Historic Alta Ranger Station

Historic Alta Ranger Station


In 1891, responding to the depletion of public ranges and timber lands and to the degradation of water resources by erosion, Congress passed the General Land Law Revision Act authorizing the President to establish forest reserves on public lands. By 1893, 13 million acres had been reserved in seven western states and Alaska.  On February 22, 1897, President Grover Cleveland established thirteen new reserves, including the first Montana reserves--the Flathead Reserve in northwestern Montana and the Bitterroot Reserve in western Montana and northern Idaho.  These early reserves were administered by the General Land Office (GLO) in the Department of the Interior. The role of the GLO's forest rangers was primarily to prevent timber theft and illegal grazing on public land. 

Faced with the responsibility of patrolling thousands of acres in the Bitterroot Reserve, rangers Nathaniel E. "Than" Wilkerson and Henry C. Tuttle built a small cabin on Hughes Creek  to serve as a ranger station.  The Hughes Creek area was at that time the site of a small but active mining district.   Using a horse  borrowed from miner Pete Bennett, the rangers cut and skidded their own logs and spent  their own money to purchase "hinges, nails, a window, and flag to fly over the building."   The one-room cabin measured 13 x 15 feet, with V-notched corners and a sod roof.  Completed in two weeks time,  Alta Ranger Station was officially dedicated on July 4, 1899.  It was used by GLO rangers until 1904, when a survey  revealed that the cabin stood on Pete Bennett's mining claim rather than forest reserve land, and the cabin was abandoned by the government.

In February 1905, administration of the forest reserves was transferred from the General Land Office to the Bureau of Forestry in the Department of Agriculture.  Later that year the Bureau became the United States Forest Service.  In March 1907, the federal forest reserves were reorganized and renamed national forests.  The boundaries of the old Bitterroot Reserve were reconfigured to create the Bitterroot National Forest and portions of the Lolo and Selway Forests.

Recognizing the significance of Alta Ranger Station in the history of the national forest system, the Hamilton Lions Club purchased the site from Pete Bennett's daughter in 1941 and donated it to the Forest Service.  Although documentation is difficult, the cabin is probably the oldest surviving building associated with federal forest management. (That claim has been made for two other historic ranger stations.  However, the Langhor Ranger Station on the Gallatin National Forest was constructed a month later than Alta, in July 1899, and the Wapiti Ranger Station near Cody, Wyoming was not built until 1901.)   Prior to 1999, the cabin had been restored at least three times, in 1941, 1952, and 1974.  None of the original roof survived and some changes were made to the cabin while in private ownership, however the cabin's historic door and log walls remain intact. In December 1974, Alta Ranger Station was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

In 1999, Alta underwent another restoration in preparation for its centennial celebration.  The cabin's sod roof was in serious need of repair. Not only had time and the weather taken its toll, but in 1998 a summer storm felled a large Douglas fir next to the cabin.  Its limbs struck and damaged the rear portion of the roof. In June 1999, a Forest Service preservation specialist and a crew of Forest Service employees removed and rebuilt the cabin roof. Although the visual appearance is identical to the original roof, the restored roof contains two hidden components to improve durability and drainage.  A synthetic membrane (EPDM) underlies the sod, preventing water from soaking into the roof supports and planking.  The water runs down the roof over the membrane to the eaves, where gravel "French drains" were installed to assist with drainage and prevent water pooling against the retaining logs and fascia (see diagram).  The restoration work was completed in time for Alta's centennial observance on July 1.  Forest Service employees, West Fork neighbors and visitors all joined with relatives of Than Wilkerson to celebrate the little ranger station's first century with an old-fashioned cake-and-lemonade party. Overhead flew a 45-star American flag, just like the one Than Wilkerson and Hank Tuttle bought with their own money 100 years before.

On July 31, 2000, a line of dry-lightning storms swept across the tinder-dry southern portion of the Bitterroot National Forest, igniting more than 90 wildfires. Within the next two weeks, more than 300,000 of the Forest's 1.6 million acres were ablaze.  The fires threatened dozens of the Forest's historic structures, including Alta Ranger Station.  As a precaution, the cabin's sod roof and dirt floor were soaked with water.  Forest Service employees and volunteers then wrapped the cabin in a silver fire-retardant fabric, secured with aluminized flue tape, staples and roofing nails.  The apron of the wrap was held to the ground with washed gravel, and all vegetation was removed from the area immediately surrounding the foundation. Similar measures were taken at Magruder Ranger Station, Cooper's Flat Cabin, McCart Lookout, and other historic buildings on the Forest.  Although the non-historic (1960s) Sula Peak lookout burned, and dozens of historic wooden structural ruins and cabin remnants were destroyed, none of the Forest's National Register-eligible buildings were destroyed or damaged during the 2000 fires. Alta's place in the sentiments of Forest Service employees was obvious when, after the danger subsided in September, a Smokejumper crew requested the "honor" of unwrapping Alta and raising the American flag over the cabin once more.

Alta is unusual among the Bitterroot National Forest's historic buildings since it is neither an active administrative site or recreational facility. Visitors to Alta today see a building that is essentially a "museum piece" - what some folks might call a "ghost cabin."  It looks much as it did when the Lions' Club donated the abandoned building to the Forest Service in 1941. Alta is actively maintained to preservation standards, ensuring that it does not deteriorate.  Its windows and frames were restored in 2003, and the foundation and sill logs were replaced in 2009.  Additional work is planned to preserve the hundreds of signatures on the interior walls, dating back to 1899, and including men prominent in early Forest Service history such as Maj. Frank Fenn and early ranger Charlie Powell.  Groundskeeping is performed by volunteers Mike and Terry Tietge.  Terry is the grand-niece of Hank Tuttle who, along with fellow ranger Than Wilkerson, built the Alta cabin in 1899. 

There are no plans to restore the cabin to a "brand-new" 1899 appearance.  Standing just as it is, the silent little cabin speaks volumes about the early days of our national forest and the people who lived and worked here.