A cowboy gets travelers across the Little Missouri River
Lemme tell ya a story I uncovered this week. It’s about Bill Chaloner, the man who could be called the grandfather of the Long X Bridge, the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the highway through the Badlands.
It seems like Bill Chaloner would tackle just about anything.
That includes horse thieves, search and rescue efforts, and road construction.
He pushed to get a bridge across the Little Missouri River decades before there was a Long X Bridge.
By today’s standards, Chaloner was a man’s man. He was a robust and rowdy cowboy who started the crossing across the Little Missouri River not far from today’s Long X bridge on U.S. Highway 85. When he was creating a safe river crossing, civilization had not yet moved in to the Badlands. Mary was the nearest town. Grassy Butte was just down the trail a bit farther. The town of Watford had yet to add the word “city” to its name.
My research in to the roots of the bridge was prompted by the work going on now to replace the Long X Bridge on Highway 85. What is it’s history? Workers are turning the crossing in to a four-lane super bridge.That beautiful old through-truss bridge across the Little Missouri River is not going to be around much longer.
The history of a river crossing goes back 130 years to the legendary cowboy, Bill Chaloner who personally helped travelers get across the river.
Bill Chaloner left his mark on the Badlands — literally
If you know where to look for it, you’ll see it. Chaloner left his mark between the CCC Campground on the south side of the Little Missouri River and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park on the north side of the river.
He left his mark in other ways, too — fully investing himself in his new home territory, the Badlands of Dakota. You see, Chaloner was not a native of North Dakota, but he sure made a difference in the region. By the time he died, the Dickinson Press wrote about him so often, his life was documented. And that’s how I pieced together his story.
And what a story it is!
A series of Germanic wars had torn up their Chaloner’s mother’s life in Germany. So, she moved to Montana. She got married and settled with her husband, and two sons in southwestern Montana. That’s where Bill and his younger brother John were born.
Bill, John and their parents lived in Ennis, Montana The town is not far from what was the Montana Territory Capitol, Virginia City.
Gold fever was beginning to wane. Ranching replaced gold mining as the popular economy. The valley they lived in was on one of the trade routes for the new occupation called “cattle drives.” Overstocked and overgrazed rangeland in the south was forcing Texas cattlemen to move their herds north. So, young Chaloner learned the art of cow-punching.
The cattle industry expanded to Eastern Montana. That prompted Bill to move to the open plains. His move came about the same time Miles City was founded. He worked ranches around Wibaux and north. He spent days and weeks in the saddle. So much time in the saddle that his range riding came in handy years later when he hunted outlaws between Wibaux, Montana and Grassy Butte, North Dakota.
About five years after his move to eastern Montana, in 1890, he settled on the ranch he staked out north of Grassy Butte in what was called “Dakota.”
Bill Chaloner, Hard-working Entrepreneur
Chaloner was the kind of guy who made a good lawman. So, he joined the Billings County Sheriff’s department as a deputy. He earned the reputation for bringing in his man. That could be why he was still doing lawman work off and on for years, even after he was married, settled down and was ranching.
When Bill was about 25 years old, The Sheriff tasked him to find and arrest a convict from St. Cloud, Minnesota who had been spotted in the area. Posses searched for the man but were unsuccessful. Chaloner brought him in.
County records from that time period show that as a deputy who successfully brought in bad guys, Bill earned the huge sum of about 50-cents a day, or $17.00/month. That may be why he supplemented his income as a hunting guide. Rancher, lawman and hunting guide, he led hunters from Minnesota and eastern North Dakota on deer and big horn sheep hunts all over the Badlands and grasslands.
The Cowboy Life
1894 was a big year for Chaloner. He got married to Lina Fink at what was an Episcopal Church in Dickinson built in 1887. It was the same church Theodore Roosevelt attended when he was in town.
Chaloner added one more income stream to his family. He mined coal and sold it to the Dickinson Schools.
Mrs. Chaloner, Lina, was a special kind of woman. Newly wed to Bill, and she shared him with the famous H T Ranch near Amidon.
He didn’t spend much time at home. Instead, Bill rode the range that is now North and South Dakota, and Montana. He rounded up wild horses and added them to the AC Huidekoper collection of horses. (The H T Ranch became a successful horse ranch about the same time Chaloner moved to the area. The H T ranch covered portions of Slope, Stark and Billings Counties in North Dakota and had more than 10,000 horses.)
Always Ready to Help
Lina Chaloner also saw him head off on many emergency situations, including a search and rescue for a Dickinson boy who was lost south of Marmarth. A Dickinson Press story tells how Bill rode with company of cowboys and riders from the HT ranch to search the badlands south of the NDSD border near the Cave Hills. They never found the missing boy and his horse. However, about 10 years later, a cowboy found a skeleton of the boy, rolled up in a blanket, wearing his coat and his pistols. There was no foul play, he just died.
Mrs. Chaloner and her husband may not have been members of the high society of Dickinson, Medora, or Amidon. At least not yet. That came later.
It seems Chaloner was not stranger to the occasional dust up. And it’s likely he fought to win. Even if it meant biting off someone’s nose.
One year after marrying Bill, she had a reason to leave behind the cowboy life. She got shot.
Details are sketchy, but it appears Arch Spence, got drunk and shot Mrs. Chaloner in the knee. The bullet traveled up in her thigh where a doctor had to search for it and extract it. It created a scandal in Dickinson.
The Dickinson Press editorialized about the event: “It should be the duty of authorities to close up disorderly places and keep disorderly men off the street.” It politely wrote about the shooting as a “sickness.”
By 1898, the family was ranching — and still fighting outlaws. More than once they had to battle horse thieves. Bill had the upper hand, though. He could track and find the outlaws who stole his cattle and horses. The Dickinson Press wrote of Bill’s exploits and that “Russians from the south” were caught with Chaloner’s horses.
Those were some of the toughest years for the couple. In addition to starting a ranch, they also started a family. However, in 1898 they lost two-year old Charles to scarlet fever. The next year, their 9-month old daughter also died. A third son would die years later.
Perhaps it was the death of his children that prompted Chaloner to get involved in emergency medicine. Several stories were printed in the Dickinson Press that mentioned how Chaloner drove doctors to emergency calls to treat families battling deadly illnesses such as diphtheria.
In another case, when medicine was needed, but was far a way in Dickinson, Chaloner made the round trip to fetch the medicine in record time.
The newspaper also wrote about how Chaloner made an emergency wagon run with a doctor to a family south of Amidon where a calamity had injured several family members.
Bill Chaloner moves to town
Bill Chaloner seemed to be addicted to excitement. Stories abound about him hauling doctors and medicine around southwest North Dakota, searching for lost people, and even getting in on a gun fight with a notorious outlaw.
He helped track nasty, violent outlaws near Wibaux. The outlaws caused trouble in Wibaux, then headed north.
About 60 miles northeast of Wibaux, somewhere near Fairview, Cartwright and Charbonneau, Chaloner and the posse caught up with ruthless thief Jim McPeak and his partners. In a shootout, McPeak was shot as many as 10 times. It took him several hours, but he died later on site. Newspapers celebrated the end of McPeak’s career, including the story of his last minutes of life. With his dying breath, McPeak cursed lawmen and the citizens of the Badlands.
About that same time, Mr. and Mrs. Chaloner became part of the city life of Dickinson, but Bill maintained his reputation as a law man. So, in 1902, when a horse thief escaped from jail, the Dickinson Press said, “It is believed Billy Chaloner will be able to overtake him.” And he did.
If it weren’t for Bill Chaloner, you could still see livestock running around at large in Dickinson. The town had become a major government, shipping and trade center. But it still maintained it’s wide open grazing practice. Cattle, sheep, and horses wandered around town. In 1903, Chaloner hired on to round up stray livestock roaming the streets of Dickinson. It wasn’t long before the Dickinson city officials decided to outlaw at-large grazing in Dickinson. So, Bill was out of a job.
Then, he went in to business with his little brother John, and turned his attention to a livery stable and an auction barn south of the tracks in Dickinson. He said he wanted to help area ranchers get rid of some of the things they didn’t need anymore.
A couple yeas after getting started, the livery burned down in 1908. The fire prompted Dickinson officials to consider stationing a hose cart and 500 feet of hose in South Dickinson.
Cowboys Disappear from America
By this time, the early 1900’s cowboys, were disappearing from the modern American scene. Their stories did not disappear, though. They were glamorized and romanticized by dime novels and eastern newspapers. Wild West shows were popular attractions and Bill Chaloner was one of the stars of those shows. By nature and by experience, Bill was a bronc buster — and he was one of the best. Most bronc busters were lean and mean. Bill was certainly not lean, built like a solid German, he mastered the art of staying in the saddle — and won many championships for his abilities.
In 1909, a group of Chicago businessmen came to Dickinson. The town welcomed them with a rousing cowboy display. As the train pulled in to town, the city organized a special kind of welcoming. Chaloner and 50 other cowboys, whooping and hollering, charged the train. The Dickinson Press wrote it “caused consternation for a moment in the breast of the bravest of the Chicago travelers.”
The show for the Chicago businessmen moved to a rodeo arena. There, Chaloner rode bronc after bronc in wild extreme action. A Chicago reporter with the group called him the “best bronco buster in Dakota.”
In 1913, Chaloner was part of a Wild West exhibit that traveled the U.S. and Canada. He rode and roped in the Elks Rodeo or Wild West under the leadership of Bill McCarty. He cemented his title as the Best Bronco Buster west of the Missouri River.
Amazingly, he also rode bulls. Now those are not the Brahma bulls we see today. They were longhorns. Those scrawny longhorn cattle were fast, agile and dangerous. Chaloner climbed on a twisting bull, wiggled away from slashing hooves, and leaped out of range of the long horns. He proved his death-defying athleticism before hundreds of spectators.
The end of his athletic career was at hand. By now, Bill was getting tired. He was in his mid-40’s and was ready to try something more modern.
Chaloner Ferry Across the Little Missouri River
The Chaloner Ranch was on the south side of the Little Missouri River, about where the CCC Campground is just one mile west of U.S. Highway 85. The entire region was Bill’s homeland. He knew it well.
When Bill ran cattle in the Badlands, there were only a few two-track rough cut trails in the Badlands, and getting from the prairie grass down the hill to the river was extremely difficult. If it was dry, wagons and teams could be eased down the slope. If it had rained, the clay hillsides turned to snot.
Often a rider and his horse would tie on to the rear of a wagon headed down the hillside, and help hold the wagon fighting gravity’s draw. With a tight lasso and a horse that could pull back, they’d prevent the wagon from getting away from the drive team and the wagon brake.
But then what? Once at the bottom, crossing the Little Missouri River was either going to be super easy when the river was dry, or it was going to be a dangerous deep water challenge. So, Chaloner did three things to help travelers headed north and south through the Badlands. (Well actually four things. But the fourth thing is part of the bridge story. That comes later.)
- Whenever a traveler in a buggy made it down the hill, Chaloner would help them navigate through the shallow water on a ford.
- That wasn’t always practical, so he built a ferry. Historically, it is called “Chaloner Ferry.” And it became the only reliable place to cross the Little Missouri River between Belfield and Watford. Bill made it a safe crossing. So, he could be counted on to dive right in to the water with his horse to help navigate the loaded craft across the river.
The Chaloner Ferry was almost straight south of the National Park living quarters, office and ranger station. Now today, a roadbed is still barely visible, but it is fenced off by the landowner.
3. Chaloner didn’t stop there. Automobiles were coming. So, he worked with county officials to get a road grading machine to help with the road down the hill.
Since many of the early Model T Fords and other makes did not have a fuel pump, they relied on gravity flow. The gas tank was mounted behind and above the engine so gas could drain down to the engine.
However, going up the hills forward put the tank below the engine and gas doesn’t flow uphill. So, the horseless carriages had to turn around, and back up the hills, keeping the gas tank above the engine. A well-graded road became important — and so did a bridge.
Bill would lose his ferry business if a bridge were built. That didn’t stop him. He was one of the biggest supporters of a bridge.
In 1927, the first work began on a bridge. The Roosevelt Bridge was built right where he’d ferried people across the river, about a mile west of where the Long X Bridge stands today on Highway 85. When the Roosevelt Bridge was opened, and the National Park dedicated, Bill was there leading a group of U.S. Senators on horseback to explore the Badlands. When the new bridge opened, the Bismarck Tribune wrote in July 1928, “the old ferry has served its purpose.”
The end of Bill’s years started to close in. Things turned sour for the Chaloners. In 1933, a horse riding accident crushed his son. The marker by the entrance to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park tells the story.
In 1934, Bill sold his ranch. The government offered him a deal to help him escape the Depression. The National Park expanded in to the region and looked for more land, so it bought him out. Bill lived only a few months more, but his life style wore him down. He died in the spring of 1935 at age of 67 from peritonitis and appendicitis. He is buried in Dickinson.
Bill Supported the Roosevelt Bridge
In 1928, The Roosevelt Bridge was a fantastic improvement to the region. It was built in the same spot as the Chaloner Ferry and helped open up Watford City, Williston and Killdeer. Ranchers moved their cattle to market, and shipped grain in and out.
Later, the state and federal government moved the highway to a newly built pass through the Badlands that allowed better automobile traffic. They re-routed Highway 85 and built a new bridge, The Long X Bridge.
Long X Bridge is history
The Long X Bridge will be torn down in 2020, but the history of Bill Chaloner will remain.
Our next story tells you about the Roosevelt Bridge and the re-alignment of Highway 85 to where it is now. So, subscribe to this blog to get a notice in your email inbox when that story is published.
As the labels show, the historic photos came from the State Historical Society of North Dakota and its website Digital Horizons. The photo of the new bridge under construction, at the start of this story is from Ames Engineering.