Lt. John Mullan’s camp was located at the confluence of the Big Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers during the winter of 1861-1862, when he was in the process of finishing his military wagon road from Walla Walla, Washington, to Fort Benton, Montana. Cantonment Wright was constructed in November 1861 on the high east bank above the Blackfoot where Milltown stands today.
The 624-mile Mullan Road was built in 1859-60 and improved and partially rerouted in 1861-62. Although designed as a wagon road to transport troops to the Northwest, the road was used only once for that purpose. Instead it served as a route to the early gold camps of Idaho and Montana, and led directly to territorial designations in 1863 and 1864, respectively. Permanent settlements that followed were also serviced by the road.
The bridge Mullan and his men built across the Big Blackfoot was located downstream from today’s Montana Rail Link bridge. Evidence of the road in this area was still noted on Anaconda Company maps in 1913, and on a subdivision survey map in 1946. Most remnants of the Mullan Road disappeared with construction of railroads, U.S. Highway 10 and, ultimately, Interstate 90 through Milltown in the 1960s.
In his official report of 1863, Mullan summarized the reasons for establishing Cantonment Wright after spending much of the fall of 1861 building bridges on the St. Regis River: “A portion of my escort, with its train, also went to the junction of the Hell’s Gate and Blackfoot rivers, under Lieutenant Marsh, that point having been selected as the site of our winter camps, where he was to erect the necessary log-houses. I was governed in this selection by the fact that the Big Blackfoot was here to be bridged, and my remaining work for the winter and spring lay along the valley of the Hell’s Gate…the party remaining at the main camp having completed their huts began getting out the necessary timbers for the Big Blackfoot Bridge…and by the 1st of March we had completed the entire bridge which was two hundred and thirty-five feet long with four spans."
Mullan broke winter camp on May 23, 1862. He sent some men back to the St. Regis River to complete bridgework from the previous autumn and proceeded to Fort Benton with a party of 16 soldiers, six civilians and a few employees heading east down the Missouri River.
"Cantonment Wright, so called in honor of General Wright, a warm friend of our enterprise, was now abandoned,” Mullan wrote. “Though a cold and bleak place it nevertheless proved a suitable point for our purposes. The camp was situated on the high flat in the forks of the Blackfoot and Hell Gate rivers where timber was abundant and close, but exposed to the bleak winds that at times come down the valley of the Blackfoot. It was found to be an abode of not over much comfort…"
Gustav Sohon, an artist, mapmaker, interpreter and guide with Mullan, sketched the area at the confluence. It was one of several sketches included in Mullan’s report of 1863. A lithograph was later made of the sketch, the first illustrations of an area that became so important to the timber, transportation and hydroelectric futures of Montana.
For additional information, visit the Eastern Washington University's Mullan Road history site.