Spotted Eagle area turns 50

When Spotted Eagle first camped with his people in the late 1800 near the Tongue River, it wasn’t his idea.  He and other Native Americans were being relocated to reservations against their will.

He was remembered many years later when a Civilian Conservation Corps camp was constructed in about the same area where his band camped.  While the young men occupying Spotted Eagle CCC camp weren’t there against their will, they probably would have preferred to have regular jobs.  Every effort was made to make the CCC camps pleasant, with regular entertainment, including sing-a-long nights and movie nights.

Still, the young men were sleeping in tents under military style discipline because the country was still climbing out of nearly a decade of depression and jobs were scarce.  The CCC built many wonderful things but it wasn’t created for fun.  It was to provide jobs when there were no jobs.

So while the first camps at what we now call the Spotted Eagle Recreation Area had their good points, they were not there for people to enjoy the available recreation.  For one thing, there was no lake.

The lake was incidental, created by digging out gravel and dirt for the Interstate Highway System.  Miles City has both the first section of interstate completed in Montana and the last section completed located around it.

The gravel and dirt were dug out on federal land that wasn’t being used for much of anything and belonged to the federal government as part of the old Fort Keogh military reservation.  After the construction moved on, the hole remained.

Over the year that followed, the pit slowly filled up with water.  It wasn’t easily accessible from town.  Visitors to the old CCC camp had to follow a rutted road that started near Camel Back Hills, next to the fish hatchery.  Local young people figured out how to cut through from the fairgrounds and enjoy a private “swimming hole.”

Word eventually got out.  And with the word came an idea.

Here was a nice sort of lake in a part of the country without many lakes.  It was bigger than Cook Lake.  It was between the fish hatchery and the Tongue River so diverting water to keep it filled was possible.  There was some nice scenery around it, like big trees for shade.  

And it was a place where the Rod and Gun Club could both fish and shoot safely.

Fort Keogh wasn’t really using it.  No one was.  So why not . . .

In 1966 the city purchased the 185 acres for the bargain price of $2.50 an acre.  Then the Rod and Gun Club would spent around $2,500 over three years to put in fireplaces, trash barrels, a new road, outhouses, a gun range and boat launching ramp into the Tongue River.

No one sat down and made a long-range plan, which would cause some problems over the half century since Spotted Eagle Recreation Area came into existence.  Originally, a fee was going to be charged for upkeep and improvements for the 100 or so people a week who might use it.

The site eventually proved so popular it caused problems.  Maintenance and safety were both major issues.

The site evolved, the road no longer circling the lake, power boats no longer allowed, and Walleye Unlimited stepping up to provide more amenities, including the fairly recent concept of handicapped accessible fishing access.

And the original Spotted Eagle is still remembered at the site, with sites and artwork and a name that has been kept alive, almost accidentally, for generations.  And a site that wasn’t originally such a happy place now echoes almost daily with the sounds of enjoyment.