Sometime in the 1870s, there was talk of constructing a river route wagon road from the Bitterroot Valley to Bannack.
In 1878, the commissioners of Missoula County (there was no Ravalli County at that time) decided to send three men to scout out a possible path for this road. The most logical place to begin was the old Indian trail which came up the East Fork all the way on the east side to avoid crossing the river.
After the scouting party had ascended to Rattlesnake Flat, it came upon a group of Flathead Indians camping there. Among them was Delaware Jim, who was a part-time scout and knew the area quite well.
One of the men asked Jim if he thought a wagon trail could be built along the old Indian trail. He replied, “Well, you boys should be alright with nothing but timber and brush till you git about halfway to Ross Hole. There, you will come upon a big rock, and it will be hell to get around it.”
For centuries, this big rock had blocked the natural migratory path along the river, causing animals to have to navigate around it.
After the scouting party left the camp, it continued on up the old trail. Sure enough, the party found the big rock with the river running alongside its base, just as Delaware Jim had described it.A big pine tree had fallen against the rock.
One of the men, W. B. Harlan, climbed up the tree and onto the rock. Using a piece of charcoal, he scribbled “Jim’s Hell” on the rock. Thus the big rock at last had a name.
The inscription was under a kind of overhang, so it remained visible for many years, eventually yielding to the elements.
A man named Joe Pardee, along with a crew of 8 to 10 men, built the road in the early 1878 for $1,100 ($28,000 in today’s money). The single-lane wagon road took a wide curve around the big rock.
Pardee later had some moderate success in mining gold at his placer Rock Creek mines. In fact, in 1895, he had four gold nuggets on display at the Merchants and Miners Bank in Philipsburg.
As for Delaware Jim, aka Jim Shaw, he eventually became an interpreter for the army, holding the rank of captain. In his later years, he settled down at a small ranch near Stevensville.
In 1920, much to the delight of road-weary travelers, the road was widened and leveled, thereby permitting two vehicles to pass along the dangerous road at the same time.
The road served travelers until the 1930s. At that point, state road engineers designed a highway to bypass it, changing the course of the river in the process. It should be noted that highways at that time were not necessarily paved — more likely they were covered in gravel and maintained by grading and the occasional oiling.
Eventually, this highway became part of U. S. Highway 93.