Big Sky Chronicles: The MacDonald Pass Section House

MacDonald Pass House

HELENA – There’s a brown house that sits at the top of MacDonald Pass and serves an important purpose.

It’s been there since the 1930’s when the federal government wanted to create jobs and stimulate the economy in the latter part of the Great Depression.

“During the course of that time, we improved 5,000 miles of highway, that included nearly 1,500 bridges,” explained Montana Department of Transportation Historian Jon Axline. “And we did a lot of other things that kind of went along with it, including improving our maintenance activities.”

Maintenance on MacDonald Pass meant making sure the snow could be cleared during the winter months at any moment.

“Because of the amount of traffic that MacDonald Pass was taking, and because it was usually snowbound in the winter time, that they outta do something to try and attack that snow early on and also provide some place for motorists to stop in case they got stuck in the snow or whatever,” said Axline.

Aside from building roads and bridges, section houses were built as a way to help maintain those with specific needs.

The MacDonald Pass House has a special distinction.

“This particular section house here on MacDonald Pass was the very first one built in the state.  It was built in 1935.  The complex included the section house, outhouses for motorists to use, the water fountain that’s up the road a little bit and also a telephone and a gas pump.”

For those who’ve traveled this roadway for years, they’ll know the house didn’t always look like this.

“When it was originally built and the way it was designed was to be rustic, it was supposed to be something that kind of fit in with the surroundings and also would have some appeal to tourists using this particular highway because we are in the national forest,” said Axline.

Today its work continues.  Axline said there is still a section man living here, taking care of MacDonald Pass.

“His job, essentially, is to keep the pass open during the wintertime.  And so no matter what time of the day it is, he’s got the snowplow out there keeping the road as clear as possible.”

Watch the video above to hear Jon Axline talk about the early days of MacDonald Pass, including a personal memory he has of taking the road as a child.


“This particular road was developed in the late 1920s, early 1930s, and it was originally two-lane.  And for those of you who have been around Helena long enough, remember this road was scary. It was narrow, it was winding, you could look a long ways down over the edge.  And I remember it mostly because it terrified me when we went over it when I was a kid.  And I was glad they widened it.   But sometimes I miss the old road, too.  Another part of family lore, is on July 20, 1969, we were coming back from Polson and my father was trying to get us back to Helena in time to watch Neil Armstrong step off the lunar excursion module onto the moon, and it was the worst white-knuckled ride I’ve ever had in my life.  Between that and my sister’s whimpering, my mother yelling at him to slow down, we made it — we saw it happen.”