The Old Kirby Place is rich in history. The the Hutchins Bridge and The Old Kirby Place are integral parts of the long and colorful past of the Madison River Valley.
Although gold was never located in the Madison Valley, William Ennis created a new settlement in the lower valley in 1863 and developed a wagon road from present day Ennis to the upper Madison Valley. This provided a lifeline for the ranches to get their livestock, grains, vegetables and dairy products to the nearby bustling mining camps.
The wagon road followed the east side of the Madison River until it reached the confluence of the West Fork of the Madison where the road crossed over the river and continued over Reynolds Pass and into Idaho. It was later extended into Yellowstone as well. In the early years, the road was called the Vigilante Trail in honor of the Virginia City vigilantes who got rid of the “road agents" who helped themselves to the miners' hard earned gold. It later became part of the Banff to Grand Canyon Road.
By 1869, the Madison County Commissioners considered the feasibility of an improved road along the Madison River. When Congress designated Yellowstone as a National Park in 1872, the area was generally accessible only by horseback and improvements were deemed necessary.
In 1885, Mathew Dunham built a cabin and the first bridge across the Madison River in the Upper Madison Valley. It was near the West Fork of the Madison River. With the help of ten workers, Dunham got timber from the west side of the river, made piers and filled them with rocks to support the spans of the king-post truss bridge. The rickety looking result of their efforts cost $1,261. Dunham charged travelers $1.50 for a four-horse wagon, $1.00 for a two horse wagon, and a man on horseback was 50 cents. One year later, Dunham sold the business to Israel Ammon Hutchins, a name that is synonymous with the bridge to this day. Hutchins became a rancher and toll bridge operator.
Dunham's cabin, the oldest structure in the Upper Madison Valley, was located on Hutchins Ranch, later The Old Kirby Place. People complained about the high tolls of the various bridges in the area, but the owners argued they had to recoup their investment and provide proper maintenance. Because of the constant grumbling, the Montana Legislature repealed many of the toll bridge licenses and gave the county the power to regulate fees. The developing practice of public-private building and maintenance of the road and bridges was the foundation for a later system of standardized governmental highways.
History of the Hutchins Bridge
Madison County purchased the bridge in 1900 along with a right of way through the Hutchins Ranch for $300. That same year, an event occurred which revealed the vulnerability of the route. A herd of 600 cattle spooked, and instead of fording the river as was usual, they began stampeding across the bridge. The center span of the bridge broke, plunging both cattle and bridge into the water. To read the story of the stampede, click here. Recognizing the need for a new and improved structure, the present steel truss bridge was built in 1902 at a cost of $5,999.
A new route to Yellowstone National Park bypassed the bridge in 1922 and it has since served only local traffic. The Hutchins Bridge was listed in the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of Interior in 1999.
The Hutchins Ranch remained in the Hutchins family for years and underwent a name change only when Hutchins' daughter, Edith, married Otto Kirby many years ago. Although ownership has since changed, The Old Kirby Place retains strong ties to the area's colorful past, while serving the tastes of present day visitors.
Hutchins Bridge Makes National Register of Historic Places
The celebration of the Hutchins Bridge entry on the National Register of Historic Places took place on July 10, 1999. The designation was bestowed upon the bridge because of its vital link on the route to Yellowstone National Park.
History buffs, preservationists, and other interested and supportive people came from near and far to join the festivities held on the lawn of the The Old Kirby Place. Jack Kirby reminisced of his days on the ranch with his parents, Otto & Edith (Hutchins) Kirby, and with Mr. and Mrs. Hutchins his grandparents. The gala ended for the crowd of 75 with a champagne bottle popped and splashed on the venerable bridge and a toast to its longevity. Click here to see the invitation and photos of the bridge party
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Learn more about the Hutchins Bridge Stampede
Learn more about the Hutchins Bridge Party
History Photo Gallery