Take a historical journey to the days of the early fire fighting in the rugged wilderness of the mountain west.
From 1930 until 1953, the Ninemile Remount Depot provided experienced packers and pack animals for fighting fires and for backcountry work projects throughout the vast roadless areas of the northern Rockies. Modeled after U.S. Army Cavalry remount depots which supplied fresh horses to troops, the Ninemile Remount Depot is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its unique role as a Forest Service Remount Depot and for its distinct Cape Cod-style architecture.
1. This Bell Meant Business
During the summer fire season, 35 packers and wranglers were stationed at Ninemile. The ringing of the bell signaled that either dinner was ready in the cookhouse on your left, or there was a fire in the mountains, perhaps awakening the men in the bunkhouse.
Today, these buildings serve as administrative headquarters for the Ranger District and fire calls come over mobile radios.
The Cape Cod-style of architecture was chosen to create an image of a well-run horse farm along the lines of those found in New England or Kentucky. The buildings are maintained to preserve their original character and integrity.
2. A Working Ranch
Today, as in the past, Ninemile remains a working ranch. The smell of fresh-cut alfalfa from the field to your left fills the air in July as provisions for the wintering animals are put up. The thundering hooves of up to 200 horses and mules can still be heard as wranglers move the animals between the 10 pastures on the 5000-acre “ranch.”
The concrete slab here is all that remains of a garage and bunkhouse that burned down in 1982.
Today, as during the Remount era, lookouts are a vital link in detecting and reporting fires. You can see the lookout on the distant peak across the valley.
3. The Corrals, Load ‘Em Up!
The fire call stirred up a cloud of dust and plenty of hee-hawing from anxious mules in the corrals. The driver backed to the loading ramp, men collected equipment from the barn, and the packer gathered, haltered, and loaded the animals into the waiting truck.
Throughout the fire season, which generally ran from July through mid-September, 4 pack trains of 10 animals each waited in the corrals for the next fire call. Each pack train carried enough gear to supply a 25-man backcountry fire camp
Stock still runs through these chutes to be wormed, inoculated, roached (the mule version of a shave and haircut), and sorted before returning to their summer homes—mountain Ranger Stations located in some of the finest backcountry and wilderness in North America! Twenty-five heads remain at Ninemile year-round.
4. The Blacksmith Shop—Where Iron Meets The Trail
Horses and mules were shod here on the wooden floor by “farriers.” Not all horses and mules appreciate the need for shoes but according to one packer, any animal that went in the building came out with shoes on! One reluctant mule jumped through the small window in front of the hitch rack!
With smoke pouring from the forge and continual ringing of the hammer on the anvils, the shop provided shoes for all the Forest Service stock across the Nation. The Blacksmiths hammered out 9 shoes an hour and 72 a day, totaling 15,000 per year.
Today, over 100 horses and mules are fitted with shoes here each year to prepare them for their backcountry missions. A working horse or mule wears out 4 sets of shoes in a busy summer season.
5. Outfitting the String—The Saddle Shop
The smell of horse sweat and leather still permeates this shop. Packers made and repaired all the gear necessary to outfit a string of mules in the mountains—saddles, halters, and harnesses. Each packer marked the equipment to make sure it ended up on the right mule. This saddle shop supplied leather goods to the entire Northern Region of the Forest Service. Between fire calls, the packers “broke” young mules and horses in the adjacent corrals to ready them for “mountain” work.
Winter finds our packer still building, repairing, and maintaining saddles and packing equipment for next summer in the mountains.
6. Retired With Honors
Mules, sired by a stallion donkey and born to a mare horse, are especially well suited for backcountry work. They have a strong survival instinct that keeps them from injuring themselves in sticky situations. Mules are surefooted on the trail and will carry a heavy load without one whinny of complaint!
Mules usually begin their careers as “green-broke” 5-year-olds, knowing the feel of a saddle on their backs and how to lead on a halter. The experienced lead mules will quickly teach young mules the rules of the trail. A good mule may pack for 25 years.
7. Grand Menard’s Castle—The Stud Barn
What better way to overcome a shortage of horses and mules than a breeding program? The stallions, such as Grand Menard, were bred to Forest Service mares in pursuit of the perfect mountain horse. After much experimenting, the consensus was that purebred horses, like Grand Menard, did not produce a good mountain horse. When mixed-blood mares were crossed with saddlebred stallions, most Rangers were happy with the resulting offspring.
Today the stud barn houses injured stock and the Forest Service buys their horses and mules!
8. The Barn
The centerpiece of the compound, the bam housed animals as well as grain and equipment. Big draft mules lifted hay into the loft using a system of nets and pulleys. Hay was dropped from the loft into a manger as you see in the stall to your left. Stallions were kept in these two stalls; however, they created such a ruckus during official visits that Regional Forester Kelley ordered the men to make a new home for the stallions—the stud barn just described.
Originally, the barn floor was wood. As you can imagine, keeping the floor clean was quite a chore. With a continual string of visitors to the Remount Depot, Regional Forester Kelley demanded a spit and polish image—so the floor was replaced with concrete.
When you visit the bam, note the distinctive weathervanes on the roof
Today the barn is used to store equipment for all aspects of Ranger District operations.
9. Fire Fighting Today
The fire engine, rather than a pack train of mules, responds to today’s fire calls. Engines, capable of carrying up to 750 gallons of water, can reach much of the 400,000-acre Ranger District via roads. Smoke Jumpers and mules are still used for backcountry fire-fighting efforts.
If the engines are gone, look for smoke on the horizon!
10. Can They Make It?
Within 15 minutes after the fire bell rang, trucks loaded with nine mules, a horse, and supplies for 25 men stopped here briefly to weigh the loads and ensure that the bridges along the planned route would handle the load.
Reprinted from U.S. Forest Service Brochure
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