DonTigny loved floating the Missouri
By Robert Lucke
There are many of Emil DonTigny's family and friends who think that although this Missouri River visionary died in 1969, it is a shame that to this day, some point or part of the Missouri has not been named in his honor.
A love of rivers came early in DonTigny's life. Dick DonTigny of Havre, son of Emil, tells of his father being born on the St. Maurice River north of the Gulf of Lawrence in French Quebec where his family owned timber lands. His early education in that area came from French tutors who came to live with the family for seven months out of each year to instruct the children in elementary education. He learned canoeing there and was an expert canoeist for the rest of his life.
In the 1920s, he and his family moved to Bainville, where they ran a theater. On his own, DonTigny moved to Havre, getting a job on the railroad and later working for Joe Moore as a projectionist in local theaters. He married Helen Halverson of Havre and had four children, Richard, Donald, David and Margaret Mary.
DonTigny, in partnership with a Great Falls man, bought the Havre Theater and eventually built the Sunset Drive-In theater.
In the 1950s, DonTigny developed an interest in the Missouri River and in 1957 made his first trip. Son, Dick, dropped DonTigny and his brother-in-law, Cy Morrison, off in Fort Benton and picked them up 10 days later in Fort Peck. In spite of many difficulties encountered in that first trip, it provided a spring board that was to follow DonTigny all of the rest of his life. Dick DonTigny continues the story.
"The trip precipitated an intense interest into the history, the geology, the archeology, the flora and the fauna of the river and especially of the area between the Virgelle ferry and the PN ferry. In an attempt to learn all that he could, DonTigny took many local specialists down that section of the river," Dick DonTigny said.
"Drawing heavily from the journals of Lewis and Clark, DonTigny made several float trips to identify campsites, formations, Indian encampments, buffalo jumps, rivers and streams that had been named by Lewis and Clark as well as sites such as the old Conley post office at the mouth of Eagle Creek, Fort Clagget and Camp Cook near the mouth of the Judith River," continued Dick DonTigny.
During Emil DonTigny's time on the river, many people of national importance traveled the river with him. That gave him a strong platform when the United States Government proposed to put a dam near Cow Creek that would back up the river water all the way to Fort Benton.
"Dad was convinced this was too precious an area to be inundated," Dick DonTigny said. "Every time there was a hard push to build the dam, Dad would call his friends back East who loved the river. They would all write letters and the dam was eventually stopped."
"Making over 50 trips until his death in 1969 at the age of 67, he was a singular influence on helping to save the river from damming and having it be declared a wild and scenic river. Thousands have since enjoyed this precious heritage," said Dick DonTigny.
Dick DonTigny has suggested to the BLM a way that many more could enjoy the Missouri like his father did.
"I made a suggestion. I told them (the BLM) that instead of just canoe access, which is inaccessible to many for the most of the year, I think they should have vista points trails down to the campsites from those points and people could walk down to the river and enjoy the water," said DonTigny. "They could have sighting tubes pointing to landmarks, things like that, and that would provide almost year-round access to the river. Trails maybe upstream and downstream that people could walk from those points. I never heard a thing from the BLM about my idea. They probably had a different idea."
If there ever were a system of vista points as DonTigny suggests, one of them would be a perfect and fitting memorial to his father's love for the river.
Meanwhile, every person who floats the Missouri to this day owes a debt of thanks to this Canadian river man who fell in love with his adopted state of Montana and considered the Missouri from Fort Benton to Fort Peck its most precious treasure.
Interested in supporting a vista point or other memorial on the Missouri for Emil DonTigny? Write or call the BLM in Lewistown or the U.S. congressional delegation.