On July 19, 1805, Lewis & Clark passed through what we now know as the Gates of the Mountains in the Big Belt Mountains, north of Helena. Lewis christened this area because of the towering cliffs lining each side of the river. Once in the canyon, the party was unable to find any site to land and make camp for the boats and the 16 men. Today a plaque is located at Meriwether Picnic site proclaiming that as the location for the camp, but historians who have mapped the route believe Field’s Gulch, a short distance up stream is the more likely location of the camp.
Later in the 19th century, settlers moved into the area and the area was used for mining, river transportation, homesteading, and recreation. By 1873, there were 4 roads into the American Bar area east of the river. Homesteads were also appearing on the west side of the river. In 1867 the Hilger family purchased one of the homesteads and became a prominent family in the area and in Helena. The family ranch was sold in 1920, but repurchased in 1933. Shortly after, the family purchased their first Hereford and began building a renowned cattle herd. The ranch is now owned by Cathy Campbell who raises Shetland Sheep.
The primary change to the river since 1805 is the construction of Holter Dam, about 7 miles north of the northern end of the Gates. This dam raised the river levels approximately 14 feet, covering some of the sights recorded in Lewis’ journal.
Fire has also been an important player in the history of the area. In modern times, Mann Gulch has become a shrine for wildland fire fighters due to the tragic death of 13 men on August 5, 1949. To read more about this event, please take a few minutes to read the following articles:
Just east of the river, the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area at almost 30,000 acres, continues to provide the tradition of primitive recreation among the limestone peaks. Historically, this small Wilderness was accessed by water through Meriwether Picnic Area. After the 2007 Meriwether Fire, the drainage washed out and destroyed most of the exisiting Forest trail. Currently there is no maintained trail to access this area from the river side, but there are several other trailheads around the area. Please consult a recent map or call the Helena Ranger District.
For a more in-depth history of the Gates of the Mountains and this stretch of the Missouri River, please take a few minutes to read Gates of the Mountains: Lewis & Clark History.