The Great Broadus - Moose Jaw Highway plan

Amorette Allison History Columnist
Friday, June 5, 2020
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There have been a lot of great ideas that never quite panned out, from the Tongue River Railroad to the Miles City - Deadwood Railroad to my favorite, the Ismay - Ekalaka Electric Traction Company, which was supposed to build an electrically powered rail between Ismay and Ekalaka and then on south to Denver.

There was another project that seemed like a swell idea at the time that never quite came to fruition: The Broadus - Moose Jaw Highway.

North to south transportation was always a problem west of the Mississippi. Trails, then railroads, then roads tended to go across the continent, rather than up and down, and promoters often imagined there were fortunes to be made if only a reliable north/ south route were developed.

In 1920, when the Broadus - Moose Jaw Highway was first proposed, the building of actual roads were left to private enterprise, just the way railroads were. Governments were not expected to provide or maintain roads outside of cities or small county areas. Neither at the state nor federal level did anyone expect a government body to levy taxes to build a road.

The Yellowstone Trail and the Lincoln Highway, two early cross-continental routes, were developed and maintained by local volunteers and vaguely overseen by national bodies. But the states the highways crossed had nothing to do with them.

So the Good Roads Committee, which was an unofficial off-shoot of the Yellowstone Trail Committee, met regularly in eastern Montana to try to come up with funding for better roads.

There was very little pavement in the country and none outside of cities, so the dirt and gravel roads wandered where it made sense and if a local property owners saw it to his advantage to grade the road or fill the holes, the property owner. Or wouldn’t. No one could force him to.

So in a meeting on June 5, 1920, “the largest road convention ever held in Eastern Montana” met in Broadus. There were representatives from Miles City, Terry, Circle and “towns to the northward of those places” in Broadus that day.

W. E. Holt, who was the president of the Custer County Good Roads association, led “upward of fifteen carloads of local boosters” to the meeting. There was also a delegate from Moose Jaw itself.

The article in the Miles City Daily Star of June 2 telling about the upcoming the meeting opened with the headline “Moose Jaw To Broadus Road Is Big Project.” Pretty obvious headline.

Then the article went on to say “A large number of teams have been at work on the northern end of the trail, and the road around Wolf Point. . .” (The teams probably referred to teams of horses, who provided the motive power for most road construction.) “. . .where much motor traffic is now going on, plying between Great Northern points and the new oil fields in the Wolf Point and Poplar districts, is reported in good shape.”

Just a few weeks earlier, the Star had been full of various horror stories about the dirt roads condition in a wet spring. Tales of taking days to travel 40 miles because the roads were so wet, slick, sticky and rutted, were not uncommon. Stories of people getting a bit desperate on their ranches but unable to make it to town were also passed around. And the new motor cars were getting stuck every way they possibly could.

A truck caravan took three days to get from Miles City to Jordan, the trucks being mostly tractors pulling wagons, to provide much needed supplies.

Now that the roads were drying out, the work began. The article reported that “The road to Terry is reported to be in fairly good shape at the present time, except for some surfacing work in two or three places.” The present time would change if it rained, of course.

“Working on the Powder River county roads is going forward at a rapid rate and where cut up places prevailed for the past few months, travelers arriving yesterday stated that since the recent rains, dragging operations had been prosecuted in vigorous manner and the going is now better than at any time this spring. Material for culverts and bridges is arriving daily and gravel pits are being opened at several points from which surfacing material must come.”

All was not completely rosy, however. “Labor is said to be one of the greatest drawback to the prosecution of road plans at this point, but farmers along the route have pledged co-operation in the matter of road work as soon as their spring crops are in and a solution of the labor problem is this manner is in prospect.”

In other words, farmers would help the road that passed by if they had time, equipment and workers available. Which isn’t the most efficient system for road-building, especially on lonely sections.

At the meeting, the route for the Broadus - Moose Jaw highway was laid out. It was named the Powder River Trail, reminiscent of the Yellowstone Trail. Its route would be “from Moose Jaw, Canada to Denver, via Scobey, Wolf Point, Circle, Terry, Miles City, Broadus, in Montana, Clearmont, Buffalo, Cheyenne and other points in Wyoming.” It would be “placed on the map as one of the most scenic and practical highways in the world, intersecting the Roosevelt Trail at Wolf Point, the Yellowstone Trail at Miles City and reaching to the Lincoln Highway at Denver.”

It was a wonderful idea but governments were going to get involved in road building and they would follow existing traffic and population patterns and the route to Moose Jaw is not terribly direct today. I don’t know if it ever would have brought in much traffic. But it would have been fun drive.

Not as much fun as the Ismay - Ekalaka Traction Company train would have been, but fun.

(Amorette Allison is a local history columnist.)