I’ve been reading Granville Stuart’s account* of the early days in Montana (1870’s and 80’s). At one point in the book he is traveling around Montana looking for range for 5,000 head of cattle. This is just before the big herds from Texas started to arrive in that part of Montana, and there was plenty of range for the taking.
One of his favored ranges included the land around the Bighorn and Little Bighorn Rivers. In his diary dated May 8, 1880 he states:
“The Big Horn River is heavily timbered with good cottonwood and some ash. The bluffs on the west side of the river are distant six or eight miles from where they begin, which is a little above Fort Custer and gradually narrow in until they reach the river at Half Way Ranch.They are quite high and level on top and are well timbered and form a beautiful background to the view. The land is all good….”
and “Cloud peak which has been in full view since we crossed the divide coming from Rosebud is really a very lofty point. It is a sort of jagged ridge or crest with a number of craggy peaks on it, west, for more than forty miles the top of the range is above timber line…”
Stuart seems a visionary. He often comments on how he can see certain areas becoming prosperous farming communities and he seems no stranger to the concept of moving water out of stream channels in order to irrigate croplands, but he doesn’t mention the idea of damming the Bighorn River in this book. Perhaps he didn’t travel as far upstream as the eventual location for the Yellowtail dam which created the Bighorn Canyon Recreational area straddling the Wyoming – Montana border.
The landscapes of the Bighorn and Little Bighorn Rivers are dramatic, rivaling the Grand Canyon for beauty and impact, if not for size. Fast forward to 2013 where Interpretive Officer, Christy Fleming, writes of the Bighorn:
“The sun warmed the colors of the canyon. It was so clear the snow-capped Bighorn Mountains stood out against the blue sky with not a single cloud brave enough to disrupt the view. The point I stood at is where a side canyon meets the main canyon and is known as the spot where you can get a triple echo. I couldn’t break the silence. It was too perfect.”
*Stuart Granville. 1925. Pioneering in Montana: The Making of a State, 1864-1887. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE