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An Idaho gem

carlson CHRIS


Somewhere down the road a future Idaho governor is going to take a page from a President’s Book of Plays, and is going to create, maybe even endow, an annual award to an Idaho writer, artist, composer, or outstanding college teacher.

Let’s call it the “Gem” Award, and attach a cash component of say $100,000. Ask the Idaho Humanities Council (The Council has established a similar award, but no money) to submit three names to the Governor.

Yes, Idaho already has the “Esto Perpetua” award that goes annually to the person or organization that during the previous year has best promoted Idaho heritage. It is awarded by the Idaho State Historical Society. While prestigious it too carries no monetary award.

My nominee for the First Gem Award would hands down be Idaho’s State Historian, and one of the state’s finest writers, Keith Petersen. Born in Vancouver, Washington in 1951 and a graduate of Washington State University, Keith has immersed himself in Idaho history like no other Idahoan.

His ability to relate fascinating details and place them in a meaningful context is superb. It is also the product of meticulous research and an innate curiousity that asks “what else was going on then that could have impacted this event or shaped people’s perceptions?”

Did you know that Father DeSmet, one of the first Jesuit missionaries to come to Idaho and the inspiration behind the state’s oldest structure, the Cataldo Mission, was a confident of Northwest road builder John Mullan? Mullan first came west in 1853 as part of a Pacific Railroad survey expedition headed by Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens, who “negotiated” (read dictated) the famous treaty of 1855 the effects of which we are still living with today.

If you did not know those facts then read Keith’s most recent endeavor, a biography of Captain John Mullan, who engineered the Mullan Road that started at Fort Walla Walla and ended up at Fort Benton in Montana on the Missouri River. Much of Interstate 90 today follows the road that he mapped and engineered over 150 years ago. Even if one is not a reader of history or biographies, this book is well worth one’s time.

The book is entitled John Mullan: The Tumultuous Life of a Western Road Builder and is published by WSU Press.

Keith begins the book with Captain Mullan’s delivery of a speech in New York City in 1863 at the height of his fame for his explorations, mapping and road building in the west. Mullan is actually the warm up act at the speech forum but drones on and on for a couple hours.

Keith portrays this as the apogee, the high point of Mullan’s story, for at age 36 it is bascially all downhill for the intrepid but ambitious Mullan from there to the end of his life. While Mullan displayed incredible discipline in his younger years, was a diligent and obedient student while mastering the intricacies of engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and clearly an exceptional leader of his map-making and road building crews he appears to have had a classic fatal flaw.

Keith brings the flaw—an almost fanatical desire to be rich—out as the story proceeds from a successful career in the Army as the extraordinary engineer of the Mullan Road to a man frustrated in almost all his later business ventures. It’s a highly nuanced portrayal of a complex human being who may or may not have found peace before the end of a long and eventful life.

Spread across the “Inland Empire” are head high pryamid like rock monuments. These and a few bas relief like statues of Captain John Mullan are markers for the first engineered road in the northwest. Like today’s Interstate, it was built and justified for its military use.

Mullan and crew spent the 4th of July in 1861 relaxing at the top of (what else would it be named) 4th of July Pass some 17 miles east of Coeur d’Alene. It is the lowest major pass through the Rockies and Mullan decided it was superior to the gap through the mountains where the Clark Fork flows into Lake Pend Oreille. Mullan later conceded that was a superior route than the one over 4th of July and onto Missoula and then Fort Benton.

Fort Benton was actually the northern and western most “port” on the Missouri River. For years it was the jumping off place for miners and emigrints seeking the better life in the west. As such, it boomed with goods being imported into the northwest and products being shipped east.

Standing today in front of the last marker (there are 134) at the terminus of the Mullan Trail on a now very quiet riverfront street in Fort Benton, it is hard to envision the former hustle and bustle. Keith Petersen, though, brings it to life with his attention to fascinating details and fine writing. Some of his other fine books include River of Life, Channel of Death, about the Lower Snake River, This Crested Hill—an Illustrated History of the University of Idaho, and Company Town: Potlatch, Idaho and the Potlatch Lumber Company and are must reads for any student of Idaho history.

Keith is in a class by himself. All Idahoans owe him a hearty thank you. He truly is an Idaho Gem.

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