The Mullan Road

Historical Descriptions of Travel on the Road

Philip Ritz, "Routes to Montana," Walla Walla Statesman, Septermber 11, 1866

            Summary: Ritz traveled the "Mullan Road" from Walla Walla to Fort Benton by horseback, reporting on the beauty of the country and the poor condition of the road. He returned by an even rougher road to the north end of Lake Pend Oreille, where boat travel had been established on the lake and on the Pend Oreille River. Ritz was able to travel the Mullan Road by horseback, and a few wagons got through, but he wants to see the road repaired and expanded to enable large wagons to pass. -- Fine descriptions of the countryside.

"Routes to Montana"

            Ed. Statesman: -- Having just returned from a tour to Montana, perhaps a few items in regard to the country and the different routes may be of interest to your readers.

            The route by the Mullan road is certainly one of the most beautiful, healthful and pleasant mountain roads on this coast to travel over at this season of the year. It is supplied with abundance of the finest grass, timber shade and the purest of waters. The finest mountain trout, weighing from one to six pounds, and salmon trout from eight to twenty pounds, can be caught in the streams, while the plains and timber abound with grouse, chickens, pheasants, deer, moose, elk, ibex, antelope, sheep, goats, bears, panthers and cougars, and the most sublime mountain “scenery,” altogether presenting one of the most delightful routes for travel on the coast.

            The valleys of the Bitter Root and Hell Gate are much larger than I expected to find away up there in the Rocky mountains, and are rapidly settling up with good, industrious, enterprising families.

            This season they have raised in those valleys about 30,000 bushels of wheat and 15,000 bushels of oats and barley, besides great quantities of vegetables.

            The grasshoppers have done them little or no damage this season in these valleys, and everything looks prosperous and cheerful.

            The mines are paying about an average with most of the mines in the northern country. They are deep and not easily prospected. I think the amount of gold that will be taken out in the aggregate, and all kinds of business will steadily increase in the next five years.

            I came home by the lake. [Lake Pend Oreille] The upper part of the trail by that route is very good, but the lower part, from Little Falls, to Cabinet mountain, 75 miles, is a most miserable trail, over rocks and sharp points, and a great deal of low ground, which must be very soft up the middle of June, and for the last 30 miles scarcely a spear of decent grass is found. It is altogether the most disagreeable portion of the whole 1,100 miles that I traveled over. It is also 26 miles further land travel than on the other route, with the addition of 65 miles on the lake, making 80 miles further from Hell Gate to the Spokane Bridge, the point where both roads pass, than it is via the Mullan route. The route is wild enough. For instance – one evening whilst quietly fishing under the banks of the Pen d’Oreille river, two enormous panthers sent up a most hideous yell, and in a moment a fine, large elk came dashing down the mountain side into the river, evidently intending to swim to the other side. At that instant he caught a glimpse of our camp-fire, stopped, gazed a moment at it, gave a loud snort and bounded off in another direction.

            The lake is a most beautiful little sheet of water, the mountains coming down in many places almost perpendicular to the water’s edge, while the lake is so deep that the water looks almost as blue as indigo.

            Messrs. Moody & Co. deserve great credit for risking their capital and time in opening up this lake route, and if their upper boats prove a success, and if they can make better time than can be made by the land route, it will be a great benefit to the traveling community. To the business man who has the means to spare, it will be much pleasanter to get on a boat and ride a hundred miles or so than to be thumping along through the dust and over the rocks on a tired “Cayuse.”

            But what the country most needs is a direct route opened up; one which heavy wagons, after loading at Walla Walla or some point on the river, can go directly through to the mines without unloading, and on which all military outfits, &c., with their teams and wagons, can pass free of cost, and over which the settlers from the lower valleys, with their teams and families and beds, can roll right along without detention, and over which the emigrant, who wishes to settle in our beautiful valley [Walla Walla] or go down to the coast, and has not the means to pay for taking his family and teams and wagons down on the boats, can roll right on over the mountains free of cost and find the best grass for his poor teams. These are considerations which I think demand the immediate opening of the Mullan road. To prove the practicability of the route, it is only necessary to say that nine wagons, with families of women and children, have gone safely over the road this season, and I intend to take a wagon with a span of horses and 1000 pounds of freight over it in October.
            I examined the route carefully, frequently getting off my horse and examining the grades on either side of the trail, and I know that when the road is properly located and graded, and the bridges placed above high-water mark, there will be no better mountain stage road on this coast, and that there will not be a grade on it over which a span of horses can not draw a ton. If the road had been open so that teams could have passed over it loaded this season it would have been of immense value to this valley. To the farmers alone it would have saved an immense sum. Instead of selling their wheat for 60 cents per bushel, it would have readily commanded one dollar. The assessment roll shows that 12,764 acres of wheat were sown this season. Estimating that it would average 27 bushels to the acre – which is probably rather below than above the average – the yield would be 344,638 bushels. Adding, then, the additional 40 cents which they would have received, at one dollar as the price per bushel, the difference to them in their wheat alone would be $137,851.20.
            This is no speculation, but the actual fact; for the superior quality of our Walla Walla flour would have entirely driven the Salt Lake and St. Louis flour out of the market, if it could have been laid down there at reasonable figures. The miners all told me they made no distinctions between the Walla Walla flour and the best Oregon brands. This is simply one item. Any person can readily perceive the immense difference it would have made in other branches of business.
            There is another reason why the Mullan road should be opened. There are on this northern coast hundreds of persons and small families who would like to make a visit to the Atlantic States, but the expenses and the dangers of the trip via the Isthmus are so great that it has kept them from visiting their old homes on “the other side.” But let this road be opened so that four or six persons, or a small family, can take a light wagon, with their blankets and provisions, drawn by a span of ponies that will keep fat on the wild grass, and they can make decidedly a pleasure trip of it, hunting and fishing all the way to the steamboat landing at Benton. Then expenses from Walla Walla to Benton will be what their provisions cost them – six or seven dollars to the person, and about seven dollars, all told, for ferriages. My expenses on the route for ferriages was $2.25.
            Wagons and teams would be worth nearly as much at Benton as they cost here. A great many passengers went down on the steamboats for from $10 to $40 this season. The Deer Lodge made the trip from Benton to St. Louis in 13 days and 15 hours, and back to Benton in 36 days and 21 hours. The time to Omaha, where cars could be taken to all parts of the United States, would be considerably less. This route only needs to be known to become the most popular one on the continent.
            I beg pardon, Mr. Editor, for monopolizing so much of your space, but as friends wished to know what I thought of the country and its prospects &c., they can have it here in full.

Yours truly, Philip Ritz

Originally transcribed by C.S. Kingston, Eastern Washington University Archives