The Building of Fort Maginnis
Lewistown News-Argus **
Sunday, December 14, 1997
Christmas Edition by John R. Foster
A yellowed 116-year-old contract and a 67-year-old news clipping.
Both were brought to Montana this past October and shed much light on the construction of Fort Maginnis in Central Montana in 1880-1881.
While the two-page contract strictly describes the expected relationship between a civilian contractor and the U.S. Army, it also replaces with solid fact a myth or two concerning the building of Fort Maginnis.
A skilled carpenter, by today's local wage, probably makes a minimum of $80 per day, plus overtime.
This 1881 government contract for a "first-class carpenter-joiner" specified $2.16 per day for eight hours, plus 27 cents an hour for two hours of overtime.
While this daily wage seems puny by today's standards, it must be remembered that $2.16 per day was far above average pay for the time, plus Army meal rations and room were added.
This bonus pay was designed to lure competent craftsmen from the safety and comforts of the settled St. Paul and other "eastern" areas to the dangerous and untamed wilds of Montana Territory.
In 1881, "Montana Territory" meant one thing, and one thing only, to most easterners.
Montana Territory was where General George Armstrong Custer and his entire command of the 7th Calvary troopers perished at the hand of the warring Sioux and Northern Cheyenne Indians just five years earlier-on June 25, 1876, to be exact, on the Little Big Horn River.
By 1881, Sitting Bull and his hostiles were still at large in Canada, supposedly ready to swoop down across the border for another total victory over the U.S. Army!
By 1881, Custer's tragic defeat was still ordinary dinner time conversation with most American families.
Thus, the Army paid more money ($2.16 a day) to lure skilled craftsman to this hostile land where Custer made his "last stand" in order to build forts for the Army.
It was the will of the people that another Custer massacre never again be repeated! And more forts and increased troop strength would insure that the will of the people would be fulfilled.
Prior to the Custer defeat in 1776, Congress had appropriated little money to support the western Army.
At the time, Army troop strength in Montana was barely 700. After the battle it jumped to 2,000 and to 3,300 by 1877.
Forts constructed in Montana Territory prior to the Custer defeat were quite primitive, built with native logs and rough hewn lumber, often by the soldiers themselves.
After the battle five new forts were constructed and, in comparison, were ultra-modern, sparing no reasonable expense.
Supplies and materials for construction of these lavish forts were shipped in the east. Every comfort was to be provided for the troops in Montana Territory, for all the costs, the Custer massacre was to be prevented from ever happening again!
1877 saw the construction of Fort Keogh, Fort Custer and Fort Missoula. In 1879, Fort Assinniboine was built 38 miles south of the Canadian border to keep Sitting Bull and other hostiles north of the border.
And in 1880-81, Fort Maginnis was built in Central Montana as the last of the five post-Custer forts protecting Montana Territory.
While many historians have remarked that these five forts, and Fort Maginnis in particular, were "much, much too late," they did serve the purpose of protecting the western expansion and a second "Custer Fiasco" was never again to occur.
Plus, these forts did much to bring civilization to what was to become the State of Montana. These five forts required goods while giving protection. As such, markets were created where none had existed.
Roads were constructed to supply the forts. Army officers were extremely well educated and moved in the better social circles, insuring that the forts were centers of culture.
The forts had fine libraries with excellent bands and orchestras. They produced plays and musical entertainment for the civilian population as well as for the troops.
And the updated hospitals and post surgeons at these forts saved the lives of many civilians as well as Army personnel. Montana was considered choice duty by career officers and NCOs following the completion of the five post-Custer forts.
Fort maginnis was no exception to any of the above.
On July 13, 1881, a 30-year-old St. Paul bachelor named Archibald Isaac ("A.I.") LaGrange signed a contract with the Quartermaster Corps of the United States Army to "be hired for duty connected with construction at Fort Maginnis, M.T."
(Note - Montana was abbreviated as "M.T." in those days.)
He came to Montana, helped build Fort Maginnis and when the work was done in November of 1881, he returned to Minnesota to later marry and raise two sons.
He died in Minnesota in 1935. In his personal effects were found A.I.'s coveted contract concerning his trip to Montana in 1881 to build Fort Maginnis, a couple of photos concerning later trips to the site, and two newspapers articles.
On Oct. 31, 1997, A.I.'s granddaughter, Mrs. Nancy I. Anderson of St. Paul, along with her husband Eldon, brought the old contract and other papers to Lewistown to see the ruins of the abandoned fort her grandfather had helped to build.
We spent the day at the ruin site, comparing old Culver photographs of the fort with what is there now.
At the Fort Maginnis Cemetery we found the grave of her grandfather's tent mate who had died during the construction of the fort.
A.I. LaGrange's son Harry had become a Milwaukee Railroad engineer and for many years worked out of Lewistown.
On a visit to Central Montana in 1921, A.I. had photographed his tent mates grave and this photograph clearly identified the grave via stone inscription as that of "Daniel H. Foley: Died Aug. 20, 1881." While the stone in 1997 was almost toppled, it was still standing and the inscription still visible.
An undated 1930 Lewistown newspaper clipping (probably Democrat News) said the following:
"In 1921 he went out to the site of the old post to look it over and was telling his son that his tent mate on the construction job died there on Aug. 20, 1881. 'He was buried right over that rise, and I'm sure we can walk to the grave.'
"They walked over and there was the grave with the headstone inscribed, "D.H. Foley, died Aug. 20, 1881."
"What day is this dad?" inquired the engineer. It was Aug. 20, 1921, just forty years to the very hour that the burial took place."
For many years I have given tours to the Fort Maginnis Cemetery. And for many years many people had asked: "Who was Daniel H. Foley?" I had no answer.
Now I know, at least as much as anyone now alive knows, thanks to Nancy and Eldon Anderson.
But the first part of the 1930 news clipping, coupled with A.I. LaGrange's 1881 employment contract itself, erases many quoted myths that have been perpetuated about the building of Fort Maginnis for decades.
The biggest such myth is that Fort Maginnis "was built by 200 local laborers." By information obtained via the LaGrange papers, it was not.
If 200 laborers were employed in the construction of Fort Maginnis, then six may have been local, but the other 194 were imported from back east.
With these LaGrange papers, the evidence to this fact is indeed documented and quite clear.
The building of Fort Maginnis actually revived part of the old Carroll Trail of 1874-75.
Then freight destined for the gold fields in Helena left St. Paul on the newly constructed N. P. Railroad for Bismark, where the rails ended, it then came by steam boat up the Missouri to the newly built Fort Carroll, and then overland by wagon to Helena.
This shortcut bypassed Fort Benton and made shipping more accessible for more months of the year.
Supplies and materials for Fort Maginnis followed the same route in 1880-81: by rail to Bismark, by boat to Rocky Point (the new name for the abandoned Fort Carroll), and then "overland" to Fort Maginnis on the newly revived Carroll Trail.
While the old Carroll Trail went west around the Judith Mountains, the new fort was on the east side of the Judiths, so the road cut off the old Carroll Trail north of the Judiths and came through Cone Butte Pass (now Ross Pass) to the military reservation.
Unquestionably, the quartermaster stores and the building materials (including planed lumber and bricks for the chimneys) were shipped from St. Paul to the Maginnis site by this route.
A close look at the A.I. LaGrange contract specifies the same route for building craftsmen who hired on at St. Paul.
"All men will be paid half rates from the day of departure of St. Paul until they reach the post......Ordinary transportation by rail and deck passage by boat will be provided by the Quartermaster's Department, when practicable. The men will march on overland journeys."
And here is how A.I. LaGrange recalled his trip to Fort Maginnis as quoted in the first part of the 1930 Lewistown news clipping.:
"There are mighty few in all Fergus County who were here when A.I. LaGrange came in back in 1861.
"That was more than 49 years ago and he was a member of the construction party sent out to build Fort Maginnis.
"There were 194 men in this party and they traveled by boat to Rocky Point, walking in to the location a distance of 84 miles and spending four days on that trip.
"The timber was all cut in the surrounding hills and the work was carried on by this large crew until late in November...."
As a matter of record, the site of the fort was selected by Captain Daingerfield Parker on Aug. 22, 1880. That fall, a compliment of infantry troops were stationed at the site in temporary quarters.
Later in 1881, two companies of cavalry arrived at the reservation, giving Fort Maginnis a total of 12 officers and 220 enlisted men.
All authorities agree that the troops moved into finished, permanent quarters by December 1881.
By the often-quoted myth that the fort was built by "200 local laborers" is quite false.
The LaGrange papers reveal an unquestionable scenario about the construction of the fort that probably saw all materials hauled to the site in late fall of 1880 and/or early spring and summer of 1881, with 194 craftsmen coming out of St. Paul in July of 1881, and working through November of 1881, to complete their contracts.
Clearly, the A.I. LaGrange contract specifies "for such period of time as may be required, not however, to exceed six months from the date of acceptance into service....."
While the temporary quarters were unquestionably thrown together as early as the fall of 1880, and the foundations (which are still there) for the many elaborate buildings may have been completed by July 1881, the majority of the permament construction for the grand buildings was done by the 194 in the work party, with contracts identical to that of A.I. LaGrange (except for job description), who came out from St. Paul in July and finished the grand fort by late November of 1881.
That was less than six months in the process!
The plans for the various buildings at Fort Maginnis are still on file in the National Archives. Most are dated 1880, with a few of the minor buildings dated 1881.
Fort Maginnis was one of the first frontier forts laid out on a war department blueprint (rather than local commander blueprint). And civilian carpenters built it.
As the LaGrange papers demonstrate, the civilian carpenters, (all 194) came out from the St. Paul, Minn., area and built it in less than six months from late July 1881 until November 1881.
They probably returned to St. Paul the same way they came: an overland march to Rocky Point of 84 miles, a boat trip down the Missouri to Bismark, and back to St. Paul on the Northern Pacific.
They all came together, and they probably all left together.
To A.I. LaGrange, however, a fear of the "wild west" was probably not an issue. He had been to the frontier before and he had been acquainted with the slain General Custer.
An undated news clipping from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (probably June 1932) featured A.I. LaGrange, then 82 years old and his relationship with George Armstrong Custer.
"It seems that when Mr. LaGrange was a youngster playing around Albany, N.Y., in the early days of the Civil War, a young cavalry lieutenant....and his troops rode through town one day.
"For some reason or other the young lieutenant believed the lad needed clothes and proceeded to give him an outfit.
"To the best of LaGrange's memory he wasn't more or less ragged than other New York state boys of that day and generation, but Custer and his troop thought he needed clothes. and clothes the boy got, in abundance."
That was the start of LaGrange's admiration for Custer.
After the was Custer was ordered west to fight the Indian horsemen on the plains. Soon the New York boy too was on his way west to earn a living.
He ran into the cavalry general several times in the course of the years just after the Civil War.
The last meeting was at Elk Point, Dakota Territory, four years before the battle of the Little Big Horn..
"June 25 is the anniversary of the Big Horn battle and Custer's death, the aging pioneer gets out his pictures and looks them over.
"He shakes his head and, despite what all the debunkers say, declares: 'Custer was a great soldier. And had did have yellow hair, beautiful long yellow hair. I saw it."
One way or another, Custer's death on the Little Big Horn in 1876 is probably the main reason why A.I. LaGrange made better than average wages when he and 193 other St. Paul area craftsmen came of Montana for six months in 1881 to construct Fort Maginnis.
For without Custer's defeat, Fort Maginnis (and four other post Custer forts) probably would never have been built!
At any rate had the work party been attacked, an 1881 watchful government had it all figured out.
The required a 25 cents per month payment from each craftsman for health insurance - or as they called it in the contract "medical attendance."
Copyright 1998-2006 - Ann Kramlich and Betty Distad - All Rights Reserved
** Consent to post the stories and photos for non commercial use from the Lewistown News Argus was graciously granted by Dave Byerly owner and Publisher. These stories and photos may not be used by any commercial entity for any reason without consent from the Lewistown News Argus.