An assortment of rock samples sits near the front steps as 85-year-old Ed Ruppel retreats into the private office behind his home in Twin Bridges.
Shelves filled with books and maps line one side of the hallway toward the back room, where Ruppel sits at his desk reviewing a manuscript of his book. The former director and Montana state geologist at the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology is putting the finishing touches on a geological guide to the Continental Divide Trail, and he finds a couple small errors that need fixing before the final edit goes to print. Behind him, the wall is covered with geological maps of Idaho and western Montana.
Growing up in Twin Bridges, Ruppel didn’t pay too much attention to the specifics of the land. Like most kids during the Depression Era, Ruppel worked many small jobs at one point or another in most of the local stores. He found his way to the water when he had the time, catching fish here or there.
“I was out on the river in ten minutes any time I needed to be,” Ruppel said.
Ruppel graduated from high school in Twin Bridges in 1943, and he explained, “Like most young men, your future was carved out for you already.”
He joined the Navy and entered the V-12 officers training program, and after nearly two years he was sent overseas, after Germany surrendered.
“I wasn’t even ordered overseas until the war was almost over, and by the time I got to China it had long been over,” Ruppel said.
After leaving the Navy in 1946 Ruppel enrolled in classes at the University of Montana, unsure of which direction to go.
“I knew I did not want an office job. I wanted to have something that had at least some promise of working outside,” Ruppel said.
“Geology seemed interesting, and turned out it was indeed.”
He graduated in 1948 and went on to earn a masters degree in geology from the University of Wyoming and a doctorate from Yale University in 1958. During the summer Ruppel dug ditches for the United States Geological Survey, and eventually worked his way up to a field research position.
Working for the USGS, Ruppel made maps of geological features throughout the Rocky Mountains. It was a time-consuming, painstaking process of gathering data and organizing it visually, working with research partners and taking years to complete. One of Ruppel’s early projects was mapping the Boulder Batholith, a huge granite formation stretching from Dillon to Helena.
For Ruppel, the best part of being a geologist was being outside, studying different kinds of rocks and making maps for people to use in the future.
After retiring from the USGS’s Denver office in 1986, Ruppel and wife Phyllis moved to Butte where Ed worked as director of the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology until 1994.
When asked what stands out about Montana’s geology, Ruppel wouldn’t specify any one grand feature.
“I don’t think I’d define any one as being particularly unique,” he reflected.
“There are many different areas that have lots of interesting things.”
Previously, Ruppel co authored a book with Yuang Liu, titled “The Gold Mines of the Virginia City Mining District, Madison County, Montana”, which published in 2004. His current book project is titled “Along The Great Divide: The rocks and their history along the Continental Divide Trail between Montana and Idaho”, and is a special publication from the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology.
Ruppel initially became interested in the project because of the diverse geological forms that can be found on the Continental Divide Trail. Even though the book only covers approximately ten percent of the trail’s total length, it is a “unique place where different parts of the continent have been brought together.”
“I thought it would be interesting to put together a trail hikers guide to the geology,” Ruppel said.
It would have been easier to dumb down the report, but Ruppel refused, insisting that every aspect of the book be technically correct.
“It’s difficult, after having written many reports for a professional audience, to turn around and write a professional report for people who are hopefully just interested in geology,” Ruppel said.
Lately, Ruppel spends most of his time at home with his wife Phyllis. Their four children, Lisa, David, Doug and Kristin, are long since grown with children of their own. Without hesitation, he says family is his greatest source of pride.
“My wife, my children. I’m amazed, every day, when I look at what they do.”
Whenever he needs to review his maps or notes he disappears back into his study, surrounded by a lifetime worth of work.
“I’ve very rarely thought of it as work, even when I was digging trenches,” Ruppel said.