By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
UPPER MISSOURI RIVER BREAKS NATIONAL MONUMENT - With a whine of guide cables and a roar of the engine, the Stafford- McClelland ferry started across the Missouri River with about 25 passengers on its first voyage after being christened on Wednesday. More than 100 people gathered at the Missouri River to celebrate, hear speeches and ride on the new ferry.
"I call it the Cadillac," said Susan Allen, who operates the ferry with her mother, Grace Sanford. "It's nice. It's really nice."
The gathering celebrated three new ferries. The Montana Department of Transportation, along with Blaine, Chouteau and Fergus counties, in July replaced the boats, guide cables and cable towers for the ferries at Virgelle and Carter as well as the Stafford-McClelland ferry, which is about 65 miles south of Chinook and 15 miles north of Winifred.
Two civic-minded women from Lewistown, Julia Jackson and Margie Wilkins, dressed in period costumes, broke the champagne bottle on the ferryboat to christen it.
"Whenever there's a big event like this, we like to show up," said Wilkins. "This is a great day for all of Montana. It's history."
"It should be a big deal for all of us," Jackson added.
The $2.7 million project to replace the three ferries was funded by the Federal Highway Administration's Ferry Boat Discretionary Program, with matching funds provided by the counties and MDT. The replacement of the terminal buildings at the three sites is still being planned.
The speakers at the christening included MDT director Dave Galt, Blaine County Commissioner Don Swenson, Chouteau County Commissioner Harvey Worrall and Fergus County Commissioner Vern Petersen. Also speaking were representatives of Montana's U.S. senators, Conrad Burns and Max Baucus.
Also speaking was Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., who stood a few hundred yards from the homestead cabin where his great-grandfather lived.
He joked with the audience that the reason the ferry was built was so his great-grandfather, a Rehberg, could visit the woman he later married, a McClelland whose family homesteaded on the south side of the river.
The real reason was much more pragmatic, Rehberg said in an interview later.
"It was originally started to move cattle across the river," he said.
Rehberg said he hopes the new ferries will help draw attention to the historical nature of the Upper Missouri River Breaks, especially during the bicentennial of the voyage of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery.
"It would be a real shame to close the ferries. It's part of our history," he added.
Karla Knox, who ranches near Winifred, said she likes the improvement.
"It needed it," she said.
She doesn't use the ferry a lot, but does come across to visit friends. Sometimes her family has to bring horses across on the boat to round up cattle that have crossed the river.
Others seem to use it more regularly, she said.
"You see a lot of traffic during the summer," she said.
Allen said the ferry averages 15 trips a day during the summer. It is open from about April until November or December, depending on the weather.
The ferry ran across the river more than 15 times in two hours Wednesday, first with people who came to the celebration, then with others who came to cross the river.
Swenson said one of the reasons he worked to get the project funded was the historical nature of the ferry.
"I just want to keep the heritage," he said.
For some people, he said, it can be a crucial service. For the people living near the river, if the roads to northern Blaine County are bogged down by bad weather, there is no other way to get to a town. Because of the remote, rugged location, Blaine County wouldn't be able to put in and maintain a bridge year-round, Swenson added.
Petersen said he thinks the traffic on the ferry will increase, since the Upper Missouri River Breaks was designated a national monument by President Clinton in 2001 and because of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial.
The ferry is more than just a historical trip in the back country of Montana, he added.
"It's a rural outing, no question about it, but it's a lifeline for a lot of people," Petersen said.
Swenson said there is more than $300,000 left of the project's money to use to replace the terminals, which house the ferry operators.
The estimates for the original buildings, in period style, were about $300,000 each, he said. The counties and MDT are now looking at using modular homes, also in period style, with a cost of about $100,000 each, Swenson said.
Larry Jackson, who works for the Blaine County Road Department, said the new boat is a "great improvement," but building new terminals will be even better. The ferries are operated by the counties that are serviced by them.
"Once they get that terminal building built it will be really nice," said Jackson, who lowered the old ferryboat into the water in the spring and pulled it out in the fall for 27 years through 2002.
Tim Sanford, whose family used to own the land on the north side of the ferry, said he began helping with the ferry in 1946. He and his wife, Grace Sanford, took over the operation full time about 1993, with their daughter Susan joining them about six years ago. Tim Sanford quit in 1999 because he was having difficulty with his hearing, he said.
Grace Sanford said she likes the new boat, but it is taking some getting used to.
"The boat is a lovely thing," she said. "It's like a baby. It has no directions. We've been practicing."