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Exploring Montana's backroads

by Warren Illi
| September 28, 2023 12:00 AM

If you want to enjoy this week’s Outdoor column, you must set your clock back 100 years or more as we explore a backroads corner of Montana.

Last week, my wife and I drove to our farm near Malta. On our way we took a few hours to explore a small part of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. This is a relatively new national monument established in 2001 by President Bill Clinton, which preserves about 375,000 acres of the upper Missouri River corridor that has changed very little since it was explored by Lewis and Clark in 1804-1806.

This river corridor is a mix of sculptured rock landscapes, fertile river benches and cottonwood floodplains. To really explore and experience this area you need to bring a canoe and float the Missouri River. We decided that type of trip is for another day and time for us. All we wanted to do on our one-day adventure is to experience crossing the Missouri River on an old-fashioned ferry.

We drove south from our usual journey along U.S. 2, to the Virgelle Ferry near the Coal Banks campground on the Missouri River. Our route south from U.S. 2 involved about a 40-mile trip on county roads, both paved and gravel. This is really some of the backroad country of Montana. No towns or communities. Frequently you can’t even see a farm or ranch house from the road. You want to make sure you have a good car or truck and good tires. If you break down, it may be the next day before help arrives or you undertake a long walk.

A better way to access this ferry is to drive Highway 87 from Fort Benton toward Big Sandy, home of Sen. Jon Tester. The road from Highway 87 to the community of Virgelle is a county gravel road. Some of the literature refers to Virgelle as a ghost town. From what I could see it has at least a couple of residents and one business, the Virgelle Mercantile.

The county road leading to the ferry is gravel. We drove my truck directly onto the ferry, which is a one-vehicle type ferry. It was full with my pickup and small trailer with my 4-wheeler. The sign on the ferry said to stay in your vehicle. No one was around the ferry, so I did something unusual for me — I obeyed the sign. Then I looked in my rear-view mirror and I saw an older lady trudging down from a nearby house toward the ferry. She was obviously the ferry boat captain and operator. After exchanging pleasantries, I explained that we intended to ride the ferry across the river, take some photos and then come back to the north side of the river.

Once she was assured my truck was in park and the brake on, she cranked up the diesel engine and we started across the river. This small type of ferry appears to be one-of-a-kind, designed for function, not looks. It hauls one vehicle at a time. It operates with a diesel engine and a series of over-head steel cables that tow the ferry back and forth across the river.

This ferry is owned and operated by Blaine County to serve a handful of ranches south of the river. There is no cost to use the ferry. It transports about 10 vehicles a day and sometimes only 2-3 vehicles on a slow day. This is one of three ferries that operate on this central part of the Missouri River. It does not operate year-round, but only from April to November. The Montana highway map shows the location of these three ferries and has telephone numbers to call to check on the ferry operating schedule.

The Missouri River is about 200-300 yards wide at the ferry site with about 5-6 feet of water depth. The current is moderately strong. The ferry operator pointed out an up-river island which was a Lewis and Clark campsite. After crossing the river and taking a few photos, we drove back onto the ferry and recrossed the river. This was an interesting experience in the backcountry of Eastern Montana.

After the ferry ride, we drove to downtown Virgelle, about 100 yards from the ferry. The Virgelle Mercantile is an old two-story frame building that houses an antique business that overflows into the basement, backroom and the old brick bank building next door. You can rent a bedroom upstairs, but must use a central bathroom. Both the mercantile building and old bank building are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Stepping into the antique store is like stepping back 100 years in time. The place is crammed full of antiques from the late 1800s to early 1900s. My wife and I remarked that some of the antiques were things our moms and grandmas used. That kind of dates us!

We were in the store for 15 minutes before the proprietor showed up. He was a pleasant older gentleman. His cash register was the old fashioned, mechanical type. Then I noticed a sign on the counter that said if a customer needed assistance, to come to the old bank building or garage building next door. Certainly an old-fashioned, but nice way to run a business.

After taking our ferry ride and visiting the antique store we headed north to U.S. 2 and our farm. A very interesting day exploring the backroads of Montana.