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Cracks in our history: Public comment open on plan to stabilize historic Pompeys Pillar

Posted at 5:58 PM, Feb 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-09 19:58:23-05

BILLINGS — About 216 years ago, on his return trip home from the Pacific Ocean, William Clark stopped at Pompeys Pillar northeast of Billings to sign his name on this piece of sandstone. It's one of the only lasting physical pieces of evidence of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but wind and weather have taken their toll on this historic monument.

"If we were to go up top, you would see several large cracks in the sandstone from above. Over time, sandstone succumbs to the erosion, the water and there's cracks that are developed," said John Reffit, Bureau of Land Management monument manager for Pompeys Pillar on Wednesday.

John Reffit, monument manager at Pompeys Pillar, explains proposed stabilization efforts at the monument to MTN News on Wednesday.

While the 150-foot-tall sandstone butte is well known today for William Clark's stop in 1806 during the Corps of Discovery mission, it has served as a gathering place for thousands of years for Indigenous people, due to its close location to a natural ford across the Yellowstone River.

"This has been a landmark for thousands and thousands of years. It wasn't a landmark just because William Clark showed up," Reffit said.

About 30 miles northeast of Billings, Pompeys Pillar has been a place of gathering for thousands of years, partly due to its proximity to a natural ford for people looking to travel north across the Yellowstone River.

An assessment started in 2016 from the Bureau of Land Management revealed time has not been kind to the cultural crossroads. There's a proposal from the BLM out now for public comment that lists possible repairs. Like driving long bolts into the signature rock face and other parts of the monument to keep it secure and intact.

During 2020 and 2021, crews installed a series of 17 rock block monitors to track the millimeters these rocks move every year. A chunk of rock above Clark's signature and popular boardwalk stop is one that's had its stability questioned.

"We want to know if rocks are moving, where they're moving and we want to make sure that we're knowledgeable about that and we have a plan so we can react to something. This project is going to help reduce that risk," Reffit said.

Two rock block monitors affixed to the left of the plaque on Pompeys Pillar send data to Bureau of Land Management staff recording the millimeters of movement the monument experiences every season.

Part of the proposed improvements calls for that chunk to be removed. Water drainage will also be a project to be tackled if the proposal moves forward.

"Instead of having the water go where it wants to go, we're going to tell it where we want it to go. And we want it away from the rock. We want to have it follow these contours and not just continually impact the sandstone," Reffit said.

If BLM says no to the construction, Reffit said the more than 2,000 names and initials carved into the rock will continue to weather in the elements and could eventually break off. Although the federal agency does have records of every name and set of initials for historic purposes.

You can clearly see the dividing line between the sandstone inscribed with signatures and initials above and the shale and silt stone below where a special kind of concrete might be added to bolster stability.

Paul Eppinger heads the Friends of Pompeys Pillar, a local nonprofit that works with BLM to raise money for the monument. He spent three summers there as a park ranger, and, more than anyone, wants to make sure this history isn't lost.

"Just to show a whole show of history as far as the American West. The Native Americans, through to the Corps of Discovery coming through here and even to an extent, the ranchers and farmers that came through, and the Indian wars. It would just be unfortunate to lose that. To preserve it, to stabilize it, to keep it around as long as we can would be nice," Eppinger said.

Paul Eppinger was a park ranger at Pompeys Pillar for three summers before taking the executive director position at Friends of Pompeys Pillar.

If the project is given the final approval by the Bureau of Land Management, and contractor selection works out smoothly, the hope is to have the project done sometime in 2022.

The period for public comment is open until Feb. 15. Click here to visit the BLM website and submit a comment.

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