A meteor, aliens or just a magnificent view?

Cadotte Pass was the sensational subject of speculation in 1865

Cadotte Pass in Montana looking west from Sunset Mountain (Photo by Kim Briggeman for the Daily Montanan).

CADOTTE PASS – This is big country up here on the Continental Divide, even bigger if you’re searching for the skid marks of an 1865 UFO.

Whether or not James Lumley, “an old Rocky Mountain trapper,” was telling a tall tale when he got back to St. Louis, his story thrust this low crossing over the main spine of the Rockies into a national spotlight of sorts. Newspapers from east to, well, the Midwest reprinted the St. Louis Democrat’s account in the last three months of 1865 as news of the Civil War subsided.

Today Cadotte Pass is all but forgotten, tucked on the Continental Divide Trail between Rogers Pass and Highway 200 three miles to the south and Lewis and Clark Pass seven miles north.

Travelers from the east can catch a glimpse or two of the barren ridge of Cadotte Pass as they near the top of Rogers Pass. But back in the 1860s, and for centuries before it gained the white man’s moniker, it was a route du jour to and from buffalo country on the eastern plains and the Big Blackfoot, Clark Fork and Bitterroot rivers.

We’ll push a bike up the west face in a minute, but first Lumley’s tale.

Around the middle of September 1865, the Democrat reported, he was trapping in the neighborhood of Cadotte Pass.

“Just after sunset one evening he beheld a bright, luminous body in the heavens, which was moving with a great rapidity in an easterly direction. It was plainly visible for at least five seconds, when it suddenly separated into particles, resembling, as Mr. Lumley described it, the bursting of a skyrocket in the air.”

A meteor, right?

A few minutes later Lumley heard an explosion that jarred the earth, followed by a rumbling sound “like a tornado sweeping through the forest.” There followed a strong wind and a peculiar sulfur smell that filled the air.

Lumley was impressed but said he wouldn’t have thought much more about it. But the next day, two miles from his camp, he encountered a path several rods wide as far as he could see. A rod, Barney Google tells us, is 16½ feet, a fact we presume didn’t require further explanation in 1865.

The trail of destruction had been cut through the forest, uprooting or breaking off giant trees near the ground, shaving off hilltops and plowing the earth.

“Great and wide-spread havoc was every-where visible,” the newspaper related.

OK, again — a meteor that turned into a meteorite when it hit the ground.

But here the story turns weird. (Cue “Twilight Zone” theme music.)

Ol’ Jim followed this “track of desolation” to an immense stone driven into a mountainside. The rock was divided into compartments and carved with “curious hieroglyphics.” Lumley said he was sure the pictographs were the works of human hands. Fragments were of a substance that resembled glass, and here and there were dark stains “as though caused by a liquid.”

“The stone itself, although but a fragment of an immense body, must have been used for some purpose by animated beings,” Lumley ruminated.

Maybe this helps explains 2020.

“It was evident that the stone which he discovered was a fragment of the meteor which was visible in this section in September last,” the Democrat reported. “It will be remembered that it was seen in Leavenworth, Galena and in this city by Colonel Bonneville. At Leavenworth (Kansas) it was seen to separate in particles or explode.”

Ah, Col. Benjamin Bonneville. He was 69 years old by then, commander of the Union Army’s Benton barracks in St. Louis and renowned explorer of the West. He is namesake of schools, a county and a mountain peak; of salt flats, dams and power administrations; of liberty ships, Pontiacs, and a crater on Mars.

But up in Montana Territory?

“Strange as this story appears, Mr. Lumley relates it with so much sincerity that we are forced to accept it as true.”

And so, so are we.

Let’s say you drive up Cadotte Creek, the highest drainage on the Big Blackfoot, on a windy summer day. Say you make it as far as the road goes, then board your mountain bike and start up the two-track. It’s faint, overgrown, rarely traveled, a service road to a NorthWestern Energy high-voltage transmission line.

This pass was targeted for glory by three railroads in their hurries to get tracks over the Rockies — by Isaac Stevens in his 1853-54 transcontinental railroad survey; by the Great Northern 30-some years later, and by the Milwaukee Road in the second decade of the 20th century. There was even talk of moving the highway over here in the 1930s. None of those visions panned out. Today Cadotte is the pass only of the 230 kilovolt line, the “interstate” of power lines, that connects Great Falls to Ovando in the Blackfoot Valley.

Stevens, the governor of the new Washington Territory, was working his way west to Olympia with the federal contract to survey a Northern Pacific route. He topped the pass that represented the western slope of America in September 1853 and named it for Pierre Cadotte (say ‘kuh-DOT’ unless you’re French).

Half Canadian and half Cree, Cadotte was a hunter for the Stevens party and had traveled over the pass from east to west two years earlier. He was called “the best stag hunter” of the upper Missouri region and a “genuine Mountaineer” in the journal of Swiss painter and author Rudolph Friederich Kurz, who encountered him at Fort Union in 1851.

“He is unrivaled in the skill of starting, pursuing, approaching, shooting, and carving a deer,” Kurz wrote. “In other respects he is heedless, wasteful and foolhardy.”

***

It’s getting steeper, so maybe you ditch your bike midway up the pass and hike the rest of the way. The top is a bit of a disappointment, no clear view of the eastern plains, and some sort of lonesome shed at the top. As far as the eye can see, in any direction, there’s no sign of a miles-long meteorite trail.

As the wind whips at the tall grass, you glance at the time (early evening) and reach a decision: Let’s seek another view.

Back down to the bike, down to your vehicle, down Cadotte Creek to the highway. Up to Rogers Pass and, just over its lip, a gravel road that branches off to the right.

It leads to the three telecommunication towers of Sunset Mountain, and a rocky ledge that affords a better view of the countryside to the north and east. Did we say better? This might be the best view in all Montana, maybe in the world. Before darkness falls you can again study the mountainsides below and around you — and come up with no clue of a meteorite crash and burn.

At this point who cares? Hunker down among boulders on a sleeping bag just below the road. Grab the sandwich and a beer from the cooler you hauled along.

Watch as one, a few, then a sky full of stars blink “where ya been?” The darkness that descends is complete, euphoric. Off to your right there’s the lonely, lovely glow of Great Falls. Your memories of it pile up like a fluffy bank of clouds.

The best show, though, is at your feet. Yard lights, living-room lights, the street lights of Augusta, and could that be Fairfield and Choteau? Maybe even Alberta? There are no limits to the imagination up here. The Blackfeet Indian Reservation is out there, Bud Guthrie and Ivan Doig country, Hutterite colonies and Minuteman missile silos. The Dearborn River below, the upper Sun, Teton and Marias, all flowing out of the Rocky Mountain Front, each with legends of its own.

A shooting star passes overhead. Hey, it’s traveling with a great rapidity in an easterly direction. What was it the St. Louis Democrat expounded upon in 1865?

“Astronomers have long said that it is probable that the heavenly bodies are inhabited — even the comets — and it may be that the meteors are used as a means of conveyance by the inhabitants of other planets in exploring space.”

“It may be,” the long-ago writer continued, “that hereafter some future Columbus, from Mercury or Uranus, may land on this planet by means of a meteoric conveyance, and take full possession thereof, as did the Spanish navigators of the new world in 1492, and eventually drive what is known as the ‘human race’ into a condition of most abject servitude.”

The magnitude of the canvas before you bedazzles and bewilders. Time and space evaporate. It’s almost tomorrow. It’s almost yesterday. It’s almost 1865. Peering through the gathered gloom you notice a bedroll downslope. What appears to be a long-bearded miner reclines there, gazing out where you’re gazing. He turns and his grizzled eyes meet yours.

In the palest of starlight, you seem to see him wink.