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In order to knowledgeably review the history of road development on or near National Forests, one must know something about the history of Forest Service authority and financing.

The Secretary was given authority to develop and operate roads for National Forest purposes in 1912. Financing was to be from 10 per cent of National Forest receipts and the money had to be spent in the state where the receipts originated.

Forest Roads were defined and mentioned in the original Federal Highways Act of 1916 and financing in addition to the 10 per cent fund was provided. This was the first money available for Montana National Forest Roads as forest receipts were nil.

Forest roads were further defined in the Act of 1924 and the first differentiation between Forest Development Roads and Forest Highways was made. Forest Development Roads were forest roads needed primarily for the protection, development, and administration of National Forest Lands. Forest Highways were forest roads needed primarily by the public.

Subsequent acts made further refinements but the 1924 definitions are substantially the same today.

History of the North Fork of the Flathead Road

(F.D.R. # 210 and F.H. #61)

Prior to 1890, the North Fork of the Flathead had no permanent residents. There were trails on both sides of the river leading to Canada, and a trail westward on Trail Creek leading to Tobacco Plains. There were some trappers occupying the valley periodically and in about 1886 the coal banks were discovered.

The land from Township 34 North to the international boundary along the river was surveyed and plotted from 1892 to 1894. At that time there were no roads on the west side of the river; there was a logging road from the river up Logging Creek for about 2 miles. The scattered squatters and prospectors were served by a west side trail from Columbia Falls and an east side trail from Lake McDonald.

The Great Northern railroad reached the Flathead valley during the period the land was surveyed and plotted. This increased homesteading, prospecting and logging activities in the North Fork.

On February 22, 1897, the North Fork area was withdrawn from entry and made part of the Lewis and Clark Forest reserve. The upper river became the Moran District in 1900 and access was by way of the east side road to Belton, now West Glacier. This road was developed by settlers and miners and became the mail route by 1900. (See attached map).

The Lower North Fork became the Tea Kettle District and was approached through Columbia Falls.

Settlement in the North Fork accelerated after 1900. By 1910 there were 30 residences on the upper west side occupied there year round and 30 or so on the east side. In addition, there was oil exploration north of Pole Bridge and mining activity at Coal Creek. As a result, freighters were operating over the Belton-Apgar east side route up the North Fork and into Canada. There was a post office at Adair located on the east side near Logging Creek. On the lower west side settlement progressed to Baily Lake. A road was constructed under the jurisdiction of the County to Junkins ranch (now called Blankenship Corner).

In May of 1910, the land east of the river was made part of Glacier National Park.

In 1915, Mike Berne located the road from Junkin's Corner to Coal Creek and it was built by the County. The 1915 road was about on the location of the present road although at Big Creek there was an alternate route up Langford Creek to Mud Lake, thence to Cyclone Park and down Coal Creek to the Coal Banks. Claude Elder began mining coal before 1920 and operated the mines till the late thirties, freighting the coal down the west side to Columbia Falls. Settlers north of Coal Creek developed a wagon trail north for 11 miles from Coal Creek by 1915. Due to public pressure, the Flathead County Commissioners visited the upper North Fork in 1916 and decided to construct a bridge in Section 22, T35N, R21W. This was the original Pole Bridge. Adair then moved his Post Office and store to the west side and located it in Section 27.

In response to a request by the Regional Forester dated May 4, 1917, Hartley Calkins, from June 24 to September 15, located, designed and estimated a cost for a road from Coal Creek to the boundary some 29.48 miles. Because of World War I, construction did not begin until 1921 by contractors Carison and Norman. Until this time, the residents on the west side north of Red Meadow used the Post Office at Kintla. When the road was completed, a post office was established at Trail Creek. All north end commerce, settler access and mail continued to use the Pole Bridge-Belton Route. This was because the Coal Creek-Columbia Falls section of the west side road was much tougher to travel than the East Side Road, particularly, the section from Canyon Creek on north past Fool Hen Hill to Great Northern Flats.

From 1921 till 1952 the road situation on the west side remained fairly static with some spot improvement. Pile driven bridge structures were constructed across the high silt slide side hills at Fool Hen Hill and the County had a steam shovel side casting material on road widening projects until about 1931 when the shovel went over the bank and into the river near the mouth of Canyon Creek. Pole Bridge washed out and was replaced by the County during this period. In 1930, the Forest Service Ranger Districts on the North Fork were combined into one District.

In 1951, evidence of Spruce Bud worm damage was discovered in Canyon Creek and investigations soon showed the infection was in spruce throughout the Northwest. As a consequence, timber sales on the North Fork District accelerated and road improvement was imperative. From 1952 to 1955, the North Fork Road was rebuilt from Canyon Creek to Big Creek and generally improved on the north to Whale Creek by the Forest Service to expedite spruce salvage logging operations.

As a consequence, the North Fork Mail Route was changed to Belton- Coram-Blankenship Road and the North Fork Road to Pole Bridge (Adair) in 1954. In 1955, the southern terminus of the mail route was moved from Belton to Columbia Falls. This route is still used.

In 1957, the North Fork Road from Columbia Falls to the border was evaluated and recommended for classification as a Class 2 Forest Highway under the terms of the 1958 Federal Highways Act. As a consequence, the route was placed on the Montana Federal Aid Secondary System in 1960 as FAS A86. Congress did not act on the Forest Highway recommendation.

In 1964, the Park Service constructed a highway from Apgar down Camas Creek and bridged the North Fork near Big Creek to terminate on the North Fork Road. After recommendations by the Federal Highway Administration, Forest Service and State of Montana, the North Fork Road was designated as Montana Forest Highway 1161, on February 17, 1969. 

The section from two miles north of the Aluminum plant to Congdon Creek was built to Highway standards with Forest Highway funds in 1969-1974 and in June of 1976, the portion of the North Fork Road-Camas Creek to the Canadian Boundary was dropped from the Forest Highway System. 

There is presently an on-going contract to replace the Big Creek Bridge and approaches with Forest Highway funds.

North Fork Road Use

The initial use of roads in the North Fork was by settlers and miners with oil exploration north of Pole Bridge carried on sporadically after 1900. Mail was carried in by freighters before 1910 with mail contracts in effect by 1910 serving two post offices above Coal Creek on the east side of the river.

Moran Ranger Station was occupied in about 1900 and throughout its life did not have more than two permanent employees.

By 1915, most of the land was taken up and Calkins in his road location report of 1917 mentions 30 permanently occupied residences and a number of seasonal residences north of Coal Creek. South of Coal Creek the road was used predominantly by freighters and workers at the coal mines. There was very little logging activity before World War II and Forest Service activities was limited to protection and custody.

After World War II, logging activity began in earnest. By 1951, the cut was about 24 million. It increased dramatically during the Spruce Bud worm epidemic to about 60 million, then, by 1960, dropped back to 20 million.

The classified traffic in 1961 follows:

Logging Trucks


Assoc. Log Traffic


Administrate Traffic


Visitor Traffic


Public Service




The total use increased to 64,240 in 1962 with logging use remaining static at the annual allowable cut of about 24 million. Except for the flood damage years, 1964 and a couple following, the non-logging use has increased at 5 to 10 per cent per year.

History of Jurisdiction

The jurisdictional records are spotty before the middle 1930's, however, some conclusions can be drawn based on known authorities and practices.

The Forest Service did not have either the authority or funds to construct, maintain, or manage roads before 1912. Funds for Montana Forest Roads became available in 1916 and in that year the money was spent on the Bitterroot Big Hole Road.

The first official Forest Service act on the North Fork was Calkins' location work in 1917. The first construction work by the Forest Service was in 1921.

At that time, 1921, the road existed from Columbia Falls to a point 11 miles north of Coal Creek which is a couple of miles north of Adair (Pole Bridge). The existing road was developed by the County and the local settlers. There were statutory provisions that allowed residents to work on roads in lieu of paying road taxes and "working the roads" was a common practice. There has been a comparatively heavy public use on the road since it was built.

After World War II, the Forest Service began to maintain the road for logging purposes. This is when the so-called Forest Service jurisdiction begins.

In 1949, there was a co-op agreement signed with Flathead County whereby the county maintained the road to Deep Creek, 1 1/2 miles south of Big Creek, and the Forest Service maintained the rest.

This agreement is still in effect.


  1. The road existed from Columbia to a couple of miles north of Pole Bridge by 1917 and had been built by the County.
  2. The County constructed the bridge at Polebridge in 1916.
  3. There were 30 permanently occupied residences on the north end and a post office north of Polebridge in 1917.
  4. The coal mines at Coal Creek were in operation before 1920 and continuously hauled coal down river till World War II.
  5. The Forest Service constructed an improved road from Coal Creek to the Boundary in 1919-1920.
  6. There has been continuous mail service to the Upper Northfork since about 1909.
  7. Forest Service use increased drastically after World War II because of increased logging activity.
  8. The County and the Forest Service developed a co-op agreement for maintenance in 1949.
  9. The road was improved by the Forest Service 1952 to 1954.
  10. Logging was not the major use by 1961.
  11. Federal Aid Classification in 1959.
  12. Forest highway designation in 1969.
  13. Road from Columbia Falls to Canyon Creek was built to Highway standards by 1974.
  14. Forest Highway designation dropped from Camas Creek to Border in 1976.


The major part of the North Fork of the Flathead Road was developed by the public. 

For most of its history, use other than Forest Service use has predominated. (i.e. - mail, commerce, agriculture and mining).

The road has never functioned primarily for the protection, administration and management of National Forest lands. In other words, the road would have been developed and used whether or not there was any National Forest land activity.

Last update: 24 Feb 2000