I’ve been getting ready to present my Humanities Montana program, “Sidesaddles and Geysers” at the Huntley Irrigation Project Museum at 7 p.m. on Friday, September 26. I usually try to localize my presentations, but that’s been difficult this time. After all, irrigation isn’t a big topic in Yellowstone Park history. But I dug though my collection of more that 350 stories of early travel to Yellowstone Park and finally found a candidate—tale of how a Montana rancher armed with only a shovel and a canvass dam stopped a Northern Pacific Railroad construction crew literally in its tracks.
Fred Bottler came to Montana during the gold rush, but after he failed to strike it rich he decided to take up ranching. In December 1867, Bottler headed east from Bozeman over Trail Creek Pass to the Paradise Valley of the Yellowstone River. He traveled 12 miles down the creek to a spot where he could see the jagged peaks of the Absaroka Mountains carving the skyline. Bottler also could see brown grass that he knew would turn green with the spring rains, and pine forests that grew above the foothills. Land, water and timber. Bottler must have thought, this is the perfect spot for my ranch.
He started to unload his plow near the mouth of Trail Creek. Then he saw a group of Crow braves maneuvering across the Yellowstone River. He loaded the plow back on his wagon and drove his horses farther south to a spot across the valley from where miners worked their gold claims in Emigrant Gulch. The miners would not only deter Indians, they also would provide a ready market for the things Bottler would raise.
Bottler staked his claim where springs bubbled out of the mountains and formed streams that provided water for irrigation. Soon he had crops of hay, grain and vegetables. He raised pigs and cured hams and sides of bacon. Bottler milked cows and made butter in a churn turned by a small water wheel. He didn’t confine himself to agriculture. Fred often left management of the ranch to his brother, Phil, and hired out as a guide. He is conspicuously mentioned in several explorers’ journals including those of Philetus Norris, Ferdinand Hayden, and the Earl of Dunraven.
After the Northern Pacific Railroad finished America’s second transcontinental line in 1883, its next order of business was building a spur to Yellowstone Park. Construction crews began in Livingston and headed up the Paradise Valley. They cut ranchers’ fences and took whatever right-of-way they wanted. After they passed through a rancher’s land, they paid him whatever they pleased.
On the morning when Fred Bottler figured the railroad crew would reach his land, he told his wife to let him know when they got to his fence and went out to work. Probably, he carried a shovel and a pole with a square of canvas nailed to it. With such equipment, an irrigator can divert a stream and spread water flooding across dry land. A skilled irrigator can work the magic of making water appear to run uphill. Bottler irrigated a hundred acres of land; doubtless, he could direct water wherever he wanted.
Fred’s wife told him when the crew reached his fence, and he went to negotiate, but the railroad men had already began to cut the wires. Bottler used his canvas dam to divert a nearby stream in front of the railroad route threatening to mire the work in mud. As Yellowstone Park historian, Aubrey Haines put it: “The legal formalities were swiftly attended to.”
I’ll tell that story to my audience at the Huntley Irrigation Museum, then I’ll turn to my regular presentation.
I’ll begin with stories my grandmother used to tell about her trip to the park in 1909 and her grandfather’s trip there in 1883. Grandma went to the park with her aunt, two brothers and seven cousin. Family lore has it that they took a cow with them to provide milk for the younger children. Grandma told about baking bread in a hot spring and said her father tossed her uncle’s red flannel underwear into Old Faithful to die it pink.
Then I’ll tell stories about the first women to visit Yellowstone Park. These brave ladies literally rode sidesaddle through the roadless wilderness in the 1870s. One of the most chilling stories is Emma Cowan’s tale of being captured by Indians in the park. Emma and her family went there in 1877, the year the Nez Perce fled their homeland in hopes of finding freedom in the buffalo country. Emma wrote a gripping account of watching Indians shoot her husband, George, in the head, and leaving him for dead, taking her, her sister and their brother captive.
After recounting Emma’s story, I’ll slow the pace with a different kind of adventure—Carrie Stahorn’s story of being caught in an October snow storm on the way to the Yellowstone Falls in 1880.
Then I’ll tell the story of a treacherous climb down Uncle Tom’s Trail that nearly ended with a woman tumbling down the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. I’ll end with a bit of humor—the story of budding romance when travelers who met on a six-day coach tour have a tough time saying good-bye.
That should leave time for questions, and maybe an encore. After the talk, of course, I’ll be available to sign copies of my books, Adventures in Yellowstone and Macon’s Perfect Shot.
— National Park Service Photo by William Henry Jackson, 1871.