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Wide Roads: Thinking Too Big When Inking A Montana Law

Montana governor Sidney Edgerton, who signed a wide roads law with flaws.

By RANDOLPH W. HOBLER

Montanans think big. Big Sky. Big Granite Peak. Big Blackfoot Glacier. In one instance, maybe thinking big should not have been the way to go. And thereby lies a trail. Not the Bridger Trail, nor The Bozeman, nor the Benton nor the Bitterroot. All of them. 

On January 6, 1865, the otherwise level-headed Montanan Territorial Legislature at Bannack thought too big when it came to Bill Number 41, introduced by Chairman Andrew J. Smith and duly signed by stern first governor Sidney Edgerton. 

“Be it enacted … that the width of all Territorial and county roads shall be 66 feet.”

Sixty-six feet wide? According to Montanan trail historians, the average width of roads in 1865 was about 10 feet. These 20 legislators were talking six times wider. And while plains areas could allow for the likes of 66 feet, much of the existing roads ran along narrow ravines, through forests, and astride mountains. 

One cannot help but supposing these lawmakers were shooting themselves in the foot. While the discussions of the legislature’s Internal Improvements Committee are lost to history, don’t we owe these doughty pioneers every conceivable benefit of the doubt?

Motivation Excavation

Like archaeologists, we’ve dug, scraped, and dusted to get to the bottom of this mystery. Maybe some magic to the number 66? Maybe inspired by the 19th-century German card game “66,” also known as Paderbörnern? Only one legislator, Wila Huffaker, was German, but he couldn’t very well play Paderbörnern alone. 

Speaking of German, Mozart used to play a 66-key piano, but what relevance to music? There are 66 books in the Protestant Bible, but religion? In numerology, 66 means “harmony and balance,” but how does that tie into the width of roads? Maybe 66 was just the favorite number of the head of the Internal Improvements Committee? 

Hey, we’ve all got favorite numbers! Or maybe he was clairvoyant, dreamed of “Route 66,” and interpreted this as a sign? Maybe plain ol’ carelessness? 

No, the bill was read three times in full session and referred to committee. Nor can it be said the bill was buried in a 100-page law stuffed full of riders. It’s just one short sentence. Maybe all 20 legislators had discalcula and really meant something more reasonable, like 20 feet? Not likely. Besides, even in those early Montana days, men were fully versed in arithmetic. Just seven months earlier, on May 26, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Montana Territory Act into law, granting the state 94 million acres. So, maybe they were just feeling expansive. Flush. 

Or maybe they just felt so tightly cramped in the three tiny buildings of the legislature, just 750 square feet—the size of a large modern living room—that they contracted cabin fever and were bursting to break out. 

Or how about special interests? Maybe the likes of powerful companies like the Fort Benton Wagon Road Company and the Overland Stage Line Coaches greased some palms? After all, the bigger the road, the bigger the profits. Or maybe, after long days of debate, the Internal Improvements Committee had ambled down the main street to Skinner’s Saloon (you know, the one opposite Grasshopper Creek) and sloshed down shots of “Coffin Varnish” whiskey in an all-night bender. They were so hung over they mis-wrote the law? Or maybe, just maybe, all these guesses boil down to what Jon Axline, Cultural Resource Specialist and Historian at the Montana Department of Transportation, summarized: “It’s crazy.”

The Well-Intentioned Road To Hell

Some insurmountable problems arise with this law. First, enforceability. Montana didn’t have the bandwidth to police 147,000 square miles of land. 

Second, feasibility. It was difficult enough in 1865 to clear 10 feet of road, to say nothing of 66. Deforestation and mountain cut-outs in the day were back-breakingly manual. Chain saws? No way. 

Two-man cross-cut saws, bucksaws, and axes were the tools of the day, wielded exhaustingly, day after day. No jack hammers—picks and shovels. Oxen deploying chains to yank out stumps. Plus mudslides. Floods. Sub-zero temperatures. And mosquitoes. 

Finally, had this law lasted, it would have required all 150,466 miles of today’s Montana’s roads to be 66 feet wide. The incremental cost of paving six (rather than two) lanes is $4.5 million per mile. Total cost to foot the bill would land around $677 billion. 

Might I be construing the law too narrowly? I invite you, dear reader, to be the judge. MSN 

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