Note: This article first appeared in the September-October, 2007 issue of the Gypsy Journal.
At first glance the Ninemile Remount Depot, with its white fences and Cape Cod style buildings, might lead you to believe you have been transported to a Kentucky horse farm, but one look upward at the mountains looming in the distance reminds you that you are still in western Montana.
Located just west of Missoula, the historic Ninemile Remount Depot was established by the Forest Service in 1930 to provide trained pack animals and packers for firefighting efforts. For 23 years the Depot’s nine mule, one horse pack trains were the Forest Service Northern Region’s lifeline. During fire season, up to twenty pack trains were ready to carry the equipment needed to fire lines. The Depot’s mules were also used to carry the materials needed in trail construction and building lookout towers and bridges in the back country. Packers from Ninemile were known throughout the Northwest as the best in the business.
Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Ninemile Remount Depot was the home roost for more than 1500 “Rocky Mountain Canaries” (also known as mules), as well as prime breeding stock. The Depot’s upper hayfield was used for training smokejumpers in the early days of the parachuting firefighting program. It was common for the old Ford Trimotor airplanes to have to buzz the field first to clear it of grazing livestock so the jumpers could land. During the winter, up to 1500 horses and mules were pastured at Ninemile.
Why mules? A mule is the sturdy but sterile offspring of a donkey and a horse. Mules are preferred as pack animals due to their sure-footed gait, because they can carry more weight than a horse, require less feed, and because many packers believe that they are much smarter than horses. Old time packers used to say that if you packed your breakfast eggs in on a mule, they could be cooked to order, but if you packed them in on a horse, your only choice was scrambled.
While rangers loved mules as pack animals, they usually preferred to ride horses. An extensive breeding program went on for years at Ninemile Remount Station to produce mounts for the Forest Service.
During fire season, four pack trains consisting of ten animals waited in the corrals for their call to duty. Whenever the Depot’s big outdoor bell rang, crews had fifteen minutes to be ready to roll, with trucks loaded with nine mules and a lead horse, along with supplies for 25 men. Before they pulled out they always stopped on the Depot’s truck scales to be sure they were not too heavy for the bridges they would have to cross on their route.
Though major operations ended in 1953, Ninemile is still a working ranger station and pack depot. Mules and horses are still stabled here waiting for the call to head into the back country with their heavy loads. Retired Forest Service mules also come here to live out their days after a lifetime of hard work. Sometimes these veterans are pressed into service for training purposes, helping rangers learn about mules and basic packing skills.
Today, visitors to Ninemile can take a self-guided tour and see exhibits on wildfire fighting in the Visitor Center, which is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the summer.
The Depot’s outbuildings include shops and stables, and visitors can poke their heads in the door to watch blacksmiths forging horseshoes, ranch hands repairing saddles and tack, and mules and horses in the corrals and stables. During the Depot’s busy years, blacksmiths hammered out nine horseshoes an hour, up to 72 a day, totaling 15,000 a year!
Not all horses and mules appreciated the shoeing process, but according to our tour guide, any animal that went into the building came out with shoes on. One reluctant mule actually jumped through the small window in front of the hitching rack to get away, but was brought back inside and shod.
Ninemile Remount Depot is located four miles from Exit 82 on Interstate 90. The last ¼ mile is not paved, but is suitable for any size RV. The Depot has a small parking area, and if there were more than a couple of large RVs visiting at the same time, it might get tight. For more information, call the Depot at (406) 626-5201.
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Thought For The Day – If you weigh 200 pounds on earth, you would only weigh 76 pounds on Mars. So you’re not overweight, you’re just on the wrong planet!