For a mountain with the majesty of a giant spud, as a friend describes it, Mt. Jumbo figures richly in western history. Shore lines-forty of them-dent its flank, mementoes of a thousand years' ups and downs of Ice Age Lake Missoula. Jumbo was a turbulent crossroads for tribes traveling east to buffalo ranges and west for bitterroots, a starchy food staple. The first map of the area was drawn from the summit of the mountain the Salish called Sin-min-koos-bump or obstacle. Later, the town of Missoula came raucously alive at its base.
Today Mt. Jumbo is a broad, grassy hump that means home; faithful friend; compass point and barometer; our big wild heart. When chunks of Mt. Jumbo were put on the auction block in the past four years, Missoulians began exploring what they would lose. Then they tried to save it. Jumbo's first white explorer, Canadian David Thompson, surveyed more than 50,000 miles-from Hudson Bay to the mouth of the Columbia. Called KooKoo-sint or Man Who Looks at the Stars by the Salish, Thompson climbed the "high brown knowl" of Jumbo and mapped the distant surroundings with his sextant and compass.
At 5 1/3 AM set off...I had a fine Prospect of the country, here I [traced Lewis and Clark's journey over the Bitteroots]....It being late, bad rainy weather....we turned aside to the Brook [Rattlesnake Creek]....very bad weather all night and no shelter, I passed much of the night standing, leaning against a tree.
Every August, the Salish month of the Fat Bison, countless generations of Nez Perce, Coeur d'Alene, Shoshone and Salish streamed east through the canyon at the base of Jumbo to hunt buffalo. The Blackfeet waited to ambush returning hunters, so homecoming tribes climbed the trail over Jumbo's saddle to avoid the canyon French fur trappers called the Gate of Hell. Rock cairns still mark the old Indian Trail to Walla Walla (so named on survey maps). Tepee rings near a spring at the base of the saddle are the buffalo hunters' quiet legacy.
Jumbo's land is like a picture book to the Salish. Sixty years ago, Salish elder Felicite "Jim" MacDonald watched the "Suicide Races" at the Western Montana State Fair, where young Indian men raced bareback from the fairgrounds up the steep south slope of Jumbo, around the medicine tree and back. In earlier days, young Salish warriors raced up to touch the tree for luck in battle. That ponderosa is gone, chopped down by a university prankster in the 1950s.
The town of Missoula was born at the base of Jumbo in 1864 as Missoula Mills, milling flour for gold rushers in Bannack and Virginia City. When Mullen built his road from Ft. Benton to Walla Walla along the base of Jumbo, it brought in trappers, speculators and pioneers. "You could say Jumbo was like the capitol dome," says Missoula historian Audra Browman. "Everyone headed for it."
Gold, silver and copper lured the hopeful to tunnel into Jumbo's sides. By 1884 it was "Elephant Hill" and a quartz lode claim took the name Jumbo, after a traveling circus elephant. The Jumbo Mining Company struck a copper vein that assayed $62 to the ton, and the name Jumbo stuck. After World War II, Missoula County Attorney Dusty Deschamps' grandfather bought the east side of Jumbo to run sheep. Deschamps built his house on the wooded slope, using copper rock from an old Jumbo mine for his fireplace. He sold off pieces of Jumbo, too. But he's had a change of heart. "I'll do whatever I can to get Jumbo preserved," he says. "It's Missoula's history up there and the wildlife depend on it."
On a steep gully on the southeast side of Jumbo, a recent plaque commemorates the frigid January day in 1993, when four boys climbed up from East Missoula to photograph elk. A cornice of snow suddenly collapsed in an avalanche and buried them in snow hard as concrete. Three got free, but Percy Phillips was killed on impact. He was 13 years old.
Two months later, Missoulians were shaken by the March 6, 1993 Missoulian headline "For Sale: Mt. Jumbo." For generations, townspeople had blissfully picnicked in Jumbo's pine clearings as if ownership couldn't apply to such a high, fine place. Few realized the mountain's destiny was in the hands of twenty-three private owners.
In response, botanists and biologists clambered up the hillsides to catalog species. Paragliders floated over the mountain like giant, airborne wildflowers. People joined naturalist Will Kerling for evening hikes to see wildflowers and mule deer, bear, red foxes, yellow-bellied marmots, eagles, ruby crowned kinglets and blue grouse.
But since 1981, more than 120 houses have also gone up near the old Walla Walla trail, from the base toward the saddle. Coyotes and mountain lions have nearly disappeared. New residents had bears trapped and removed.
The first serious effort to preserve the mountain began when the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation launched the Percy Phillips Fund to save wildlife habitat, particularly on Jumbo. Then Jumbo's largest landowner, Bert Klapwyk, died and his thousand acres- including the saddle, the elk migration corridor-went up for sale: $2.7 million.
The city-county government became alarmed. An $8 million Open Space Bond, with the primary purpose of saving Mt. Jumbo, was put before the voters in June 1994. The bond passed on first count. Then it failed. Not enough people had turned out to vote to make it valid.
Mt. Jumbo began to feel even more precious. Within shouting distance of I-90, people climbed up it to find Nabokov satyr butterflies, bighorn sheep, elk calves, salamanders, a rare colony of grasses and pink masses of spring bitterroots-the state flower and the food Blackfeet and Salish fought and died over, now rare because of encroaching development.
In spring 1995, inheritance taxes forced Klapwyk's heirs to log the timber that sheltered the elk herd's calving grounds. The conservation group Five Valleys Land Trust warned that 373 houses could go up on Jumbo. Senator Max Baucus tried-and failed-to get government funding to purchase the mountain. In a desperate move, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Five Valleys Land Trust purchased an option to buy the Klapwyk land. The first payment- $275,000-is due in April, 1996.
The city of Missoula and private groups launched a second campaign for a $5 million Open Space Bond: Jumbo, again, topped the list. As the November 1995 election drew near, local newspapers never let readers forget the critical need for the bond. University students registered to vote in unprecedented numbers. As opposition to the tax-based bond grew louder, Mt. Jumbo's grasses turned red and gold in the autumn light. Mule deer grazed the ancient shore lines, elk strolled the high ground and black bears lay under berry bushes, pulling branches into their mouths as if nothing could happen to such a high, fine place. A week before the election a fat white heart appeared on the dome above the L.
On November 7, 1995, despite an election day blizzard, the Open Space Bond passed 8,085 to 4,097. After the victory, the city council earmarked $2 million for Jumbo. The fight isn't over. Five Valleys Land Trust still needs to raise $1 million more to preserve the mountain. But the day after the election, the fat white heart, engineered by graduate students using sheets donated by local motels, turned into a smile.
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