Escape Magazine: Where the Wild Horses Are
The history of a Flathead Lake island and its inhabitants
Click the image or use the arrows to see more photos from Wild Horse Island.
Ordinarily, a horse would seem difficult to hide. But there is not much that is ordinary about Wild Horse Island – 2,163 acres of rolling Palouse Prairie, glacier-carved ridges and forest rising from Flathead Lake’s blue waters, all of it open to the public. And so, on a cloudless May morning, Jerry Sawyer set out to locate the seven namesake horses roaming its hillsides. One of the geldings had been having hoof problems, and Sawyer, who manages the parks along Flathead Lake for the state, planned to bring a veterinarian out the following week.
The herd, however, which normally isn’t all that elusive, was nowhere to be found. These seven mustangs have been full of surprises lately: For one thing, there are only supposed to be five of them.
One of the geldings, who Sawyer refers to as “the old man,” was 10 years old when brought to the island in 1992. That makes him about 28 or 29 now, fairly ancient for a wild horse. After the recent harsh winter, there was little hope the old horse would live to see another summer.
But in April, Sawyer was startled to find, not only that the old horse had persevered, but one of the mares had given birth to a white and rust colored colt – a stark contrast in coloring from the blacks and browns of the rest of the herd.
“We came out here to check on that old guy, see if he was still around,” Sawyer said, “so there was some surprise.”
The state has managed the herd since the island became a park in 1978, deliberately keeping its numbers low to avoid overgrazing the native grasses, which are also a food source for the approximately 200 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, as well as the mule deer inhabiting the island. State officials, according to Sawyer, believe it’s important for some horses to continue to make their home there; for Wild Horse Island to be absent any horses just seems wrong.
“It’s like Wilderness,” Sawyer said. “Even if you don’t see it, at least you know it’s there.”
Last summer, four mares were brought to the island on a barge to join the two geldings. The mares, originally from the Pryor Mountain herd, were donated by Brad Hamlett and Lyle Heavy Runner of Cascade County. Apparently one of those mares was pregnant, and the birth was significant in that the colt is truly wild, and native to the island.
“This is the first wild horse that’s been born on this island (in recent history),” he said. “It has some mystique there.”
Accounts vary as to how horses originally found their way to the island, but the common elements describe the native tribes, prior to the arrival of European settlers, hiding their best horses on the island to prevent their theft from enemies during raids. Some horses remained on the island, and a herd of their wild descendants developed. Explorers dating from the 1850s reported finding as many 70 horses inhabiting the island.
Today, the old horse is revealing his age: He is no longer able to shed his winter coat, which makes him resemble his wild ancestors.
“All the other horses had shed their coats,” Sawyer said. “He looked cool, he really looked wild.”
Between the birth of the colt and the old, shaggy man, the Wild Horse Island herd is looking even wilder.
Beginning the search for the herd, Sawyer anchored his boat in Skeeko Bay, the primary public entrance to the state park, along the island’s northwestern shore. From there, a trail gradually ascends through trees to a saddle affording a sweeping view of the Mission Mountains and the southern third of the lake.
There was no sign of the horses from where the remains of the Johnson homestead, a small barn and cabin, still stand. The modest structure dates back to 1911, one year after land on the island that hadn’t been claimed by members of the Flathead reservation was opened up to white homesteaders.
According to the research of Edward B. McCurdy, several homesteaders attempted to make a go of it on Wild Horse Island, from the photographer Herman Schnitzmeyer to Roy Tonkinson, who ran 100 head of cattle. W.A. Powers built his home along the south side of the island, planting an orchard where fruit trees still grow today – enticing smart, hungry black bears to make the mid-summer trip from the mainland for a feast.
“For the last few years we’ve always had a bear,” Sawyer said. “They’ll swim out here and hang out until the apples and pears drop, then swim back.”
In 1915, land speculator Col. Almond A. White purchased all unclaimed land on the island in a government auction with plans to develop a major resort, observatory and even a power station. It was White who introduced bighorn sheep to Wild Horse Island, but that would be his legacy: He went bankrupt and his land was confiscated.
In 1919 the Edgington family bought several of White’s lots, along with 40 acres fronting a cove on the island’s east side where they built the three-story Hiawatha Lodge. Completing construction of the lodge in 1931, Robert Edgington began a dude ranch operation aimed at attracting wealthy vacationers from the East Coast. In 1934, struggling to save his boats during a massive storm, Edgington drowned. His wife left the island shortly afterward.
The lodge fell into disrepair and was eventually torn down in the 1990s, but its massive stone fireplace still stands sentry along the island’s east shore.
Lewis Penwell of Helena bought the Edgington property, and proceeded to purchase all the land on the island, including what had been returned to the tribes. Once he owned the island, Penwell sold it to John Clawson Burnett, who demanded that all horses – descendants of those left by homesteaders and the Edgingtons – be removed.
Penwell’s men removed the horses by barge, and on one stormy day a barge carrying eight horses tipped. Penwell’s son, Fred, dove under the boat and managed to cut the struggling horses free. They swam back to the island and disappeared into the hills.
Burnett bred his own stock of horses on the island, though he lived in New Jersey. During particularly harsh winters in the late 1950s, the Polson Saddle Club organized “Operation Hay Lift,” to airdrop feed to the struggling horses.
Burnett died in 1959, and though the state of Montana attempted to buy the island, Lake County commissioners sold it for $240,000 to another develop with plans of erecting a major resort community, serviced by air strips.
The developer, Bourke MacDonald of Butte, only managed to sell a fraction of the 500 home sites, and when he died in 1973, his family sold the island for a fraction of its value – $1.75 million – to Montana, with the help of The Nature Conservancy and the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. It became a park in 1978.
THE ISLAND TODAY
After hours of searching, from below the Johnson homestead to where a trail heads toward Eagle Cove, the horses have eluded Sawyer. So he decides to get back in the boat and travel around the island to another area where they often graze, above Driftwood Point on the island’s south side.
Circumnavigating the island, the private residences on land left over from MacDonald’s grand plans remain; some are tiny, seasonal cabins, while others are significantly larger. The home sites are the only private property on the island, which is why state officials prefer visitors enter via one of the six public landing sites.
From any one of those entrances, visitors have free reign to scramble up the peaks rising 750 feet above the lake, or follow the interpretive trail past old landmarks, like the hay rake from an abandoned homestead. While such an artifact might seem mundane, on an island with so few man-made structures, it’s hard not to contemplate those who attempted to settle there.
Because Wild Horse Island is a primitive state park, no camping, pets, bicycles or fires are allowed. State officials also warn against feeding the wildlife. While strict, the rules make the island an ideal place for picnics and quiet contemplation, though there are crowds on summer weekends. The island is accessible only by water, and boat rentals or charters are available from Bigfork, Polson or Big Arm.
It is now mid-afternoon, and somehow, the horses remain hidden. Sawyer sits on an outcrop with 360-degree views, marveling that he hasn’t found the herd. Despite the unsuccessful search, however, a feeling of satisfaction persists. There is no such thing as a wasted day on Wild Horse Island.
This story was excerpted from Escape, the Flathead Beacon's seasonal magazine, which is on newsstands now.