Retracing the Mullan Road: A once-vital route across the Continental Divide

Wagon wheel ruts remain in sun-baked soil atop the mountain pass named for the man who left his mark there.

John Mullan was an Army first lieutenant in the 1850s and tasked with building a road that would connect two outposts and help speed the travel of troops, travelers and commercial freight across the Continental Divide. He was to construct a road across plains and mountains to link forts Benton and Walla Walla. Fort Benton, which preceded the town that’s located there now and was a trading post at that time, was the farthest steamboats could travel up the Missouri just as Fort Walla Walla was then the last stop on the Columbia River.

Mullan made several trips across the Continental Divide and understood the challenges he would face prior to leading 250 soldiers and civilians on the road-building expedition. Thirteen months and 624 miles later, his party would complete its work and arrive at Fort Benton on Aug. 1, 1860. Touch-up work would be required for two more years.

Fiercely proud of his accomplishment, Mullan took criticism of his road personally, said two men who on an August morning began their drive up Highway 12 to Elliston — the first stop on their tour and search for what remains of the Mullan Road.

Their goal is to trace the road from Mullan Pass, elevation 5,902 feet, to where it crosses a ranch near the mouth of the Little Prickly Pear canyon with its gray volcanic rock and stone in shades of pastel green, wine red and tan.

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