Tracing French Woman's Road

Richard S. Buswell

On Friday October 20, 2017, my friend Bill Clausen and I successfully traced the remainder of Frenchwoman’s Road on the west side of the Continental Divide. We began our search on the southeast side of Cromwell Dixon campground where I had previously identified the Road leaving the boundaries of the campground and heading in a northeast direction towards the present U.S. Highway 12 (where the highway crosses MacDonald Pass). The route of Frenchwoman’s Road from the campground is largely defined by a line of trees adjacent to ruts, although there are short sections where neither trees nor ruts are present. The current road into Cromwell Dixon campground from U.S. Highway 12 is paved and once Frenchwoman’s Road reaches that pavement, there are no further convincing lines of trees or ruts visible. This made both Bill and I conclude that, from the point where Frenchwoman’s Road and the campground access pavement merge, the pavement east of there obliterates the remainder of Frenchwoman’s Road all the way to the top of the Continental Divide.  To paraphrase, we think that about a quarter mile of the original Frenchwoman’s Road on the west side of the Divide was obliterated when the Cromwell Dixon campground access road was built and paved.

Over the past several years, I had traced Frenchwoman’s Road from the site of her boarding house and stables northeast of Elliston (which also served as the west-side toll house), up MacDonald Creek to the very wet, brushy area that constitutes the headwaters of MacDonald Creek. This brushy area is perhaps one mile west of where U.S. Highway 12 crosses the Continental Divide. It appeared to me highly unlikely that Frenchwoman’s Road would course through that wet, brushy headwaters area. Instead I felt it was very likely that Frenchwoman’s Road turned to the southeast before reaching that wet area and went around the base of a small (dry) hill. After coursing around either the north side or south side of that small hill, I think Frenchwoman’s Road then headed northeast towards the current Cromwell Dixon campground. Two years ago, I identified an old rutted road, lined by trees, heading southwest from the campground toward the base of that small hill. That segment of Frenchwoman’s Road that goes around the hill (either on the north side or the south side) is on a private ranch (RV Ranch) and, to date, I have not been able to trace that segment to a point just below the headwaters of MacDonald Creek. Tracing Frenchwoman’s Road on the west side of MacDonald Pass has also been compromised by a number of logging roads.

Bill and I then turned our attention to trying to find Frenchwoman’s Road on the east side of the Divide. Bill had a paternal cousin named Ann Clausen Lewis who was 13 years older than he and who has passed away. Sometime before her death, Ann told Bill that when the current MacDonald Pass Road was widened to a four lane highway sometime in the 1970’s, that traces of Frenchwoman’s Road on top of the Pass were obliterated by that four lane road construction. When Bill and I tried to find any traces of Frenchwoman’s Road just east of the Continental Divide, we were unsuccessful. The forest on the east side is littered with downfall and the terrain is steep.  We only descended perhaps 200 yards from the Pass before turning back to the summit. Since the low point in this area’s crossing of the Continental Divide is where the current U.S. Highway crosses the Divide, it would make sense that Frenchwoman’s Road would have also chosen the same low point.

Bill has previously identified the original MacDonald Pass Road west from the east side toll house/stage station (near Clausen Road and which has now been incorporated into the current home owned by Mike and Ann Maixner). Near that east side toll house/stage station are also the original barn, chicken coup and milking cabin, all of whom are still standing. Last summer, Bill and I explored this original MacDonald Pass stage road from the toll house up to a point about 1-2 miles from the summit of MacDonald Pass. We stopped when the terrain became very steep and littered by beetle-killed downfall. Consequently there remains about 1-2 miles of the original east-side MacDonald Pass road that we have not explored. We also felt that Frenchwoman’s Road and the original MacDonald Pass road are very likely one and the same. Because of the work involved in constructing a road over the Continental Divide, especially on the east side, it would seem likely that the original MacDonald Pass road would follow (or mostly follow) Frenchwoman’s Road.

Bill and I next looked at Google Earth to see if we could identify any traces of Frenchwoman’s Road on the east side of the Continental Divide. Easily visible is the access road to Frontier Town as it leaves the four lane highway and wends its way up to Frontier Town itself.  More or less across (south) from the point where that access road and the highway merge, there is a faint trace visible below the highway. That faint trace continues heading east, more or less parallel with the highway, for quite a ways. Eventually, the trace makes a sharp, 90 degree turn south followed by another more diagonal turn to the southeast. Eventually this trace ends about where the original MacDonald Pass toll house would have been (incorporated today into the home of Mike and Ann Maixner).

Bill Clausen lived much of his early life and his last thirteen years as well, at the east base of MacDonald Pass. He knows the area well. He has found evidence of an old telephone line (especially old telephone poles) that follow the trace mentioned in the above paragraph, raising the question of whether this trace was just built to install this telephone line and consequently may have had nothing to do with Frenchwoman’s Road. Since there is no other nearby road visible on Google Earth, we both concluded that the installation of that old telephone line likely followed Frenchwoman’s Road closely. The one place where Frenchwoman’s Road was visibly separate from the old telephone line (i.e. as a separate trace) is just east of the sharply descending portion of the telephone line. Bill recalls there being at least three switchbacks visible on this separate, very steep section of Frenchwoman’s Road, which would be consistent with what a stage coach would need to ascend or descend through this steep terrain.

One additional note about Google Earth imaging of the MacDonald Pass area:

South of the beacons on top of the Pass, is a faint trace heading in an easterly direction.  Bill feels comfortable that this trace is not a frontier road of any kind, but rather a disturbance from the installation of an oil/gasoline pipeline.

In summary then, Frenchwoman’s Road is visible from the southeast end of Cromwell Dixon campground to the point where it merges with the paved access road into the campground from U.S. Highway 12. From the top of MacDonald Pass highway east, it appears that the construction of the four lane highway obliterated Frenchwoman’s Road on the east side of the Divide until, based on Google Earth imaging, the trace of the Road  resumes  across the highway (i.e. south) from where the Frontier Town access road begins. Since there are no other traces of roads visible on Google Earth, we are once again left to believe that Frenchwoman’s Road, the access road for a telephone line  and the original MacDonald Pass toll road are mostly one and the same

At this time, it is unclear where Frenchwoman’s Road circumvents the wet, brushy headwaters of MacDonald Creek on the west side of the Divide. There is a small (dry) hill south-southwest of the campground towards which Frenchwoman’s Road must have veered in order to avoid these brushy headwaters. On Google Earth, there are traces of a road visible on both  the north and south sides of this hill which could well be remnants of Frenchwoman’s Road. However, these traces could also be remnants of logging roads as this area has been heavily logged in the past, nearly all the way down to the west base of MacDonald Pass.

Bill and I plan to resume our “boots-on-the-ground” research of Frenchwoman’s Road on both the west and east sides of the Continental Divide as weather permits.

This transcription was proofread for accuracy by Bill Clausen.

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