Tiny cabin holds 119-years of Forest Service history

The Alta Ranger Station is the oldest surviving administrative building on U.S. Forest Service land. From its sturdy craftsmanship to the faded messages written on its walls it tells the stories of forest pioneers.

In our new series "Montana Moment" NBC Montana explores the historic treasures of the Alta Ranger Station.

The modest cabin, nestled in a remote section of the state is about 30 miles south west of Darby.

It is the oldest surviving administrative cabin on Forest Service land.

It was 119-years ago that early Forest Service rangers Than Wilkerson and Hank Tuttle built the ranger station in 15 days.

It's 13 feet by 15 feet and has a sod roof.

"They purchased all their own hardware," said Forest Archaeologist and Heritage Program Manager, Matthew Werle, "including the window panes and all the nails."

The rangers even bought a flag with 45 stars representing the Union's 45 states at the time.

The men built the station when the "Forest Reserves" were administered by the General Land Office, before the Forest Service was created in 1905.

Werle said back in 1899 Alta was a booming mining town.

He said the rangers made sure residents had proper mining and timber permits and homestead entries.

"Because it was a day's ride from Darby," he said. "It was a long ride on horseback and they needed a place to stay where they did work on this part of the forest."

Werle has researched every inch of the cabin.

He showed us the walls inside the cabin where history is written in pencil.

Through the years many people have recorded messages.

Pointing to one faded message in lead he read, "That says W.A. Curley, Assistant Ranger 1908."

Another was a log of the weather.

"This says August 1st," he said. "Very hot and dry."

Werle said those old rangers were tough, capable men.

They all had to pass a physical test.

"They carried a gun," said Werle. "They had to know how to camp out, how to prepare their own food and how to cut down a tree. Of course," he said, "they were using cross cut saws at the time."

Yard rakes, however, were not in their tool box.

Perhaps showing the disconnect in Washington D.C. about what was really happening in the wild lands of the west, Werle said "shortly after they built the cabin they were issued a directive from Washington D.C to clean the forest. "

"It was the Clean Forest Initiative,"he grinned. "And they received a shipment of rakes. "

From structures like the Alta Ranger Station two men took care of 300,000 acres of forest land.

That would have been a lot of raking.

The cabin has seen some restoration through the years but Werle said it's basic structure remains strong.

"It has excellent craftsmanship," he said. "They were very familiar with building these sorts of log cabins at the time."

Before the Forest Service was established in 1905, however, a survey found there had been a mistake. Turns out the Alta cabin had not been built on public land. It was on a private mining claim.

"They were on private property," said Werle. "So the cabin was abandoned. It was only in use for five years or so."

But in 1941 the Hamilton Lions Club bought the property back and donated it to the Forest Service.

"They recognized the importance of having public land for the betterment of the American people" said Werle.

The archaeologist said Tuttle left the Forest Service in 1905.

But Wilkerson continued his work as a forest ranger in the Bitterroot National Forest.

Werle took down a photograph from his office wall.

It's of Wilkerson.

He also showed us the pioneer forest ranger's journal written in pencil.

"This is his journal from his time at Alta in 1899," said Werle. "It goes onto list all of the parties that stopped there. What they were doing and what their business was. He also used it to create maps of drainages."

The archaeologist calls men like Wilkerson and Tuttle "Renaissance Men."

They could do anything.

"They weren't given a directive to go out and build a cabin," said Werle. "They said we need a cabin so they went out and did it."

Werle calls it the "pioneering spirit of the west."

The Alta Ranger Station may stand as one of its proudest symbols."

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