The big fire valley in the Bitterroot mountains seen from the Route of the Hiawatha.

The Big Fire

In the “big fire”, as they call it, it all burned. Everything of value was gone. The big fire was actually 3000 smaller fires, yes the number is correct three thousand fires. The fire destroyed three million acres of prime, old-growth forest.

Map of the big fire in 1910. United States Forest Service.
Map of the big fire in 1910. United States Forest Service.

The big fire

Three million acres is three times the area of the state of Rhode Island. Two towns, Taft and Grand Forks were wiped from the map. The fire destroyed one-third of Wallace. The other two-thirds was only saved by the winds that carried the destruction away from the town. Most of the destruction was in the forest. The big fire burned a billion trees. In many places, the firestorm created its own weather. Winds associated with the fires were more than one hundred miles per hour. People witnessed flaming trees (whole trees) flying through the sky.

It gets dark fast at the entrance to one of the tunnels on the Route of the Hiawatha.
It gets dark fast at the entrance to one of the tunnels on the Route of the Hiawatha. Everything outside these tunnels burned by the big fire. Many people were safe from the fire by hiding in these tunnels.

More than ten thousand newly recruited fire-fighters attempted to control the fire with very little to show for their efforts. Eventually, the fire stopped because of a combination of running out of fuel and winter snow.

What does a one-hundred-year-old fire have to do with our travels? We spent a large part of last month in the fire zone. The towns never recovered but the forests are majestic.

Across Idaho (northern Idaho)

We didn’t expect to take this route and it was all a change of plans. As previously explained we moved quickly through eastern Washington and spent about two weeks outside of Spokane. Then to get back to our desired route we turned east through Idaho towards Missoula Montana.

Pretty peak, All regrowth after the big fire of 1910.
Pretty peak, All regrowth after the big fire of 1910. In the fall of 1910, this would have looked like a black cinder cone.

The previous plan was to stay in Idaho and travel north through the Sawtooth Mountains and north through the Bitterroot Valley. Then we would cross the Bitterroot Mountains westbound on Highway 12 to Washington. Instead, we made a loop out of a straight line. The Sawtooth Mountains would have to wait for another year but we would get to see the Bitterroots.

Delayed in Spokane

We hit a snag that caused a one-week delay in Spokane. To get back on schedule we made a quick trip across Idaho and into Montana camping at Quartz Flat Campground. I had intended to spend more time on the Idaho side of the continental divide before crossing into Montana but instead, we camped at the best place, still in the mountains, in Montana, west of Missoula.

This is at the start of the epic sixteen-mile, all-downhill bike ride.
This is at the start of the epic sixteen-mile, all-downhill bike ride.

I described our stay in Spokane in this post. Kayak Adventures

Underground

While in the area, we crossed back across the divide on bicycles. Actually, I should say we crossed under the divide because we were not above ground.

Inside the Saint Paul's Tunnel at the border between Idaho and Montana.
Inside the Saint Paul’s Tunnel at the border between Idaho and Montana.

We started our trip under the divide at Taft. Actually, we started at the townsite of Taft. Just to the south of the townsite is the railway and the biggest of the train tunnels that crossed under the divide. After the big fire, they tried to rebuild Taft but it failed, the townsite now sits under Interstate 90.

Scott and Tami taking a break on the Route of the Hiawatha.
Scott and Tami taking a break on the Route of the Hiawatha.

Route of the Hiawatha

The railway, crossing west to east north of Taft, (in 1910) hosted a special luxury train called the Hiawatha. The purpose of the train was so that well-to-do tourists could see the west. The railway also carried cargo on the same route, but not on the same trains.

Train trestle converted to a bike path on the Route of the Hiawatha.
Train trestle converted to a bike path on the Route of the Hiawatha.

Overall the railway was in use for 71 years. The big fire also destroyed the railway. To put the train through the most difficult section they built several tunnels through the mountains and several trestles across canyons. During the big fire, the train tunnels were used by trains (and people) to hide from the destruction. Without them, far more people would have died.

After the big fire, the trestles were rebuilt and the train was used again. For some reason, tourists weren’t as interested in seeing the fire-scarred land. As automobile travel increased and train travel decreased eventually the trains and the tracks were abandoned. Eventually, the railway was stripped for scrap leaving only the path, tunnels, and trestles.

PXL 20220625 173938125.PORTRAIT 2

Rails to trails

The Rails to trails converted the railway in 1998 to a bicycle trail. The starting point is just south of the Taft townsite at the Saint Paul’s Tunnel. From the starting point, bicycles follow the railway through the tunnels for sixteen miles all downhill, from Montana and into Idaho.

After you exit the Saint Paul's Tunnel you are treated to a very nice cascade.
After you exit the Saint Paul’s Tunnel you are treated to a very nice cascade.

The bicycle trail follows the path of the train through some of northern Idaho’s most scenic mountains. Riders then shuttle in “antique” converted school buses back to Saint Pauls’s Tunnel for the ride back to their car.

Saint Paul’s Tunnel

Saint Paul’s Tunnel is the highest and longest tunnel on the route and crosses under the continental divide between Montana and Idaho. Overall it is 1.7 miles long, very dark, cold, and quite wet.

Entrance to the Saint Paul's Tunnel.
Entrance to the Saint Paul’s Tunnel.

Lights inside the tunnels are not optional. Without them, you would see nothing. It took two and a half years to dig using the most modern equipment including steam-powered drilling machines and shovels. In nearly all the old pictures you see of the workers they are wearing raincoats because water is constantly dripping from the roof. At the exit of the tunnel, the water flows at 1500 gallons per minute.

Our ride is nearly over, did I mention that it was wet inside the tunnels?
Our ride is nearly over, did I mention that it was wet inside the tunnels?

The Taft Tunnel

The Saint Paul’s Tunnel is located under Saint Paul’s Pass, hence the name. Another name for the same tunnel is the Taft Tunnel because it is located nearest to the Taft townsite.

Not this year

So far our luck has held and no fires and no smoke. In 2020 we had smoke problems and even ash from forest fires landing on our RV. (We were annoyed but not in danger.) This year we haven’t had any problem (knock on wood) with fires. It has been an exceptionally wet spring here in the mountains and we are grateful.

Links

History of Americas Worst Wildfire by Chuck Lyons

Smithsonian book review of the Tim Egan Book, The Big Burn

Route of the Hiawatha Rails to Trails Conversion

6 thoughts on “The Big Fire”

  1. So fun! We rode the Hiawatha last summer but it was during a fire in California and the sky was completely smokey.

    I would love to go back and see it looking just like these photos.

    Thanks for sharing. Beautiful!

  2. It never ceases to amaze me how these forests bounce back from fire. From these beautiful pictures, you’d never know anything happened. And yes, I am sure you are VERY relieved to have such great weather after all the recent fire seasons. Looks like you’re really making the most of it!

    And great photos of you two!

  3. Yay biking!!!

    Yay Rails-to-trails! Joe and I have enjoyed several of them throughout the country. We look forward to riding more Rails-to-Trails.

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