. Hopefully the gate was open when you visited :).



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