Some are in roadside ditches. Some have been overgrown with brush. Some have been painstakingly restored and now proudly rest in prominent community parks. Altogether, there are more than two dozen monuments marking the course of John Mullan’s 625-mile highway. Aside from Civil War battlefields, few American people or events are more thoroughly memorialized.
John Mullan, wearing buckskin, rides a dark horse, sitting tall above a couple dozen people standing below. It is an odd assortment of characters: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark dressed in what appear to be early twentieth century hunting apparel; Sacajawea; bearded pioneers and miners; a couple of women in Sunday garb. This is not a dream. It is a scene photographed at the dedication of a monument erected on Mullan’s road in 1934. The figures had just marched in a procession that “interpreted the scenes as presented on the roadway.” The 400 spectators applauded, forgiving such slight historical inaccuracies as the fact that Lewis, Clark, and Sacajawea never traveled Mullan’s highway. Historical precision was not the purpose that day. The significance lay in the ceremonial remembrance of one of the West’s most consequential roads. They had gathered in this community outside of Spokane to dedicate a monument to one of the most important highways in Northwest history.
Credit the Glenrose Woman’s Club for coordinating this particular event. Club members chose a spot precisely on the old road to construct a permanent monument. It would rest on a base six-feet square and rise eight-feet high in a pyramidal shape, made of local rock.
On July 11, 1934, Glenrose residents gathered for a picnic. Each attendee had been asked to bring “a basket dinner and a rock for the monument.” At 6:30 p.m. they walked to the site of the proposed memorial and broke ground.
Over the next few months, Club members and their husbands hauled more rocks and ransacked the Salvation Army store for “pioneer and Indian costumes.” On October 7, they constructed their obelisk, sealing inside a time capsule listing the names of all those involved in the project.
October 28, 1934 dawned splendidly in Glenrose. Club members arose early and festooned a speakers’ platform near their new monument. At 2:00 p.m. a children’s choir sang “Faith of Our Fathers.” A minister gave a “heartfelt prayer.” O.C. Pratt, Superintendant of Spokane Schools, summarized Mullan’s endeavor. Then “slowly, over the Mullan Road between the trees growing in the very same tracks made by pioneer wagons so long ago, came the pageant. First of all, of course, rode Capt. John Mullan.”
The actors formed a semi-circle around the platform. A photographer snapped a picture, now preserved in the Spokane Public Library. A child of area pioneers tugged a rope. A cloth shrouding the monument dropped to the ground, revealing a plaque embedded in the rock work:
Crossed the Highway Here
Located 1858, Completed 1862
Captain John Mullan
This Monument Erected
By Glenrose Woman’s Club
Then it was over. The group gradually disbanded. And there the monument stands today, one of the last of a couple dozen erected between Fort Benton and Walla Walla in the first half of the twentieth century, each unveiled with ceremony—some more elaborate than that at Glenrose, some more subdued. They pay tribute to a young army officer and the road he built. More significantly, they remind us that there was a time when Northwest residents recognized the importance of Mullan’s road. It had touched the lives of their ancestors; helped to open a country they called home. They sought ways to permanently record its history and their connections to it. As a result of their efforts, John Mullan’s road is one of the most monumentalized places in the American West.
That effort had begun in Montana a couple decades earlier.
Charles Warren moved to Montana in 1866 and established mining companies, a newspaper, and a real estate office. He knew the Mullan Road, but by 1916 many Montanans could only ponder, as did one of the state’s newspaper editors, “What was the Mullan military road?…This highway, if ever it could have been termed a highway, has long since lost any semblance of such.” Warren thought that a shame, and suggested to the Society of Montana Pioneers that the road be memorialized. The Society took up the challenge: “The Mullan Military Road will be so marked that for centuries to come it will tell the wayfarer a story of the frontier.”
If you set a twelve-ton monument atop a bed of concrete sunk four feet into the ground, you have something that might last for centuries. So that is what the Pioneer Society did. Actually, that represented a small monument. The seven Montana memorials to John Mullan’s road range in height from eleven to eighteen feet, each a single block of Vermont marble joined to a concrete slab. The Pioneers decided to fix these at key points along the route from Fort Benton to the Idaho state line.
David O’Keefe, “the last known survivor of the Mullan Expedition,” showed up in Missoula for the dedication of the first one. He had worked on the road in 1861-62. The Pioneer Society asked Mary Elizabeth Woody to pull the string unveiling the monument. It was a logical choice. Woody’s grandfather, Frank, along with partner Christopher Higgins, had been the first to recognize the commercial significance of the Mullan Road, traveling it in 1860 with $7,000 in merchandise from Walla Walla to establish a store along the road, one that supplied many of the shovels and picks that supported the Montana gold rush. Later they moved their store a short distance to a place they helped found—called Missoula.
When Mary Woody pulled the cord revealing a marble-carved image of John Mullan, the crowd cheered. Mullan wore buckskin leggings, a tattered, wide-brimmed hat, and a shirt with rolled-up sleeves. Bearded, with long hair over his ears, he held the barrel of a rifle in one hand, a pistol tucked in his belt. It was a romanticized, though not totally inaccurate image of the man, and it was reproduced thirteen times. Seven of the monuments stand in Montana; six in Idaho. Edgar S. Paxson conceived the design.
Paxson, born in 1852, grew up in New York and moved to Montana in 1877. He worked a variety of Montana jobs, but whenever he had time, he sketched. It grew into an occupation. He worked from several studios during his career, all close to Mullan’s road, painting in the same genre, but less famously, as Charles Russell. “Paxson was my friend,” Russell wrote upon Paxson’s death in 1919. “I am a painter, too, but Paxson has done some things that I cannot do.” One of the things Paxson did was sketch the likeness of John Mullan that was transferred to the marble monuments.
“It was my opinion that each monument should be the donation of one or more of the women and men who had acquired wealth,” wrote Pioneer Society historian Fred Brown. Northern Pacific Railroad president Jule Hannaford paid for one. Several residents of Fort Benton chipped in for theirs. And the Clark family invested in the project. William A. Clark, Sr.—smelter and railroad owner, newspaper publisher, U.S. Senator—amassed one of America’s great fortunes and underwrote the monument at Bonner. His son, William A. Clark, Jr. funded another and helped bankroll the effort to extend the statues west of Montana.
From the beginning, the Montana Pioneer Society hoped to entice Idaho and Washington “to carry through the work inaugurated b
y this Society to [the road’s] western terminus at Walla Walla.” Idaho accepted the challenge. Henry Talkington directed the Idaho effort. Talkington had an affinity for Mullan, featuring him in his book, Heroes and Heroic Deeds of the Pacific Northwest. By 1917, Talkington was the state’s leading historian and a former trustee of the Idaho State Historical Society. The Society asked him to select monument locations. Talkington chose seven; six were eventually constructed. Picking the first spot west of Montana proved the easiest. It would rest in the town that bore Mullan’s name. Other monuments in Idaho are located in Wallace, Kellogg, Mullan Historical Park on Fourth of July Pass, Post Falls, and St. Maries.
Washington started later in its effort to monumentalize the Mullan Road, and did not follow the Montana-Idaho lead of erecting statues. But by the time residents of Washington had finished, they had as many monuments as the other two states combined, in a variety of shapes and sizes.
The Washington State Historical Society facilitated the construction and dedication of two markers in Spokane and one in Walla Walla in the early 1920s, igniting a swell of excitement. By 1923, road enthusiasts had formed a Mullan Trail Association to place “appropriate markers on the trail” in communities between Spokane and Walla Walla. In 1925, a monument went up near Cheney with 150 people attending the dedication. Later that year, crowds gathered for similar ceremonies in Prescott and Lamont. Washington had another surge of Mullan Road markings in 1934 with the construction of obelisks in Glenrose and Spokane. In 1938, the Spokane County Pioneer Society placed a stone marker at the Plante’s Ferry crossing of the Mullan Road, and in 1941 on the highway south of Spokane.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, interpretive signs sprang up all along the road’s route, in city parks, rest areas, highway turnouts. Altogether, dozens of signs and monuments in three states commemorate Mullan’s road.
What compelled this drive to recognize John Mullan? One thing we can assume. The people who raised money for these monuments and organized community dedicatory events understood the indispensible role of the road in developing a vast region.
It is tempting to attribute these efforts to pioneer impulses to preserve personal stories for future generations. And there is that. But nostalgic perpetuation of a pioneer past does not explain the enduring motivation to preserve these monuments. In 2000, street improvements on Spokane’s Sprague Avenue threatened a Mullan Road marker constructed in 1922. The monument stood in the path of a proposed realigned sidewalk. The easy solution would have been to move, and in the process probably destroy, the structure, fragile despite its seven-ton heft. Instead, engineers, local landowners, and the city’s historic preservation office compromised, retaining it where it stood, despite inconveniencing pedestrians who now have to negotiate a massive concrete edifice in the walkway. “The monument is our heritage,” noted the adjacent landowner, explanation enough for opting against a tidy sidewalk.
While several monuments have been moved, usually to make way for street improvements, none have been destroyed. The residents of Walla Walla have moved their monument twice. Dedicated by Washington Governor Louis Hart in 1923, the monument originally stood near the state penitentiary. But by the 1990s, the penitentiary had become a maximum security prison. People stopping to read its message were quickly confronted by law enforcement officials, “asking” them to leave. Walla Walla citizens wanted a more accessible location to honor the road, and moved the five-ton monument to the friendlier grounds of historic Fort Walla Walla. In 2012 they moved it again, to a more visible downtown location, and surrounded it with six interpretive panels describing the Mullan Road’s significance in the development of Walla Walla, which for 20 years stood as the largest city in Washington, thanks to its prominent location at the end of the most important highway in the Northwest. Their efforts to preserve their community’s monument, and to make it accessible to everyone, are testament to the enduring significance of the Mullan Road story.
Keep an eye out for Mullan Road markers when you travel the historic route that once connected the Missouri and Columbia Rivers. In some places, Mullan’s road is still heavily trafficked. You’ll find one monument just off Interstate 90 on Fourth of July Pass in Idaho at the Mullan Historical Park, a quiet place a short distance from the interstate from which to contemplate Mullan’s road and the reason it so captured people’s attention. You’ll find another in a ditch along a country road outside of Cheney; here the main transportation corridor has bypassed Mullan’s route. But wherever you locate one of the massive monuments, you will be looking upon the history not only of Mullan’s road, but also of those people who came later, who wanted future generations to remember the dauntless effort required to construct the first engineered highway in the Pacific Northwest, and to recall its impact on the development of a region.
Read more about John Mullan and his military road in the WSM feature “Lost Highway.”