The Yellowstone River is "…much divided by islands maney of which are large and well Supplyed with Cotton wood trees, Some of them large, Saw emenc number of Deer Elk and buffalow on the banks. Some beaver. I landed on the Lard Side walked out into the bottom and killd the fatest Buck I every saw…
…for me to mention or give an estimate of the different Spcies of wild animals on this river particularly Buffalow, elk Antelopes & Wolves would be increditable. I shall therefore be silent on the Subject further. So it is we have a great abundance of the best of meat."
- William Clark, Thursday, July 24, 1806. Excerpted from "The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition," Volume 8, edited by Gary E. Moulton
Two hundred years ago, what is now the most populated county in Montana was bustling with life, little of it human.
As 36-year-old explorer William Clark and his crew of nine navigated the Yellowstone River in canoes made of cottonwood trees, he marveled at the variety and number of big game animals.
It was that quantity of wildlife, and the future possibility of making money from the sale of animal furs, that excited the men during the exploratory float trip.
Meriwether Lewis, co-leader of the Corps of Discovery, wrote that a trading post at the junction of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers would "afford to our citizens the benefit of a most lucrative fur trade [and] might be made to hold in check the views of the British N. West Company."
President Thomas Jefferson also instructed Lewis before the group's departure to find "the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce."
In addition, Lewis and Clark made notes about the amount and value of timber along their route, as well as the quality of the soil. They even commented on whether the terrain, newly purchased from France, would be suitable for farming.
After all, some people had to be sold on the value of the new frontier. A Boston Federalist newspaper, for one, described the new lands as a "desert" and "a great waste, a wilderness."
But for many Americans, the Louisiana Purchase, completed on Dec. 20, 1803, meant cheap land and lots of it. Lewis and Clark's journey launched a push westward unlike any other human migration the world has seen.
It was with just such a fertile idea planted in mind that Jim Sindelar's grandfather, John Henry Dover, homesteaded on an island in the Yellowstone River just east of Billings in 1881.
"The island reminded him of home," Sindelar said, which was Nauvoo, Ill.
Dover cleared a few acres a year, built dikes and grew melons, cantaloupes and potatoes. But having the Yellowstone River for a neighbor proved to be a problem. Sure, the river water nourished the crops, but it also brought floods and ice jams.
In an attempt to control the temperamental stream, Dover used a rip rap of willows weaved together to make a mat. When that failed, he dynamited off a chunk of a bluff to dam the river's north channel and give him easier access to the island.
"The river's always trying to come back in here," said Sindelar, 74, who still lives on the 300-acre family homestead, his home just feet away from the now-dry north channel. So over the years he has reinforced the dike.
"I spent 10 years hauling rock to rip rap. I've added six feet to the top of the dike my grandfather built."
He estimated the structure now stands 10 feet thick, composed of tons of the bluff's native sandstone.
"The river's been a headache in a way," Sindelar said. "You always have to do work on the banks in the fall, at least check them."
But he also noted that the river provides a much-needed source of water, so it's a love-hate relationship.
"Without water, this land won't raise anything," he said. "It's too dry."
The Yellowstone River is a force of nature. It drains one-third of the fourth-largest state in the nation. Consequently, the mighty stream is a plump artery pumping life into all that surrounds it - from wildlife to humans, agriculture to nature. Of five reptiles on Montana's list of species of special concern, three use habitat along the Yellowstone, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study.
The 671-mile-long river is born in a beautiful spot - the mountains above Yellowstone National Park's Thorofare Valley. Based on its distance from roads, the Thorofare is the most remote place in the lower 48 states. From this spot in northwestern Wyoming, the river gathers strength from feeder creeks before entering Yellowstone Lake.
After working its way north out of Yellowstone Park, the river takes a hard turn east near Livingston and begins its run out of the mountains while picking up volume from such rivers as the Shields, Boulder, Stillwater, Clarks Fork, Bighorn, Tongue and Powder. By the time it joins the Missouri River at the North Dakota border, the Yellowstone has transitioned from a cold, clear mountain stream to a silty, warm-water prairie river.
Although three major irrigation dams and numerous other head gates divert water from its flow, the river is still considered the largest free-flowing, uncontrolled river in the lower 48 states.
The river nourishes not only crops, but also people.
For Montana's largest city, Billings, the river is the sole source of drinking water, according to Al Towlerton, deputy public works director for the city. During hot summer months, 100,000 users consume about 50 million gallons a day.
Upstream, the Billings Bench Water Association siphons off millions more gallons with a 600-cubic-feet-per-second water claim, the size of some small Montana rivers. And that's only one of several diversions. Three major irrigation dams dot the Yellowstone.
Where does that water go? One study estimates that water from the Yellowstone River and its tributaries irrigates more than 680,000 acres.
So Jefferson and Lewis' vision of the Yellowstone becoming a source of commerce proved true. Long after the fur trade played out, agriculture and industry stepped in to fill the void.
Brett French can be reached at email@example.com or at 657-1387.