To Connie Constan, the collection of old buildings that make up the Shenango Work Station in Gallatin Canyon are a “tangible link to our history.”
The 11 buildings, known prior to 2004 as the Squaw Creek Ranger Station and work center, have been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places. Some of the structures were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1934 and 1939, along with the high-arching concrete bridge across the Gallatin River that accesses the site.
“They are places people can go to experience that history, which is part of our natural heritage,” said Constan, the Custer Gallatin National Forest archaeologist. “They also represent something valuable…and worthy of preservation.”
One former forest ranger’s recorded oral history lends detailed insight to the people who staffed such remote posts, the work they did and the unusual situations that arose.
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In January 1924, Eric White and his wife Grace arrived at the Cinnamon Ranger Station about 60 miles south of Bozeman. By then, he was a three-year veteran of the Forest Service, first serving as a ranger in the Paradise Valley at Carbella, followed by a year on the east side of the Crazy Mountains.
A Pittsburgh high school graduate, his family moved to the Custer area in 1915 to homestead. In 1918 he joined the Army, served in France and England, before returning home and taking the test in Billings to enter the Forest Service.
“I’d never seen a national forest in my life,” he said in a 1983 interview for the Montanans at Work oral history project by the Montana Historical Society. “I got all kinds of requests to go on as a ranger. I didn’t know which one to take, so I picked the one closest to Yellowstone Park.”
With little training or supervision, he set out on what would be a 37-year career with the agency. It also took him to Anaconda and finally Helena, where he helped with logistics fighting the historic Mann Gulch fire in 1949, in which 13 smokejumpers died.
It’s amazing he survived his first year. Stationed deep in the Beartooth Mountains at the Hellroaring Guard Station for an elk survey, he offered to snowshoe over a high pass to the next station at Buffalo Fork to provide bedding for a fellow forester.
To get there, he followed the telephone line linking the stations. When a blizzard made it impossible to see the line, he dug a hole in the snow and hunkered down. When the storm let up, he peaked out and it was clear enough for the moon to highlight the phone line.
On another errand, he was dispatched to track down a moose poacher and a blizzard blew in so hard he said it was “snowing pitchforks.” He and a companion found an old sheepherder’s cabin to stay in, but the gaps between the logs were so large that they gathered moss from a nearby cliff to stuff into the cracks to keep the cold and snow at bay.
“After we got all in order, I think the next day, we went up to see if we could find out anything about this poacher and, my gosh, we run into his cabin,” White recalled. “There was nobody home. And on the door he had printed, “KKK” Ku Klux Klan. (laughs) I was sure that this was the fella. He was from Mill Creek over on the other side of the divide that comes in there just near Chico Hot Springs, and there was a bunch of Virginia mountaineers settled in Mill Creek, I don’t know if you ever heard of them. They were those regular mountaineers. Kill people. And he was one of them. So it was night, so we stayed there, slept in his bed and used his food. And I don’t know if we ever left a calling card or not. We stayed a second night but nobody came. So we went back and reported what we had found. And they never did get any dope on this fella, but we did learn afterwards, he had killed a moose and sold the head to a banker in Livingston.”
White was also dispatched to Slough Creek, where another guard station cabin provided housing, for the elk research the Forest Service was conducting.
“Now, what we were doing, you see, that was summer sheep range,” he said. “The hunters wanted to get those sheep out of there, said they were conflicting with elk range and shouldn’t be in there eating up all the forage. Our study was to prove that that wasn’t winter elk range. We did find a few elk in there but they were in terrible condition, all starving to death. There was very deep snow. They couldn’t survive there because they couldn’t get to the forage under the snow. That’s what we went in there to prove, that the sheep weren’t conflicting with elk at all.”
He later studied forage conditions along the Gallatin, skiing miles into the backcountry to assess what the elk were feeding on and where they were wintering.
“He brought scientific management into the Forest Service and new ways to improve grazing and Wildlife Management,” wrote Ernest Nunn, forest supervisor, in an introduction to White’s oral history.
The Shenango Work Station, named after a nearby creek, is actually the third iteration of buildings erected near what is now Storm Castle Creek. Constan said nothing remains of the first ranger’s cabin. Some rangers had to build their own dwelling with little compensation from the Forest Service for supplies after the agency was founded in 1905, she noted. Most of the stations were situated within a day’s horseback ride of the next nearest station.
“Gifford Pinchot (who founded the agency) was looking for men, ideally, who had a forest background,” Constan said.
She pointed to Ranger Harry Kaufman, who manned the historic Main Boulder Ranger Station – one of the oldest in the Forest Service system – as an example of the early employees. According to a history of the site, Kaufman joined in 1903 and was required to “provide two horses, riding and pack outfits, camp equipment and his services 24 hours a day in exchange for $60 a month.”
The rangers’ duties would vary from building trails and fighting fires, to monitoring grazing and timber sales. They also strung the telephone wire to connect the stations. Especially after the devastating 1910 fires, as suppression became paramount, communication about fire starts was emphasized.
“One thing I’ve always found fascinating is that the wives helped respond to fires, tended livestock, grew gardens and fed workers,” Constan said, all with no compensation. “The wives were definitely an important part in making things function.”
Kaufman’s wife, Coral, is known for responding to a fire when her husband was gone.
“She was pitching in, no bones about it,” Constan said.
White said his wife, Grace, ran the district when he was busy with other duties.
“She even got the men lined up to go out on a fire and stuff like that,” he said. “Never got paid for it. She didn’t even get thanked for it. But she did it.”
In March, the Society of American Foresters celebrated women in the agency by noting the early women of the Forest Service “carved out interesting and worthwhile work for themselves and spread the cause of conservation as forest builders and forest guards,” said Rachel Kline, supervisory historian, in a statement. “They forged their own tradition in what Dr. Kline calls a ‘feminine forestry,’ without which the U.S. Forest Service would not be where it is today.”
The Civilian Conservation Corps’ arrival in Gallatin Canyon in the fall of 1934 also adds to the history of the Shenango Work Station, which was relocated to its current site to accommodate the 200 men who were housed in barracks at the facility. Established in 1933, the CCC was composed of men ages 18 to 25 who were dispatched to camps where they built fence, fought fires and constructed buildings, among other things.
White was assigned to supervise a work detail of one of the first CCC camps in the Hebgen Lake area, a job he did not enjoy.
“All they (workers) knew about the United States was the streets of New York, and they got a pretty wide scope of idea of what the United States consisted of through the CCs,” White said.
The men had little experience. One CCC enrollee, who refused to work, was told he would have to walk back to camp. When he tried to jump on the slow-moving truck anyway, White ordered the other men to use clubs to keep him out. Many protested the treatment, and chose to walk back to camp instead.
“They wanted to go home, they didn’t like it at first,” White said. “They didn’t want to stay there. So, discipline was very difficult.”
When dispatched to fires, White said the CCC crews were disrespected because locals saw them as taking work away from residents. One gas station attendant didn’t want to fill their truck.
In 1934, when the CCC camp was started at Shenango, Locally Experienced Men, or LEMS, were enlisted.
“We had a whole bunch of them come in, and I’ll tell ya, we did the work,” White said. “They all knew how to work you know.”
The CCC built the Storm Castle Road, as well as the Rat Lake Road to the top of the nearby mountain where a fire lookout still stands, Constan noted. They also built trails, planted trees, strung telephone lines and built the Greek Creek Campground. They even constructed the bridge over the Gallatin River to access the work center, an arching structure that still stands following recent repairs. In the winter, they would build furniture for the buildings.
“They were busy guys,” Constan said, noting they even planted flowers around the camp’s flag pole.
White recalled revisiting the final version of the ranger station years later.
“I went back there two years ago and it was nostalgic, because there was nothing there that was there when we lived there,” he said. “Not a thing. Even took the bridges out so you couldn’t get across the creek, and the timber was growing up where the station was.”
The Shenango Work Station is still in use, housing a helitack crew and other seasonal workers, but a forest ranger hasn’t been stationed there since the late 1970s.
Which makes preserving what is left even more important to history buffs like Constan.
“It’s definitely a special place, and this is a way to recognize that,” Constan said. “It tells the story of the Forest Service and the CCC history.”