A Montana Story
Dynamite and the Lolo Ditch ©
Dad often tried to approach things in a methodical and
manner. Usually this method worked well, but not
Like the time he and my uncle made their first foray in
I was young when my family had our first Montana ranch up the
Creek valley, about 20 miles from Missoula. That was in
1952. We called the ranch the Akekani Ranch.
supposed to be an Indian word for friend. I once tried it
Indian kid at school and nearly got the stuffing beat out of
Maybe I didn't have the right accent.
At the Akekani Ranch.
When we moved up Lolo Creek, I must have been about six years
old. The ranch was in a gorgeous setting, straddling Lolo
and the Lewis and Clark trail over the Bitterroot Mountains into
Idaho. Being snuggled up against the north side of Lolo
remember that this ranch was shaded and cold in the
the season caused the sun to be low in the south, it just didn't
much time above Lolo Peak, from the perspective of our
There were good springs on the ranch, some of which watered our
meadows, adding to water taken out of Lolo Creek by ditches that
the Creek further up the valley.
My Dad's prime hay meadow was directly west of the Woodman
School. There was a soft area in the meadow next to Lolo
Road, where water ran off the hillside and collected -- a linear
perpendicular to Lolo Creek Road. When haying time came
tall grass, it seemed like somebody inevitably would get a
the edge of the damp area and get the tractor stuck up to its
the mud. That necessitated a rescue operation that one
resulted in a second tractor stuck in the same area. Then
necessary to get a neighbor to bring yet another tractor around
long chain or cable, and from a distance on firm ground pull the
tractor or tractors out. That wet area was a darned
So, a plan gradually emerged to run a ditch through that wet
area to an
existing culvert under Lolo Creek Road, to drain off the excess
into Lolo Creek on the other side of the road. The big
was how to dig the ditch if a tractor couldn't work there
getting stuck. Not many people had dozers then, and even a
might have gotten mired down in that soft ground.
When it came, the solution seemed obvious. Dynamite.
Yeah, great idea!
Back in those days anyone could buy dynamite at the hardware
store. Many ranchers and farmers used it for various
but not my family, yet. Years later, I learned that
many uses, even recreational uses.
As a young teenager, one of my favorite entertainments for a
on the ranch was to sneak into the shop and into the "paint
a case of dynamite was usually stored. I'd get out a stick
dynamite and peel back the waxed paper to expose the raw
mixture of sawdust and nitroglycerine. With the raw
exposed, I'd pinch off a little bit and put it on the anvil in
shop. The game then was to whack that pinch of dynamite
ball-peen hammer and see if I could hold onto the hammer as the
of dynamite exploded. Usually I could, but with larger
dynamite it became more of a challenge to keep a grip on the
handle. It sure made the anvil ring.
Yeah, I know. It's a wonder that some people live to reach
adulthood. But hey, we had FUN back then. And, I
get involved in any ranchland gangs. I just banged away at
dynamite on the anvil and raised my 4-H animals instead.
Back to the ditch. Being careful and methodical, Dad had
a pamphlet somewhere about using dynamite. He learned that
sticks were planted close enough together, it was only necessary
a detonator and fuse on the stick at the end of a string of
charges. This seemed sensible. We spent several days
planting this long string of dynamite charges in a line through
swamp, from the road out into the hay meadow.
I believe the pamphlet said to put the charges no more than 18
apart for each charge to detonate the next one in line. Of
given the soft ground and all, just to make sure, it would
a good idea to put them every nine inches or so. Just to
sure, you know.
To get the bottom of the ditch down deep, we'd drive a steel bar
the mud about three feet deep to make a hole for the dynamite
sticks. Once a stick of dynamite was dropped to the bottom
hole, it seemed a shame to waste the rest of the hole. So
would put a couple of more sticks on top of the stick already in
bottom of the hole, and pack some mud down over the three or
Three days later we'd gone through many cases of dynamite.
hey, dynamite was cheap, and we didn't want to have to do it
twice. We'd laid a line of dynamite charges about 100
perpendicular to Lolo Creek Road.
When it was finally time to put the detonator and fuse in the
charge, somebody had the good idea to stop traffic on Lolo Creek
so no motorist would be driving too close to the ditching
when the detonator finally lit the dynamite. We decided to
traffic about 100 yards back from where the line of charges met
Because of a shortage of personnel (except for short people like
was designated to be the road guard to stop traffic coming from
west. I held a portable stop sign, a very important job
kid. There was probably also an underhanded intention to
away from the immediate vicinity and excitement of the
ditch. I made my own compromise with the standoff
stopping traffic only about 60 yards from where the line of
the road, just to be a little closer to the action.
The first vehicle to my roadblock was a logging truck with a
of logs, coming from somewhere up Lolo Creek. I waved my
sign. When the truck stopped I climbed up on the truck's
board and explained to the driver what was going on through the
open window. Stepping off the running board, I noticed
Lolo-bound vehicles beginning to collect behind the log truck.
Meanwhile, Dad was putting the detonator and fuse into the last
and tamping the stick on top of the others in the last
was careful enough with this that it took longer than
Finally I saw Dad running away and knew that he'd lit the
Of course, he used plenty of fuse for lots of "get-away"
fact he used so much fuse that traffic was getting pretty well
up both directions, maybe ten vehicles each direction.
I was about eight years old at the time, so this was pretty
for me. It was almost the Fourth of July, and I'd been
with firecrackers for couple of years, blowing up tin cans and
such. But, this would be a major promotion for my
blowing things up.
The dynamite finally blew.
I.T..W.A.S..S.P.E.C.T.A.C.U.L.A.R!@#& Actually, it was
beyond spectacular. It was several notches on the far side
The explosion knocked me down!
It seemed like it rained mud for a week. Everybody was
impressed. Even the cars waiting last in line were covered
mud. Midway through the rain of mud, I managed to struggle
to my feet to better enjoy the effects. Just when I was
that the rain of mud was over, a chunk of soggy sod the size of
tire came sailing out of the sky and landed on the front of the
truck, half on the windshield and half on the hood. The
driver was also impressed that this large chunk of sod had
one side of the hood of his truck. But hey, it only caved
hood downward about three inches. The driver probably
out with the heel of his hand when he got home. At least
didn't break his windshield.
It took a while for the smoke and muddy mist to clear so we
what we had accomplished. That was spectacular too!
wanted a ditch about three feet deep and three feet
got a canal, about ten to twelve feet deep and probably twenty
across. No wonder it rained so much mud! It was an
I know. It's easy to impress a kid. But hey, the
there were impressed, too. I didn't do much more with
firecrackers that year. They were entirely too tame after
creating the canal with cases of dynamite.
The drainage canal worked fine. All the water from the
surrounding wet area collected in our new pond. Geese
this new wonder by telepathy to their cousins who flocked from
hundred miles away. And, at last Dad finally had a place
all the rocks that us kids had been rolling down the hillside
- 30 -
© 2008, Gary Marbut