Special to Havre Daily News By Gary A. Wilson
A visitor to northcentral Montana would be quite surprised at the number of unique cultural and tourism attractions the greater Havre area has to offer. From a bison kill (buffalo jump) that shows its hundreds of years of history in its soil, to a 1890’s restoration exhibit of Havre in the basements of several past 1904 buildings. Also, five museums that tell the history of this area and some all the way back to the dinosaur era. And lastly, a magnificent former latter- day frontier military fort located just south of Havre on Beaver Creek on lands now used as a state agricultural research center. The U.S. government established Montana’s largest military post in 1879, following Colonel Custer and the Seventh Cavalry’s defeat at the Little Bighorn River valley in 1876, and the capture of the fleeing Nez Perce under Chief Joseph and war chiefs at the Bear Paw Battlefield south of present-day Chinook on Snake Creek. Some of the Nez Perce made it to Canada, joining the 4,000 to 5,000 Lakota Sioux who were already there under chief and spiritual leader, Sitting Bull. Because of the perceived military threat posed by the Sioux, and large number of treaty and non-treaty North American Indian people who traversed the international border, Fort Assinniboine was born. Fort Assinniboine, at the time it was built, was said to have been the largest active military post in the West, second only to Fort Leavenworth of Kansas in size, a training post for both officers and enlisted men, plus a new military prison. Fort Assinniboine was the most important military post in the northwest because of its strategic location at the conjunction of the major Indian trails, and the valley of the Milk River contained many of the last northern buffalo herds. Midway between Fort Benton on the Missouri River and the Fort Walsh North West Mounted Police post in the Cypress Hills of present-day Saskatchewan in the Dominion of Canada, the trading post complex at Fort Assinniboine was both a supply destination and stopping point. Freight wagons and Metis Red River carts kept the trail to Fort Assinniboine and the mounted police parts of Canada well trodden. The advent of the railroad ushered in a new era and homesteading brought new significance to the northern route. By 1911, Fort Assinniboine was obsolete, as the military faced foes in a much bigger world. The fort once had a 700,000-acre military reservation that stretched to the Missouri at Coal Banks Landing (Virgelle) where much of the military supplies and troops debarked from steamboats, although with later season low water the steamboats landed further east. A detachment of troops was stationed in the Sweetgrass Hills, and other major international crossing points. During the fall, training exercises were conducted in the present-day Beaver Creek county park. Also in the present-day park on Sawmill Gulch, the army had a log cutting operation. Originally the logs were going to be floated down Beaver Creek to the fort, but the beaver stopped that idea, and logs had to go by wagon. However to the tourist, Fort Assinniboine’s main charm is the remaining buildings that surround the parade grounds that once saw 400 to 600 troops of both infantry and cavalry, besides support civilian employees. The fort was originally to be built of adobe, but since the area had an abundance of materials for bricks, those materials were used. Also to the east of the fort “the Concrete Hills” provided the limestone foundation materials. In the summer of 1879 during a drought and serious mosquito infestation, the troops of the 18th Cavalry, Engineer Corps’ from St. Paul, and several hundred civilian government and Metis workers began the building process, making and curing 25,000 bricks a day. Construction was so rapid that the area’s Indian people believed that it arose like magic from the plains. Once the main buildings were finished, the fort became a showplace of military architecture. A correspondent of the Bismarck Tribune, said, “To come suddenly upon Fort Assinniboine with its rows of mansard roofs, bay windows, etc., after a week’s ride through the boundless prairie is like coming upon an oasis in the desert. It is a city and every building is of architectural design, a beauty of itself.” Today you can still observe some of these remaining buildings, ruins and structures through summer tours conducted by the Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association from the Clack Museum (265-4000). Summer tours are at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. and a fee is charged.