The Yellowstone River in Missouri River Country
Excerpted from the book: Montana’s Yellowstone River – from the Teton Wilderness to the Missouri
The Yellowstone River Below Glendive
By Rick & Susie Graetz
Agates are another lower Yellowstone River attraction. Millions of years ago, volcanoes ruled eastern Montana. Powerful eruptions of molten lava and ash covered and destroyed more than hundreds of miles of forests. After centuries of activity, the climate cooled and rain washed silica and minerals from the surface of the land down into the labyrinths of hardened lava beds, filling the nooks and crannies with what several eons later would become Montana agates.
In those unstable geologic times, mountains were being born and layers of buried lava broken up. Driving rains eroded the debris washing it into the lower country. The Yellowstone River is the recipient of a magnitude of the alluvial gravel; and mixed amongst the rocks and stones are beautiful agate treasures waiting to be found.
A few agates are found around Livingston, but down river past Pompey’s Pillar, they gain in volume through to the confluence with the Missouri. The magical stones with patterns and scenes hidden inside are especially plentiful in the Glendive to Sidney area. Tom Harmon’s Agate Stop and Museum in Savage is a good place to learn the history and hints on hunting these ancient gems.
Intake, Savage and Crane create small human outposts along a 52 mile-stretch of the Yellowstone. Intake was born in 1909 as a result of a diversion dam built for the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project. When the work was completed, there were nearly 400 miles of canals and ditches carrying Yellowstone River water to croplands including wide spread sugar beet fields. Historical notes show Savage, which also benefited from the irrigation project, was named for H.M. Savage, a railroad official. The town of Crane, close to Sidney was titled after the owners of the Crane Ranch.
From Savage to Sidney, nearing the end of its run, the river provides a popular floating stretch amidst the Elk Island and the Seven Sisters Wildlife Management areas and the state owned Crittenden Island. Elk Island, actually three islands in high water and one in low flow, is near Savage, while Crane provides access to the seven small islands named Seven Sisters that steamboat Captain Grant Marsh entitled in honor of his siblings.
Floating from Elk Island to the Seven Sisters is a great way to see this special length of the Yellowstone, home to whitetail and mule deer, upland game birds, ducks and geese and other wild critters. Rebecca Kallevig, a teacher out of Sidney, remarked it takes from five to seven hours to cover this 12-mile stretch of water. She recommends paddling hard once you put in at Elk Island in order to get into the more scenic right hand, side channel. And since the river moves slowly here, sightings of eagles, blue heron and all manners of birdlife are a strong possibility.
William Clark wrote, on August 2, 1806, about this segment where the river and life in general slows down and spreads out, the “river wide and very much divided by islands and Sand and Mud bars…Saw emence numbers of Elk Buffalow and wolves to day…passed the enterance of Several brooks on each Side.” Clark was most likely describing Elk Island and the Seven Sisters.
According to Howard Blunt from Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks in Glendive ,the river down from Glendive with its wide bottoms crowded with islands and sandbars and cottonwoods growing in profusion, still looks very much as Clark depicted it. From Intake on down, the terrain on the river’s east side becomes rugged. Badlands and river breaks intermix and ascend well above the floodplain. Juniper, small ponderosa pine and green ash give a warm color to a harsh soil. The riverbank’s west fringe rise to the territory beyond is more subdued and supports a scattering of riparian areas away from the main river.
Experiencing this part of the Yellowstone by canoe or raft is best as the highway from Glendive to Sidney seldom nears the water to present a good view or a feel for it.
Sidney is about a mile west of the Yellowstone and about 14 river miles short of its marriage to the Missouri. Named in 1888 for Sidney Walters, the young son of a local pioneer family, locals like to call it the Sunrise City, as this is where the sun first greets Montana. A pleasant community dotted with expansive tree-lined city parks, with five thousand people, it is the largest town in northeast Montana. Built on hard work and determination by folks with strong ethics, Sidney has weathered disasters that have erased all signs of many other towns. At one time, it could be said the place was teeming with homesteaders purchasing supplies and building materials and aiding the economy. By the time the dust from the drought cleared, there were few customers left. To say times were tough would be an understatement. Folks pared their lives down and fought to bring prosperity back. Then, like Glendive, the oil boom and bust visited Sidney; once again it hung on. Today, sugar beets, wheat and ranching provide the dollars, and the exhibits at the highly acclaimed Mondak Heritage Center provide reminders of the rich, historical past.
A few river miles north of Sidney, the Yellowstone crosses the North Dakota line, and then abruptly changes her mind and rushes back into Montana. It has been a long journey; about 90 percent of it spent shaping and nourishing this Big Sky state we like to think she calls home. Finally, about two miles west of the border, the Yellowstone bids Montana adieu, turns toward North Dakota and stays on track for the Missouri.
Some of Montana’s earliest recorded history was played out here on the eastern fringes of our state where the Yellowstone ends its run. On April 27, 1805, The Corps of Discovery, after having spent a few days at the joining of the two rivers, first entered what would become Montana Territory. Through Fort Union, this “Confluence Country,” from about 1828 until 1867, held supremacy over the fur trade business of the Upper Missouri.
The original Fort Union, built in 1828 by John Jacob Astor and his American Fur Company, was located about six miles up the Missouri from the Yellowstone. A handsome, some would say royal place, it attracted famous men of the day. When the Fur Trade Era ended in 1867, the fort fell into disrepair. Much of the material was moved to aid in the expansion of Fort Buford, a military post closer to the Yellowstone’s confluence. Steamboats churning up the Missouri used what wood was left to feed their hungry boilers.
Today, the Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site has been reconstructed into an exact replica as it was in 1851, and with the natural reconfiguration of the rivers, it is about three air miles up from the joining of the waters. For anyone interested in the fabled Missouri and Yellowstone rivers this historic site should be on your trail.
The geographic history of the Yellowstone-Missouri Confluence is also worthy of note. The original site of the uniting of the rivers the Corps of Discovery witnessed is about two miles to the southwest of the current junction.
Mike Casler of Fort Union points out that the historic maps made by early scientific expeditions, show a stable confluence well after Captain Clark made his. Casler noted a huge ice jam in the 1930s caused widespread flooding in the Yellowstone Valley and along the Missouri sending both rivers out of their banks and shifting channels. The confluence itself was forced to the northeast. A Landsat image shows very clearly a meander scar indicating the former river paths and their mixing spot. On the ground you can see it near Fairview, Montana, a town just to the west of the Yellowstone whose main street is divided down the middle by the Montana-North Dakota border.
Three miles from the eastern edge of Montana and Fort Union, the big wide silt-laden Yellowstone gives up her independence to the Missouri, together forming one very formidable river. Under the flag of the Missouri, it lunges towards a rendezvous with the Mississippi River.