Monday, March 30, 2015


          My great-grandparents' journey over the Oregon Trail with their young children was filled with detours. Funds were scarce, so my great-grandfather, William Kirk, followed the developing railroad lines to find work. Some of these lines took the family far off the beaten trail west.
            They spent the winter of 1882 in a tent on an Indian reservation in Montana so William could take a job hauling freight from Missoula to railroad camps in the area. When spring approached, the freight-hauling work came to an end.
            William and another man then took a job hauling rock to rip-rap a river bank. (Rip-rapping is using loose stone to line a stream bank in order to prevent erosion.) When that task ended, it was April of 1883 and William was anxious to resume the trip to their planned destination--Washington Territory. Nearly a year had passed since they left Missouri, and they were still far from their goal.
            The distance between their camp in Montana and Spokane Falls, in Washington Territory, was only about 125 miles. However, the earliest date the road over the mountains would be open for wagon travel would be sometime in June. Rather than wait, William decided to backtrack the way they'd come--to Deer Lodge and southwest to the Idaho line.
            I can't help but wonder at my great-grandmother's reaction to this decision. For all intents and purposes, it was still winter where they were. They had six children, now ranging in age from 15 (my grandfather) down to a three-year-old. Living in a tent was no picnic, but traveling in a wagon through snow, ice, and mud wasn't going to be a stroll in the park, either. They left their winter camp on April 17. Seven days later, still in Montana, they arrived at Deer Lodge, a distance of 124 miles on today's roads. 
          In 1997, my husband and I retraced their route. This photo shows our "covered wagon" when we stopped for lunch between Birch Creek and Argenta. My husband is the sandwich maker at the tailgate of our pickup.
            The road south took them (and us) through a narrow canyon--boulders on one side and the creek on the other. Traveling down a 6200' pass, they passed through Argenta and Bannack. We probably drove over the same road they traveled.
Here's a photo of Bannack (now a preserved ghost town), taken in 1997.

On May 2, they reached the Idaho border. It snowed on that date, so they stopped for a couple of days to wait for the trail to open up again.

 Here's a photo of how it looked when we were there--old road, new signs! 

Soon they were traveling through the Idaho desert west of the lava beds (now a National Monument). On May 22, they reached Boise City, where they set up camp. In his memoir, my grandfather wrote, "This was the first time and place we had enjoyed any spring weather. People remarked when we came into town, 'These people are wearing their winter clothes.' "
            They camped there for at least two weeks, while William took a job transporting firewood to the Idaho State Penitentiary. June 14 found them crossing the Snake River into Oregon. At this point, they still had to travel north through Oregon before they reached Washington Territory.
            In September, 1883, they finally arrived in the area of Washington they had started for when they left home on May 12, 1882. They still needed to locate a homestead site, and another winter was coming on.
            But that's a story for another day.