Tower Power

A lofty Lewis & Clark site may have to share its Montana view with four tall silos.

Pompeys Pillar, 28 miles from Billings, Mont., bears the only physical evidence of the Lewis & Clark expedition.

Credit: BLM

On July 22, 1793, a young Scottish fur trader—perched high on a cliffside above the British Columbia coast—dipped his finger into a thick paste of vermilion powder and melted grease and scribbled, "Alex Mackenzie, from Canada, by land." To Thomas Jefferson, reading of Mackenzie's successful journey to the Pacific on behalf of the British North West Company, the gauntlet had been dropped. The Lewis and Clark Expedition was born.

Thirteen years and three days after Mackenzie's triumph, Captain William Clark scrambled up Pompeys Pillar, a rock outcrop overlooking Montana's Yellowstone Valley, and engraved his own proclamation of victory: two bold, overlapping Vs followed by "Clark" in neat cursive and the date: July 25, 1806.

Clark had reached the mouth of the Columbia River with Meriwether Lewis the previous fall, accomplishing Jefferson's mission to blaze a trail through the Louisiana Territory to the Pacific. As the Corps of Discovery returned east across the Continental Divide, Clark and several others split off from the party in twin 28-foot cottonwood canoes to map the Yellowstone River drainage. The inscription Clark carved into a sandstone butte on the south side of the Yellowstone today remains the sole visible evidence anywhere of the expedition's passage.

Rising from a two-acre base to its apex more than 100 feet above the valley floor, Pompeys Pillar—which Clark named after Sacagawea's infant son, whom he called Pomp ("little chief" in Shoshoni)—has been a national historic landmark since 1965, a national monument since January 2001, and a Native American sacred site for centuries.

Yet less than a mile away, another prominent structure may soon cast its shadows on the landscape: a grain elevator facility with four concrete, 150-foot-tall silos, each capable of storing 658,000 bushels of grain. Connected by rail to the nearby Burlington-Northern Santa Fe line, this high-speed shuttle facility will rush grain to market in freight trains more than 100 cars long.

Supporters of Pompeys Pillar worry that its history will soon be drowned out by the clamor of commerce. Last year, United Harvest LLC—a joint venture of Cenex Harvest States and United Grain Corp.—began construction on 100 acres just south of the 51-acre National Monument. The Pompeys Pillar Historical Association (PPHA) sued, and United Harvest temporarily halted construction. In July of this year, a state hearings officer ruled that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality had acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" in granting the company its air quality permit. But the Montana Board of Environmental Review overturned the appeal on Sept. 22, clearing way for construction to resume in the next few weeks.

View of the pillar

Credit: BLM

Opponents of the grain elevator fear that the facility will mar a near-pristine vista for the 40,000 visitors to Pompeys Pillar each year, and for Native Americans who continue to worship there today. Trucks delivering grain—and freight trains running constantly during the 12 hours required for loading—could rumble through the valley as often as every five minutes during harvest season. The United Harvest silos would also clutter the view south to the Bighorn Mountains, which the Crow call "Our Mountains" because they are visible throughout their tribal territory.

"I always tell people Clark was there 20 minutes, but Crow Indians have been there hundreds and hundreds of years," says Howard Boggess, a Crow historian. Pompeys Pillar remains sacred to the Crow, who refer to it either as "The Mountain Lion's Lodge"—because of a lion-like formation on the pillar's north face—or as "Where the Mountain Lion Comes to Pray," a reference to a Jesuit visit to the pillar in the 1840s. Boggess and other Crow Indians use the pillar as a retreat for their meditative vision quests. "Whether you're an Indian or non-Indian, in our way of believing you need the quiet and serenity of a place to see for long distances," says Boggess. 

Clark's historic graffiti

Credit: BLM

William Clark was neither the first nor the last to garnish Pompeys Pillar with graffiti. Inches from Clark's own signature—which is protected behind bulletproof glass—are two faint blemishes: gold and red shields painted by early native inhabitants. Members of George Armstrong Custer's army also scratched their names on the pillar while bivouacked there March 16, 1873. The pillar bears hundreds of such markings, from early petroglyphs to modern additions like "1990—Surf Hawaii."

"It's a very important piece of our history," says Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historical Preservation, "and in order to appreciate the site, you need to appreciate its context." Moe says this context—the clear view across the wide sweep of the valley—would be forever marred by the United Harvest silos. So the National Trust, which has supported PPHA and other organizations, hopes to convince United Harvest to build its facility elsewhere—just a mile or two down the track.

"We're not opposed to this project, just its location," says Jeff Olson of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation.

Moving the facility elsewhere is easier said than done, says United Harvest general manager Gary Schuld. The planned site has easy access to highways, easing the delivery of grain for farmers who otherwise must drive 28 miles to silos in Billings. Schuld says his company has already invested more than $1 million in the site and has been unable to find an acceptable alternate location. "We've put the ball back in the opposition's court," he says. "If you can find something that meets our criteria, we would be open [to moving]."

United Harvest says the prospective facility will benefit eastern Montana's wheat farmers, who have suffered in recent years from drought and falling wheat prices. The grain elevator's high-speed loading, Schuld claims, will allow his company to pay farmers at least six cents more per bushel and generate tax revenue for the community.

Mona Sindelar, a local elementary school counselor and barley farmer, says she enjoys the view from the pillar and yet wants to see the grain elevator built. Sindelar and 514 fellow ranchers and farmers have signed a petition in support of the present site for the facility. She finds it ironic that many opponents of the silos are pushing through plans for a $4 million, 5,700-square-foot interpretive center to be built next to the Pillar in time for the bicentennial celebration of the Lewis & Clark Expedition in 2004-2006. "I'm way more worried about the aesthetic effect of that visitors center than the grain elevator—there's no comparsion," says Sindelar.

Moreover, the cultivation of the American West is exactly what Lewis and Clark envisioned as they paddled through Montana's valleys, Gary Schuld insists.

"That's a specious argument for wrecking this totem of our past," counters Hugh Ambrose, who, along with his father, the historian Stephen Ambrose, has rallied opposition to the grain elevator in Montana and around the country. Ambrose notes that Lewis and Clark expended as much effort recording scientific and ethnographic information about the pre-colonial American West as they did plotting trade and settlement. "For people to suggest that commerce-run-rampant is the message of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is to miss what this was all about. It was a marriage of different parts of America."

Preservationists and Crow Indians hope for a change in plans before United Harvest pours any more concrete. Both sides say they're still willing to negotiate. "There's a better business decision out there waiting to happen," says Jeff Olson, "and when that decision is made, we'll be there to pat them on the back."

Alex Hawes is a nature writer living in Kensington, Md. 

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