David and Kay Scott
The Valdosta Daily Times
Along their journey west to the Pacific and return east to St. Louis, Lewis and Clark left numerous marks recording their presence in order to validate a claim to the land for the United States.In some locations, they painted the bark of trees, while in other places they made inscriptions in stone. Clark’s journal entries indicate he left at least 13 marks along the way, including three through the Yellowstone Valley of present-day Montana and Wyoming. Pompeys Pillar along the bank of the Yellowstone River in southeastern Montana is the only location along their route where an inscription remains.
In fact, other than their famous journals, it is the only remaining physical evidence along the trail of the Corps of Discovery’s historic journey. This makes Pompeys Pillar a very special place.
During our own 2010 trip following the Oregon Trail west, and returning eastward via the Lewis and Clark Trail from the Corps’ winter quarters at Fort Clatsop in present-day Oregon, we chose to head east by way of Great Falls and Fort Benton, Mont., as we followed the route taken by Meriwether Lewis and his group along the Missouri River to the Yellowstone-Missouri confluence. Clark had taken another group to explore the Yellowstone River Valley.
Unlike Lewis and Clark we were unable to split up and cover multiple routes used by the Corps on its return to St. Louis. As a result, we failed to visit Pompeys Pillar until another trip took us back to the Big Sky Country of Montana.
Pompeys Pillar National Monument preserves the location where Capt. William Clark on July 25, 1806, inscribed his name and the date of his visit on the prominent sandstone outcrop beside the south bank of the Yellowstone River, an action recorded in Clark’s journal. Clark initially called the rock Pompy’s Tower, a name that was later changed to Pompeys Pillar by the editor of the Lewis and Clark journals that were published in 1814.
There is some thought that Clark named the rock outcropping, not for the son of Corps guides Sacagawea and Charbonneau as is commonly believed, but rather for a granite column in Alexandria, Egypt, that had been described as Pompey’s Pillar in an 1803 article by a Washington, D.C., newspaper. In truth, no one knows for sure.
Something we didn’t learn until our visit is that the inscription by Lewis has been deepened on two occasions, first by a stonecutter as directed by the steamboat captain, Grant Marsh, in 1875; and again in 1926 by a gravestone cutter employed by the Northern Pacific Railroad that had a station a half mile from the outcropping. Train passengers would often visit the inscription during a stop at the station.
Although designated in 1985 as a part of the Lewis and Clark National Trail System whose chief interpreter is the National Park Service, the monument is managed by the Bureau of Land Management that purchased the property in 1991 from a local family. The 150-foot-high pillar and approximately 50 acres of surrounding property were designated a national monument in 2001.
A modern visitor center that opened in 2006, the 200th anniversary of Clark’s visit, offers exhibits, an excellent film, and a small gift shop. A short trail with descriptive markers leads to a series of 220 wooden stairs that provide access to the pillar’s top. Clark’s inscription is about half way up and protected by a plastic shield that was installed by owners of the property in the 1950s to protect it from the elements.
The view from the top of the outcropping is certainly worth the climb. A nice picnic area is beside the Yellowstone River. Annual visitation is approximately 30,000, according to monument manager Jeff Kitchens.
The last weekend of July, the BLM and Pompeys Pillar Historical Association hold Clark Days commemorating Clark’s visit to the area. Activities include a reenactment of Clark’s arrival by canoe, other living history demonstrations, and talks offered by historians.
Pompeys Pillar National Monument is located in southeastern Montana, 28 miles east of Billings a short distance off Interstate 94 (exit 23). The visitor center is open from the beginning of May through the end of September.
When the visitor center is closed, walk-ins are welcome the remainder of the year. An entrance fee of $7 per vehicle is charged. The Interagency Pass is good for free entry.
The Scotts live in Valdosta and are the authors of “Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges” (Globe Pequot).