MacDonald Pass
Once a Frontier Toll Road
Modern highway completed in 1932 - widening completed in 1979

1930's Postcard View of the Eastern Slope

MacDonald (often "McDonald") Pass was originally a toll road over the Rocky Mountains. It was not, however, the main Helena-area route over the Continental Divide until 1932. Prior to that, the winding Priest Pass road (also a former toll road), which crosses the divide four miles north of MacDonald Pass, was the primary route; the Mullan Pass, seven miles north, was another way.


Old MacDonald Pass Tollhouse


The Macdonald Pass tollhouse still exists, as part of a private home. The man for whom the pass is named, R. Alexander MacDonald, was an immigrant from Scotland. He operated the tollroad for E. M. Dunphy, the man who built the road in 1867. MacDonald bought Dunphy out in 1876.

The first road was comprised simply of logs laid across a roadbed. Several men were employed full-time to cut logs and repair the road. MacDonald sold the road to David H. Gilmore in 1883.


For a detailed history of the romantic old routes of MacDonald, Priest and Mullan passes, click on the image below to download a pdf file of Jon Axline's "The Frenchwoman and MacDonald Pass", in the June 2005 Newsline - the Newsletter of the Montana Department of Transportation. Mr. Axline's history begins on page six...


In 1920, the Montana State Highway Commission began the work of locating a new road over the Rockies west of Helena. They looked at the three existing routes: MacDonald, Priest, and Mullan Passes.

A public controversy arose in 1925, when Lewis and Clark County commissioners proposed simply upgrading the Priest Pass road. It was pointed out by concerned citizens that not only was the east slope road on Priest Pass winding and dangerous, but the road on the west slope, in Powell County, was not maintained; much of it lying in low, wet ground. It was also noted that MacDonald Pass offered better scenic views, and that the area's decomposed granite would provide a superior roadbed. The cost of building a highway over MacDonald Pass, however, would be higher as there was no existing maintained roadbed over the grade.

By 1926, Lewis & Clark County Commissioners had turned their attention to upgrading Mullan Pass, an old road some seven miles north of MacDonald Pass. This proposal was likewise met with objections, the main one being that it would effectively reroute a great deal of traffic past Helena. As late as 1928, an Independent Record editorial objected to money being spent on the MacDonald Pass route, saying that improving other area roads was more important than building "...another pass over the mountains to the west."

In 1929, a federal Bureau of Public Roads survey was made of the MacDonald Pass route. On May 15 1930, it was announced in Helena by State Highway Commission and federal roads officials that 14 miles of highway would be constructed over MacDonald Pass. Most of the money would come from Forest Service funds. Contracts were let, and construction began in 1931...

The 1930s Road

A 1930s-40s View of the Eastern Slope

MacDonald Pass in the 1950s, looking east


A 1950s springtime view