Transformations in Fort Benton, part 1

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In the spring of 1984, there was no doubt that I would spend considerable time looking at the historic preservation issues at Fort Benton, a small county seat today but one of the most important places in all of the northern plains before the age of the railroad.  Here at this bend in the river, shown in a postcard I bought there in 1984, was basically the last stop for Missouri River boat traffic heading west.  The fort dated to the late fur trade era and as the rush for precious metals overtook Montana Territory in the 1860s and 1870s here developed a major trade and outfitting post, with roads running from Fort Benton in all directions.  But the place was a sleepy, almost forgotten town, as the railroads changed routes and the interstates bypassed it by miles and miles.  Landmarks too were there but the old fort had been slowly coming apart, only a recent determined effort by save what remained and then, ambitiously I thought 30 years ago, to rebuild the lost fort and tell fully the story of the fur trade and the significance of the Upper Missouri.

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My guide was John Lepley, who was spearheading the local efforts and a member of the SHPO board.  Another key leader was Joel Overholser. And no doubt, there was some heritage tourism and historic interpretation infrastructure in place.  The Chouteau House, a classic river hotel, was still open, rough on the edges but the place where I stayed and took meals. (It was closed when I visited last in 2013).

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Nearby was the home of I. G. Baker, a pivotal figure in the region’s history.  It was open, and paneled interpretation in place but certainly a property that could “say” more.

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Various monuments and markers could be found throughout the riverfront:  the Mullan Road, the Whoop-Up Trail, and especially the recently installed (1976) State of Montana Lewis and Clark Memorial, a monument piece of public art, sculpted by Bob Scriver with the base by Shorty Shope, another well regarded Montana artist.  The memorial was an American bicentennial project led by the Fort Benton Improvement Association, which Lepley and Overholser served on as commissioners.  Indeed, the state also had donated one of the keelboats used in the film “Far Horizons,” a Hollywood take on the Lewis and Clark expedition.  The waterfront told a story, one dominated by Lewis and Clark.

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postcard of Far Horizons boat, c. 1984

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The amount and quality of the public art along the riverfront was impressive, but what struck me as speaking most strongly to the town’s future were two completed projects (the Museum of the Upper Missouri and the Missouri River Bridge) and the almost completed restoration of the Grand Hotel, a remarkable Victorian building that spoke to the town’s hopes in the late 19th century.

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I left Fort Benton convinced of two things:  the town had clear preservation needs, not just the fort site but buildings from the Victorian era were decaying too.  But compared to other places that I would visit in 1984, I thought Fort Benton had the one key trait for success–vision, the realization that the steps of the 1970s were just first steps, and many more needed to be taken in the years to come.  Let’s next come back to Fort Benton 30 years later and see how far that vision has reached.

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Finding the Lewis and Clark story at Coal Banks Landing

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Coal Banks Landing, on the Missouri River in Chouteau County, was another site already recognized as significant when the preservation planning survey got underway in the spring of 1984.  Here was yet another documented place associated with the Lewis and Clark expedition:  it took its name literally from the band of lignite easily observed in the banks along the Missouri.

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The landscape here not only speaks to the age of river transportation; to the west at Virgelle you can also find the original roadbed of James J. Hill’s Manitoba Road as it came down from Havre and connected with the Missouri River valley, its route to Great Falls.  Virgelle has National Register-listed properties in its historic pressed tin-sided general store and brick bank; across the road are a school and grain elevator.  These properties marked the forgotten town as a place once prominent along the Great Northern network.

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Coal Banks Landing, in comparison, was a place on the river, with little to tell its story.  Today, however, Coal Banks Landing is a prominent spot, with a modern boat landing, a seasonal interpretive center, and then year-round interpretive markers for its multiple layers of history.

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The landing and its significant Lewis and Clark story are now preserved as part of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, one of the state’s most important conservation and heritage tourism developments in the 21st century.  This national monument preserves not only one of the most breathtaking sections of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail it also preserves open land little changed from the centuries of occupation by various Native American groups and scattered often log-built homesteads of the multi-ethnic groups that flooded into northern Montana in the first two decades of the 20th century.

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Little was here in 1984 to help residents and visitors understand the deep significance of the Missouri River.  Today Coal Banks Landing is a must stop for any heritage tourist of northern Montana.

 

Lewis and Clark and finding the “true Missouri” at Loma, Montana

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During the early weeks of fieldwork in northern Montana in 1984, I certainly had notes and reminders to document sites associated with the Lewis and Clark expedition.  Here was one part of the region’s history that had been given its due by generations of historians, and the brown Pathfinder-themed markers of the Lewis and Clark Trail made the historic route one of the state’s most recognizable heritage assets.  Yet as I left Hill County and moved into Chouteau County, heading toward Fort Benton, there was little to mark the story along the Marias River and the decision that the expedition made regarding the “true” path westward–the Missouri River or the Marias River (the latter they had not expected to encounter).  There was a state highway marker at Loma, but that seemed not enough, considering the importance of the events on the Marias and the high integrity of this historic landscape.

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Opportunities not gained during the Lewis and Clark sesquicentennial in the 1950s were not missed during the bicentennial of the past decade.  As you approach the highlands above Loma, a major new interpretive kiosk not only presents a compelling view of the Marias landscape, it also interprets the significance of the location.

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Here is an example of the partnerships now driving the interpretation of the Lewis and Clark Trail:  the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail of the National Park Service being the most important, bringing a consistency of design and message to the interpretation.

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With these partnerships, working with property owners, in place, visitors can experience such key sites as Decision Point, at the confluence of the Missouri and Marias rivers, where the expedition made the correct choice and followed the “true Missouri” westward.  Loma, rather than being a neglected place in the Lewis and Clark story, now has become a centerpiece of the region’s interpretation, thanks to new visions and new installations in the 21st century.

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Traveling the historic Manitoba Line, from Havre to Big Sandy

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The impact of the Great Northern Railway on the settlement of northern Montana really can never be over-emphasized–its mark on the settlement landscape and later transportation routes is that important.  Most travelers, and many residents, do not realize that the railroad, then named the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba, did not initially strike straight across the plains to Glacier National Park.  In 1887 it turned at Havre and headed southwest towards Great Falls, creating a distinct modern landscape along Big Sandy Creek that you may still follow today.

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The first important stop was Fort Assinniboine, a U.S. army base established in 1879, before the first settlers arrived. The army maintained this major base until the 1910s and later in that decade its land and buildings became the Northern Montana demonstration farm, allowing state and federally supported agricultural reformers learn and demonstrate best practices in farming techniques and crops for the region.  Today it remains part of the state’s extension service, which has adapted some buildings for new uses while keeping others preserved as part of the nationally significant story of the U.S. military and its occupation of the northern plains.  

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When I visited the fort site in 1984, the highway marker was the primary interpretation.  The farm’s administrators have since worked with the Montana State Historic Preservation office to locate interpretive markers outside of several buildings.  Tours of the complex are also available by reservations.

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 As part of the federal process of transforming the landscape of Big Sandy Creek, the homesteading boom left its mark everywhere in the 1910s.  But also in 1916 the federal government established the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation for the Chippewa Cree.  The Manitoba Road’s intersection with the reservation came at Box Elder, at the border between Hill and Chouteau counties.  In 1984 one of the early Great Northern-era combination depot still stood at the town, although it seemed destined for destruction. Imagine my surprise in 2013 when the depot still remained, but barely so. 

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The gas station’s roadside architecture also faces an uncertain future.  But St. Anthony’s Catholic Church remained a key landmark and along U.S. 87 in the reservation stood a new architecturally distinctive building:  the Northern Wing Casino.  

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Big Sandy is easily the largest town of northern Chouteau County, a place that abounds in surprises.  In 1984 the town’s old homesteader hotel remained, and so many other Montana towns had lost these artifacts of the early 20th century settlement. 

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Thirty years later, the hotel remains in place, as do several other architecturally important buildings, from the Northern Monana State Bank, a vault-like neo-classical style building to the modern contemporary styling of St. Margaret Mary’s Catholic Church.

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 Impressive adaptive reuse projects also had taken place, with the community turning the historic Great Northern depot into a center for its historical society and museum.  Big Sandy has a t-town plan, with its stem lined by businesses and other ventures, such as the false front Odd-Fellows Lodge or the recently established coffee shop.

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The town’s New Deal era school remained, although the building’s original International Style design was somewhat muted by a new roof and other cosmetic changes. Yet, here was the school that nurtured Jeff Ament, who moved to Seattle and gained fame as part of the internationally significant band, Pearl Jam.  

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Big Sandy has steadily lost population since 1984–600 people remained in the 2010 census–but key landmarks remain standing and in use.  Impressive.  The days of the Manitoba Road are long gone but this early railroad town still makes a powerful historical statement.

Havre’s preservation legacies: final thoughts

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In its first year of existence, this blog has looked at Havre several times, from its historic African American church building located near the Great Northern Railway shops to its impressive statement of modern design, from the roadside architecture of U.S. 2 to the impressive campus buildings at the former Northern Montana University. This is a last look, considering especially the impact of that first generation of entrepreneurs and residents who left behind in the downtown and older residential neighborhoods such an impressive array of buildings and homes.

First and foremost, Havre is a railroad town, with its monumental statue of James J. Hill, the empire builder himself, still standing proud outside of the depot at the head of town’s central business district.  When first established, Havre was little more than a stop where the line turned southwest to Great Falls, the initial terminus.  But once Hill decided to push his mainline directly west of Havre in the first decade of the twentieth century, the town’s history changed drastically.  Havre became the seat of a new county–Hill County–and soon houses all throughout the town competed architecturally with the impressive Beaux-Arts classicism of the Hill County Courthouse, designed by Frank Bossout.

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Bossuot stayed in Havre and left quite a legacy in domestic architecture.  Not all homes are by Bossuot but certainly he was the trend setter.  In 1989 property owners worked with the Montana State Historic Preservation Office to place a huge chunk of the residential district in the National Register of Historic Places; at the turn of the present century, Havre had created a historic district commission to ensure the continued restoration and preservation of these dwellings.

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This Spanish Colonial design is attributed to builder Charles Harper. The local Catholic Church is also a Spanish Colonial design.

Another key decision made by city leaders and heritage advocates in the new century was the conversion of the monumental Federal Building into a heritage center, where the Clack Museum, once isolated away from downtown at the fairgrounds, could be relocated and other heritage groups could also maintain a presence.  When you pair the colossal Colonial Revival design of the Federal Building with the similarly overstated Mission style of the neighboring Masonic Temple, the town is messed with two architectural anchors for the rest of the century.

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But there is work remaining in this classic town of the Hi-Line:  especially in the commercial area, where muddled rehabs have taken quite a bit away from the grandeur that once marked these streets.

 

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But the spark created by homeowners in the late 1980s, and then added to by heritage advocates in the last decade, has given Havre a heritage tourism foundation, upon which now is a growing heritage tourism industry.  Havre has found its heritage assets, and is building new futures for its residents through the promotion and conservation of its distinguished past.

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Havre’s historic preservation legacies

Havre, the seat of Hill County and more importantly the commercial and transportation hub of the Hi-Line, has already been the topic in several posts over the past year.  In 1984, it was the first place where one of the state historic preservation review board members, Eleanor Clack, took me around and explored the town’s history.  So let’s review the historic Havre of 1984 and consider what Mrs. Clack showed me, and what we see today as significant properties.

Clack’s spouse was Earl Clark, a businessman with concerns up and down the Hi-Line and a heritage advocate to boot.  The county museum bears his name and that is where we started, at the fairgrounds along U.S. Highway 2 west of downtown on a bluff overlooking the Milk River.

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The fairgrounds acknowledged the role of the Great Northern Railway in the town’s and county’s history–indeed Havre was a virtual shrine to the Empire Builder as I would discover–but Mrs. Clack was especially hurried to cross what was then a two-lane highway and go to the other side of the bluff, where she unlocked a fence and we explored the Wahpka Chu’gn buffalo jump, then one of the handful of properties in Hill County on the National Register.

 

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Today, it is difficult to find the property, even with the buffalo sculpture and signage along U.S. 2.  When the highway doubled in size, that improvement led to intensive development of the river bluffs, and today access to the site is behind a shopping center.

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The site was the Clacks’ pride and joy.  Not only was the setting stunning, with the valley crossed by the Great Northern mainline, they had worked with other preservationists to open the property for tours and interpretation.  At that time, it was the best interpreted buffalo jump–make that the best interpreted prehistoric site–in the region, if not the entire state.

After hours of exploring the property, Mrs. Clack next took me to the town’s turn of the century historic neighborhood.  There I encountered the first of several historic Carnegie-funded public libraries I would see in Montana (the actual town library had already moved into new quarters).

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Carnegie library, 1984

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Carnegie library, 2013

We also visited the Young-Almas house, a rambling Classical Revival dwelling, which was the second National Register anchor in the historic residential neighborhood.

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Today, of course Havre has a large National Register residential district, with state-funded markers telling the stories of the houses and families on almost every block.

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Finally we turned into the business district, where we stopped at the Federal Building and Post Office–a New Deal building–and then the commercial district.

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Mrs. Clack expressed her hope for the future, that the distinguished set of two-story commercial buildings that lined U.S. 2 would find a new future through historic preservation.

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U.S. 2 corridor, north, downtown Havre, 1984

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As these 2013 photos attest, Havre’s historic downtown survives 30 years later, although the historic preservation potential still waits to be fully tapped.  After all, the historic preservation funding available in 1984–and the assumption that the movement’s early successes in sustainable urban renewal would bring about more–never happened.  Federal funding, in adjusted dollars, reached its hey-day in the Reagan administration, and has declined ever since. Mrs. Clack and I could not know the future in 1984.  But if she could see Havre today, I think she would be pleased with how residents and officials have built on the early foundation:  that is the topic of the next posting.

The Irrigated West: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Montana’s Hi-Line

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Fresno Lake, Hill County, 2013

The impact of federally funded irrigation projects is apparent throughout Montana but perhaps even moreso along the Hi-Line.  As I started his fieldwork in 1984 in Toole County, one of the first places I visited was Tiber Dam, a project that turned a large chunk of the Marias River into Lake Elwell.  The dam was finished in 1952 but numerous expansions and alterations occurred in the late 1960s and then late 1970s.

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Lake Elwell, Liberty County, 1984

 

When I encountered the town of Fresno in 1984, there was not much there but a tavern, built in the 1950s to take advantage of the increasing number of folks traveling to Fresno Lake for recreation, and a huge elevator complex.

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Today both the elevators and tavern remain, and the only changes found at the dam was additional fencing and pre-cautions for the security of the facility.

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Fresno Dam was part of the huge Milk River Project of the New Deal era.  The dam dates to 1937-1939, but was raised in 1943 and again in 1951 when “a concrete parapet and curb walls were constructed on the crest.”

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The Milk River project is the one of the state’s oldest and most influential federal irrigation projects.  Dating to 1903, the project slowly unfolded across the plains, starting at St. Mary’s in Glacier County in 1905 and moving to the Dodson pumping station in Phillips County by 1944.  The Fresno Dam was funded by FDR’s National Industrial Recovery Act, making it a rarely identified place associated with the New Deal transformation of Montana.  

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We will be returning to this project and the story of the irrigated West often as we move across the state.