Monthly Archives: August 2015
Whiskey Trade on the Whoop-Up Trail
by Kristi Calvery
The Whoop-Up Trail, a regionally celebrated freight route from Fort Benton to Lethbridge in Alberta, reached its pinnacle in the 1870’s (Floerchinger 12). The Whoop-Up Trail passes through Pondera County about eighteen miles northeast of Conrad and was about 230 mile. According to a letter sent from artist Charlie Russell to Marlea Russell in 1923, the trail informally was dubbed Fort Whoop up when a trader from Fort Standoff traveling by Fort Hamilton to Fort Benton said he witnessed a large camp of Blackfeet Indians “Whooping it Up.” Camp Hamilton was thereafter known as Fort Whoop Up, and the Benton trail was cleped the Whoop-Up Trail because of the illegal whiskey sales taking place between Fort Benton and Lethbridge.
In the 1860’s-1870’s Fort Benton was the primary supply point to the undeveloped Canadian frontier. Supplies would arrive in Fort Benton on the steam boats then they were taken by bull and wagon northward. Although there was other legal merchandise, the illegal whiskey trade was the most profitable and lively element of the trade route. According to the Floerchinger (1968), Old freighters told of tapping the barrels when they camped and replacing the whiskey with water, so the content was diluted when it reached its final destination. Some of the beverages included pure alcohol thinned with water and other products like Hostetter’s Stomache Bitters and India ink. Additionally, “Whoop-Up Bug Juice, made of a combination of alcohol, ginger, molasses and red pepper spiced with chewing tobacco and boiled into “firewater,” was among the legendary products. A jug of bug juice could cost as much as two horses when supplies were tight” (Moulton 2007).
At first, law enforcement in the Montana Territory and in Canada was scarce and there were no consequences for trading illegal goods like whiskey and firearms. However, eventually complaints reached the Canadian Government and the North West Mounted Police were formed. These Mounties were able to shut down most of the illegal whiskey trade.
When the Great Falls and Canadian Railway started in the 1890’s, the Whoop-Up Trail became less important for trade. People began using the railway rather to ship merchandise rather than horse and wagon. However, it wasn’t the end of the Whoop- Up trail. When Prohibition started in 1919, the old route became revitalized and reversed. Bootleggers loaded Canadian liquor into cars and headed south.
Information for this article was gathered from the 1922 Whoop Trail Year Book, The Pondera History Book copyright 1968, and from Candy Moulton’s article “Whiskey-Runnin’ Whoop-Up Trail Linking Fort Benton, Montana, with Canada” in True West Magazine.