Northwest Montana is Remarkable

By hintonthetrail | Nov 17, 2020
North America > United States > Montana

After Yellowstone National Park, we headed to Flathead Lake in Northwest Montana. The drive would have been around 6 hours so we decided to overnight in Garrison, Montana. What a great decision! Near Garrison is Deer Lodge and there is a lot of history there and we now had time to experience a piece of it. We only had a short amount of time though so we chose the Old Montana Prison Museum and Auto Museum.

Old Montana Prison Museum

The Old Montana Prison Museum and Auto Museum is located in Deer Lodge in Northwest Montana. It is part of many museums in the town and one admission fee gets you into all of them… for a whole year! The fees are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, and $8 for kids over 8-years-old. When you buy your ticket, you can also purchase raffle tickets for the Auto Museum's annual classic car give-away. We didn't win the 1967 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible in Butternut Yellow but it was nice to hope and to support the museums. After purchasing our tickets, we headed into the Prison for an eye-opening experience.

If you haven't been to a prison before, this Northwest Montana museum will blow you away. It's everything you expect from movies and television shows and more. It gave us the creeps! The prison was established in 1871 in response to the constant travels of outlaws through the Montana Territory. It continued running until 1979 when it moved to another location 4-miles away and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The prison became a model for other penitentiaries around the country primarily to the actions of one man.

Guard, Warden, Mayor?

Frank Conley worked at the prison for 35 years, starting out as a guard and then moved up to warden and eventually town mayor. He and his partner were paid $0.70 per inmate per day to take care of the prisoners and to run the daily operations. Conley felt that the prisoners would be better reformed if they were busy. His decision to use the inmates for manual labor provided many new buildings for the prison and renovations for the town of Deer Lodge.

The additional buildings built by the inmates were the stonewall surrounding the prison, an additional cell house and women's quarters which enabled the staff to separate the males and females. The inmates were also used as ranch workers on many private ranches and Conley's own 23,000-acre ranch.

Many people from Deer Lodge utilized the inmates' services while many others criticized Conley for using inmates in this manner. Ultimately, nothing really ever came from any investigations into Conley and his management of the inmates. A change did occur in the prison systems throughout the country though when folks realized that some inmates could assist the states with civilized labor instead of just sitting in their cells.

Auto Museum

The Auto Museum is located in one of the old prison buildings and houses over 160 cars! While we didn't have but 20 minutes to spend here, we did a quick walkthrough. The cars range from the classic Model As and Model Ts to the fancy muscle cars. The first RV and the first Jet Ski. Chevys, Studebakers, and many more. They even have my favorite, the Shelby Mustang. You know, the one from Gone In 60 Seconds with Nicholas Cage? They were all beautiful and amazing cars. All different kinds and too many to write about. Definitely worth a visit though so you can appreciate the history of cars.

National Bison Range

Theodore Roosevelt established the National Bison Range in Northwest Montana in 1909 by Theodore Roosevelt and has 250-300 bison in its 18,500 acres of land. Roosevelt wanted to ensure the preservation of the bison species by providing it a place to roam and reproduce in a safe and protected environment. The grassland provides a beautiful background for the bison to live in and also includes deer, antelope, bighorn sheep, and black bear. The entry fee is only $5 per vehicle and free if you have the National Park Pass.

The park consists of three drives for spying animals; the West Loop, the Prairie Drive, and the Red Sleep Mountain Drive. These drives are not open year-round so check the website for driving information. We decided to start with the West Loop because we could see the bison from the visitor's center and the West Loop began there. This one-mile loop had bison on both sides. What a great start to our animal spying adventure. After turning around, we headed towards the Red Sleep Mountain Drive.

Red Sleep Mountain Drive

The Red Sleep Mountain Drive is 19-miles on a one-way gravel road and leads to many different lookouts and trails. It goes up a mountain and many switchbacks, making for an interesting drive. There are so many animals on this drive. Right at the beginning of the drive we spotted a large buck running through the field up the side of the mountain. It turned out to be running from a black bear. We finally got to see a bear! The drive continued up the mountain to some beautiful views but we didn't see any more animals until the end of the drive which combines with the Prairie Drive.

Prairie Drive

The Prairie Drive is a 14-mile roundtrip drive and follows along the Mission Creek. Part of the drive is a continuation of the Red Sleep Mountain Drive so we ended our day driving along the Mission Creek. Due to the water source, this is a great place to see a variety of animals. We saw many deer and pronghorn antelope in the areas around the creek beds. And the end of the drive is where we saw the most bison. Families, male bison scuffles, and lots of calves. What a truly amazing and majestic animal. It's strange how we saw more animals in four hours of driving through the National Bison Range in Northwest Montana than we did in 8 days of exploring Yellowstone National Park.

St. Ignatius Church

The St. Ignatius Mission Church was built between 1891 and 1893. The church meant to spread the Mission beliefs around Northwest Montana and this included the Iroquois Nation. This historic Catholic church is special, not just due to its age, but because of the 58 paintings on the walls by Brother Joseph Carignano. He painted these from 1904-1905. These murals represent scenes of Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, and the lives of the saints. Brother Joseph Carignano was a cook and handyman and had no formal art training at all. The murals are exquisite!

The church area also includes three other historic buildings. The original Log church was located along the Washington and Idaho border and moved to its current location in 1854. The Providence Sisters' Residence from 1864 was home to the first Catholic sisters in Montana. The four Sisters lived in this small 4-room house which included a school, kitchen and quarters. Later, the house became the first hospital in Montana. The last is the 1960 Rectory building. The town centered and grew up around the Mission, its beliefs and its people.
The church is currently going through a 1.2-million-dollar restoration project. They plan to take a few years so if you visit expect to see some construction as we did. Hopefully, the restoration will ensure this beautiful church and its buildings are around for another 125 years.

Next Up!

Next we are headed to Idaho to catch up with some friends, Ride the Hiawatha and go to the Center of the Universe. Stayed tuned!

Church Wildlife Prison National Bison Range Museum

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Written by hintonthetrail
We're the Hintons, a full-time travel family sharing our journey around the world with blogs, vlogs, and travel reviews. We've been traveling full time for over a year and have learned a lot. Our goal is to share the where to, how-to, and how much for great locations the world over.

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