We all know that Yellowstone National Park is an amazing, one of a kind, place to spend time. If your vacation time permits, and if you want a break from geysers, hot pools and bison you might consider taking a day trip 38 miles north of West Yellowstone in the general direction of Ennis, Montana where you will find the Hutchins Bridge and the Old Kirby Ranch. The bridge was, on July 10, 1999 included in the National Register of Historic Places.
The original bridge was built in 1885 by Mathew Dunham and 10 workers. They secured timber from the west side of the river, constructed piers filled with rocks and used them to support the span of the bridge across the river.
The bridge was operated as a toll bridge so Mr. Dunham could recoup his original investment and have funds available for maintenance of the bridge. The toll fares were $1.50 for a 4 horse wagon; $1.00 for a 2 horse wagon and $0.50 for a horseback rider. The cost of the original bridge was $1,261.00. During this time Mr. Dunham built the first structure on the ranch when he constructed his cabin.
Just a year after the bridge was built, Mr. Dunham sold it to Israel Ammon Hutchins. Mr. Hutchins continued to operate the toll bridge but he also became a rancher.
The year that Mr. Hutchins bought the bridge and the ranch disaster struck. There was a herd of approximately 600 cattle being moved in that area. Normally the cattle would ford the river but that year, for some unknown reason, the cattle decided to stampede across the bridge. The inevitable happened. The weight of the cattle caused the center span of the bridge to collapse and the bridge was no longer usable. In 1902 the wooden bridge was replaced by a steel truss bridge at a cost of $5,999.00. That is the bridge you will see today. In 1922 the new route to Yellowstone National Park bypassed the bridge and today is serves primarily local traffic.
The Montana Legislature, due to the constant complaining about the toll fares, had repealed many of the toll bridges and gave the County the power to set the fares. In 1900 Madison County purchased the bridge and a right of way thru the Hutchins Ranch for the grand sum of $300.00.
Mr. Hutchins continued to improve the ranch and it eventually became a 15,000 acre ranch. The ranch remained in the Hutchins family for many years. When Edith Hutchins married Otto Kirby it became known as the Kirby Ranch. It is known as The Old Kirby Ranch today.
Today the ranch covers a total of 12 to 15 acres. How did it go from 15,000 acres to 12 to 15 acres? The story goes that Otto Kirby, Edith Hutchins husband, was adverse to work. When he needed money he would borrow from the local bank using parcels of the ranch land as collateral. When he defaulted on his loans the bank would repossess the collateral. And that is the story of how and why the ranch is now 12 to 15 acres. I do not know if that story is true or not – but that is how the story goes.
Even though little of the original land remains in the possession of the ranch, many of the buildings and out buildings remain and have been refurbished to provide guest rooms for the visiting fly fishermen.
In 1988 a man named Walter Kannon purchased the ranch but left the Old Kirby Ranch as the name. With the help of three partners he opened the fly-fishing lodge. I could not find in my research how many years Mr. Kannon operated the lodge, only the information that an attorney from Las Vegas approached him about buying the ranch. The only condition in the sale was that Mr. Kannon agreed to stay on during the summer months as the official host of the ranch. He agreed and an apartment was constructed over the top of the ranch’s old barn where he resides during the summer.
The main house, two older log building and an old bunkhouse have been refurbished to provide lodging for guests. One older cabin has also been refurbished and serves as a summer home for the current owner when he can escape from his law office in Las Vegas.
It is a beautiful drive from West Yellowstone to the Hutchins Bridge and The Old Kirby Ranch. You can either take the route along Hebgen and Quake Lakes and the Earthquake area where you can stop at the Earthquake Lake Information Center and learn all about the 1959 earthquake. You can also travel west on Highway 20 out of West Yellowstone thru Targhee Pass and then take Highway 287 through the Madison River Valley and then on toward Ennis.
I think you will find it a day well spent and you will return to West Yellowstone ready for another day of geysers, hot pools and bison.
Photos courtesy of “The Old Kirby Place on the Madison”.
AUTHOR: Sue Knapp