By Martin J. Kidston
What begins as a clear trickle of water high in the alpine slopes of East Glacier drains as a cloudy mire into the flats of the Missouri some 500 miles east. Measured as the third longest river in Montana, the Milk River sustains a broad mix of habitat and agriculture, while carving scenic breaks and broad valleys into Montanas northern landscape.
Yet, when it comes to whats what among Montana rivers, the Milk is often overlooked. Its more popular counterparts like the Big Blackfoot, the Yellowstone, the Gallatin and the mighty Moe, get most of the attention and notoriety. But the history of the cream-colored tributary known as the Milk River is a long and storied one, full of discovery and culture, and has proven significant in the settling of Montana.
Before gaining statehood on Nov. 8, 1889, Montana was nothing but big sky and open terrain, inhabited by the lands native occupants and thriving game. But in 1803, the territory was acquired as part of the Louisiana Purchase, and promised to reveal many surprises to western culture in the upcoming years.
Less than a year after the historic purchase, President Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on an expedition to map and explore the new acquisition of land. Working their way up the Missouri River, the multi-manned foray entered the territory of what is now Montana in 1804.
Within a year, the opening of north central Montanas future would be set a future which began on May 8, 1805, when the Lewis and Clark exploration came to the confluence of an off-colored tributary. It fed the Missouri River from the north and piqued the explorers curiosity just enough to prompt a short excursion a few miles up the new-found current.
The following excerpt is from the Lewis and Clark Journals:
We nooned it just above the entrance of a large river which disembodies on the lard (the starboard, or north side of the Missouri); I took advantage of this leisure moment and examined the river about three miles; from the quantity of water furnished by this river, it must water a large extent of country; the water of this river possesses a peculiar whiteness, being about the colour of a cup of tea with the admixture of a tablespoon of milk; from the colour of its water we called it Milk River...
Captain Clark who walked this morning ascended a very high point opposite to the mouth of this river; he informed me that he had a perfect view of this river and the country through which it passed for a great distance, probably 50 or 60 miles, and that the river from its mouth bore northwest for 12 or 15 miles where it forked, the one taking a direction nearly north, and the other to the west; Captain Clark could not be certain, but thought he saw smoke and some Indian lodges at a considerable distance up the Milk River.
If the explorers would have ventured the entire length of the river, the trip would have taken them into the heart of what is now the Crown of The Rockies, or Glacier National Park. They would have traveled some 538 miles to get there as the river flows and spent a portion of that trip in southern Alberta. Whats more, if the explorers could have returned a mere 70 years later, they would have been amazed to see the transformation of the land they had been credited with opening.
By the 1870s, settlements began to appear along the Milk River. Frontier towns, such as Bull Hook Bottoms, established foundation, and a military presence strode in to offer federal protection to the developing region. Fort Browning was established between present day Havre and Glasgow, but was burned and abandoned in 1873. Other Forts, however, such as Ft. Belknap, Ft. Assinniboine and Ft. Charlie had taken root by the time the Great Northern Railway reached Havre in 1887. Two years later, Montana became an official state of the union, and in 1908, the Milk River range was opened by the government for homesteading.
The arrival of the railroad, which closely follows the contours of the Milk River Valley, opened the Hi-Line for a population boom. The first post office was established at Fort Assinaboine on May 16, 1879. Five years later, the war department changed the spelling to Assinniboine. But a postal employee at the fort allegedly refused to deliver mail bearing the new spelling, and both spellings remained in use, depending on the agency. It wasnt until 1903 that the second major office opened in the town of Dayton, just west of present day Gildford. By 1908, there were 15 post offices within Hill County, which wasnt officially established until 1912.
Aside from the railroad, the Milk River played a major role in the areas development, and like the regions big sky and open country, the river, too, has some qualities of its own.
Behind the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, the Milk River is the states third longest. However, Montana cannot claim all 538 miles of the meandering waterway.
Rolling down the steep slopes on the eastern side of the Continental Divide, the Milk River trickles from the crags of the 9,552 foot Little Chief Mountain in Glacier National Park. As the river flows from the park, two forks actually emerge the north and south fork which join at a confluence to the east in the flat ground of the prairie.
Today, a drop of water starting at the rivers origin will flow through the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, southern Alberta, and more than 12 American and Canadian towns as it heads east through Hill, Blaine, Phillips and Valley Counties. Finally, the journey ends where the Milk mergers with the Missouri at the point of the rivers 1805 discovery. The union of the two rivers takes place below the headwaters of Fort Peck Reservoir.
The Milk Rivers impressive distance cuts through a wide variety of terrain, from mountains to badlands to the croplands of northern Montana. However, the terrain of today was not carved by the river, but rather, by the glaciers of 10,000 years ago.
But as the glaciers have long since retreated, the river has found its path through moraines formed by the ice, which reached a depth of nearly 2,000 feet, according to the United States Geological Survey. Thus, as the cream-colored river winds through the piles of sand, rock and silt, it picks up an abundance of salts and sediments and its peculiar color.
However, it didnt take the methods of modern science to discover the odd consistency of the water relative to the Milk and other regional rivers. On July 20, 1806, as the Lewis and Clark expedition pushed east on its return trip home, the explorers noted the salts common to the plains and its abundance in the rivers, along with the bluffs, formed of earth which readily dissolves with water.
Despite the salts and sedimentation in the river, however, its water supports several species of fish, and is heavily relied upon for crop irrigation. But as the river provides life for this relatively arid region known as the Hi-Line, the very life it supports is putting the waterway at risk.
According to a study by the USGS, the Milk River has the highest concentration of phosphorous in 10 river basins tested.
Phosphorous comes from municipal and private sewage disposal, detergents and eroded soils, the study says. Upstream of the Milk River test station at Nashua, are 140,000 acres of irrigated cropland, and 12 communities discharging waste water into the river.