A Bicycle Trail in the Bitterroot Mountains -- and the ubiquity of Public History

Public history can appear anywhere -- even on signs deep in the Bitterroot Mountains. This historical marker appears on the "Route of the Hiawatha Bike Trail" on the Idaho-Montana border. It explains the role of section gangs some years ago in keeping the trains rolling. With several members of my family, I kept my bicycle rolling along the 15-mile trail, stopping often to listen to birds and streams -- and read the history of the region on dozens of well-designed signs like the one above.

The Hiawatha Trail provides a wonderful example of the ubiquity of public history. As a development within the history professions public history is a relatively new field, complete with a national association, a journal, and curricula.  Recently the National Council on Public History adopted a draft definition of the field including these words: Public history is "a movement, methodology, and approach that promotes the collaborative study and practice of history; its practitioners embrace a mission to make their special insights accessible and useful to the public."  The council adds: "Public history generally takes place in settings beyond the traditional classroom." These settings include magazine articles, TV docudramas, museums, and roadside historical markers.  

The historical postings along the Hiawatha Trail, describing the history of the Milwaukee Railroad in the region, are some of the best I've ever seen. Take that marker, for example, with the story of section gangs in the life of the railroad. Pull your bike up to the sign, and for a moment take your eyes of the gorgeous scenery in the background, and here is an example of what you can learn:

The sign explains that rigs such as this truck were used to inspect the tracks and the overhead wires -- the trains got an electric boost on the steep grade.