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.

 

 

Great Northern Towns in west Hill County, Montana

In my 1984 fieldwork, Havre was a base for quite a bit of travel along the Hi-Line.  One of the most compelling landscapes, and among my favorites for the state, were the little towns, regularly spaced about every eight miles, west of Havre.

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At the time, my understanding of this landscape was heavily influenced by recent works by the American Studies scholar John Stilgoe (Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene) and the historical geographer John Hudson (a series of articles that culminated in the book Plains Country Towns.) Stilgoe reminded me that railroads in the late 19th century not only defined towns and urban design but impacted American culture in how small, tiny spaces became part of urban, metropolitan life through the steel tracks.  Hudson explain why towns existed every six to seven miles or so throughout the plains (these were often single track lines so trains needed places to pull over for passing, and places where water and fuel could be acquired as necessary).  Hudson explained differences between railroad division points, where shops and offices would be located, and “country towns,” where typically a combination depot carried out all of the railroad’s corporate functions.

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This arrangement of space, and the ennobling of railroad culture in larger towns, was exactly what I saw in Havre and Hill County.  Ever since 1984, this has been among my favorite places in Montana.  In a posting last year I discussed the “disappearing depots” along the Hi-Line, focusing on west Hill County.  I want to revisit those same places today, with a deeper view on what was there in 1984 and what you find today.

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Inverness, established c. 1909, was the first place I stopped but spent little time there because already in 1984 its Great Northern depot was gone.  But in 2013, I was looking for beyond the Stilgoe-Hudson way of understanding plains country towns.  Inverness in 2010 had 55 residents, but still held several early settlement landmarks, such as its early 20th century elevators along the railroad, a National Register-quality c. 1920 store/gas station, and two large two-story frame blocks–the historic Inverness Hotel (most recently Inverness Supper Club) dates to the second decade of the 20th century.

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The Sacred Heart Catholic Church dates to the town’s beginnings, but a brick school from 1931 with 1952 additions closed in the early 21st century.

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Inverness’s c. 1960 post office is a great example of stone-faced standardized design that the postal service used in small towns across the nation in that decade. It was one of the offices threatened with closure in 2011.

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Rudyard, established 1909, was the largest of the west Hill County towns, about 500 people in 1980 but now with only 258 residents according to the 2010 census.  Its prominence in the second half of the 20th century is reflected in two buildings:  the tall concrete grain elevators along the railroad and the contemporary-styled Wells Fargo bank building on the prominent town corner facing the tracks and Reed Street.

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Thirty years ago, as the construction of a modern bank building attests, several stores and the Hi-Line Theater were hubs of activity; today most businesses are closed.

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Museums now abound–with the moved depot forming a small building zoo while an early 20th century stone building has become an auto museum.

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Rudyard also has one of the highway’s most famous town signs–boasting of a population now greatly diminished but the old sorehead remains–at the Sorehead Cafe in the heart of the four block long commercial district.

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One hundred years ago, Hingham (1910) seemed to be the town that would make it. From the railroad corridor several blocks of commercial businesses were filled in the next decade.

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There was a town square featuring a city park in the midst of it all.

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Here the town’s Commercial Club hosted the Hi-Line Fair, which “presented farmers and ranchers with an opportunity to exhibit their grain and livestock and to exchange ideas with people from other points along the Hi-Line.”

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While the buildings, outside of the brick neo-classical brick bank (1913-14), were frame, town boosters were confident these were only the initial businesses. But the second decade of the 20th century proved to be the town’s high point, and frame buildings still define local businesses.

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In 1930 they defined the town with a large, handsome two-story brick school at its south end (near U.S. 2, a recognition of the highway’s importance in getting students to and from Hingham).

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The Our Lady of Ransom Catholic Church is a modernist landmark, and one of the most architecturally important buildings of the Hi-Line, part of the Great Falls diocese effort to improve and modernize its churches in the mid-20th century.  A much earlier frame Methodist Church remains, and has most recently served as a community chapel.

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The boosters of Gildford also had high hopes in 1910 and the homesteading boom brought a full fledged town into existence by 1915-16.

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The boom decade is marked by the extant Gildford State Bank (1914), which also served as the town’s post office when I first visited in 1984.  The town also had an early industry, the Mundy Flour Mill.

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Kremlin acknowledges its distinct name with its highway town sign.

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Settlement began in 1909, with a plat from land agent K.C. Farley, focused on the Great Northern section house, later replaced by a standardized depot, all of which is gone from the railroad corridor today.

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The WPA built a new high school in 1938, which remains a central landmark for the community, a symbol of the future, and a good way to end this posting.

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