Kalispell: Growth and Preservation in Northwest Montana

 

Kalispell was a Montana jewel 0n the Great Northern Railway.  Despite that fact, in 1984 the preservation of the railroad’s historic passenger station was not certain.  This landmark, at the head of the T-plan town, still stood but was viewed as an impediment even an eyesore by some.  The depot (1892, 1899, 1914, 1929) was built when Kalispell was an important division point on the railroad’s main line then altered over the next three decades to the stuccoed exterior you find today.  It marked literally the beginnings of the town’s history.  Yet, when I held a public meeting at another landmark, the town’s historic Carnegie Library (1903) that had recently been through an adaptive reuse into the

Hockaday Art Museum, strong sentiments for more preservation were rarely heard. The depot was not listed in the National Register nor were many of the downtown buildings.  There were a few of the town’s rich stock of Victorian era houses listed. The success of the Hockaday and the Conrad Mansion (1892-1895) historic site seemed to be enough for many residents, or they thought preservation only meant pretty homes and buildings.

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Then came the work east of Kalispell in and around Glacier National Park to inventory and list eligible buildings to the National Register in the mid to late 1980s.  That, along with the loss of key downtown landmarks and new voices from preservationists and property owners, began to grow the interest in historic preservation.

The result was a massive multiple property study of Kalispell for the National Register of Historic Places, resulting in the listing of dozens of additional historical properties in 1994.  The historic railroad depot was listed and serves as home for the Chamber of Commerce and a visitor center, a front porch for the downtown. A new era in historic preservation had been launched, and the result today is impressive, as the next posts will explore.

Appreciating the town’s achievement in historic preservation over the last 20 years comes at an opportune time. The economic changes in the 1980s and 1990s are ready to be repeated again.  A federal grant, matched by local sources, will mean that the historic railroad corridor through the center of town will be moved–opening up acres for new construction.  Everyone knows this will be as fundamental of a change as when the Great Northern moved their division point to Whitefish in 1904. But now Kalispell has a strong historic core, identity, and purpose–the past has become fundamental to its future. Now let’s review that preservation achievement.

Flathead Co Kalispell Preserve America sign

 

Flathead County’s Many Transformations

img_8057By the late 1980s there was little doubt that a substantial development boom was underway in Flathead County.  In the town near the Flathead Lake, like Bigfork, above, the boom dramatically altered both the density and look of the town.  In the northern half of the county Whitefish suddenly became a sky resort center.  In 1988, during a return visit to Montana, I did not like what I encountered in Flathead County–and thus I stayed away for the next 27 years years, until the early summer of 2015.

Bigfork had changed the most, and was almost unrecognizable to me, only the town plan having some semblance of historic feeling.  Its population had jumped by 200% between 2000 and 2010, and what I recalled as a lakeside village of several hundred was now a large Montana town of over 4,000 residents.

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On the other hand, Somers (1901) is not as changed and older buildings both in use and abandoned speak to its history.  Located on the northwest corner of the lake, it began as a railroad town, a link on the Great Northern Railway spur to Kalispell.  The railroad also supported a large sawmill here, which drove the local economy for decades.  Its closure at the mid-20th century brought change to Somers, one that continues today with the general patterns of growth and development in the lakeside area. One of the largest changes in Somers is the 2015 creation of its railroad heritage center, which also serves as the gateway to a rails to trails project that connects different areas, and railroad corridors, in Flathead County. The heritage center effectively interprets the town’s logging history.

Dell’s Bar is another Somers’ landmark, the type of community tavern/cafe that characterizes small town life in Montana.  Retaining these types of community centers will be crucial to the region’s sense of place and identity in a rapidly changing demographic reality.

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This southern part of Flathead County, between the lake and the sprawl of Kalispell, still has numerous ranches, beautiful working landscapes that deserve special consideration for agriculture was the heart of the Flathead Valley’s history.  Emblematic of that are historic rural institutions, such as the school at Creston and the nearby Eastside Grange.

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Lincoln County’s Gateway Towns

Lincoln Co Troy 5I love Montana town signs, and Troy, deep in the state’s logging country, has one of the best.  The sign lures to a city park nestled along the Kootenai River.  The focus point is a

historic Great Northern depot, which has been moved to the park.  There is also an interpretive trail, part of a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, that tells the story of the Callahan boom, which mining and logging combined to lure investors and residents to the area.  It is a story arc that the forest service follows at other sites in a region the service describes as the Callahan Creek Historic Mining and Logging District. It is a very useful perspective on the town’s history, and not one that I pursued in 1984 when I explored this part of Lincoln County in the fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan.  I paid attention to the historic railroad corridor–Troy (1892) after all was on

Lincoln Co Troy RR corridor

Lincoln Co Troy facing RR

Lincoln Co Troy bar facing RRthe Great Northern’s main line, and I documented the few historic buildings left facing the railroad tracks today.  The Home Bar (c. 1914) and the Club Bar were institutions then, and remain so today.  The Kootenai State Bank building still stands but has experienced a major change to its facade–made better in part by the American flag painted over some of the frame addition.

img_8425The Troy Jail, above, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2006 and it remains the only building so listed in the town today.  D.E. Crissey, a local contractor, built it out of concrete in 1924 during Troy’s boom from 1916 to 1926 when its population jumped from 300 to 1300.  The Snowstorm mine, which produced lead, zinc, and silver, started to serve the demand for raw materials during World War I.  The mine soon turned what had been a small railroad town into a mining camp best known for its brothels and bars.  Then in the early 1920s the Great Northern decided to build a division point here, further booming the town. The Sandpoint Pole and Lumber Company began its logging business in 1923, and Troy suddenly was the largest town in the county

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Perhaps the most impressive landmark left in the wake of the Troy boom is the public school, with the impressive central block flanked by classroom wings and a gymnasium built in later decades.  Home to the Troy Trojans, the soldier statue in front of the school is also a public art landmark in Lincoln County.

Troy thus was much more than just a gateway into Montana from U.S. Highway 2–it was once a mining center, but one that went broke fast as the mines played out in the 1920s, the Great Northern closed its roundhouse, and the Great Depression hit in the 1930s.

Lincoln Co Troy mural

In 1984 as I traveled from Troy via Montana State Highway 508 to Yaak, the only “town” left in the state’s far northwest corner, you could still encounter key mining properties along the Yaak River, such as this concentrator at Sylvanite.

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The Keystone Mill was barely hanging on to the side of the mountain then, now it is nowhere to be seen.  Montana 508 has instead become a gateway to some of the some of the most open, untouched high mountain landscape, one that meanders back and forth with the river, bridges, and, perhaps most importantly, bars.

That would be the Dirty Shame Saloon–another institution that some back in the city thought that perhaps I should avoid.  Glad I did not.  Had a great meal there in 1984, and even though the bar’s dining area has been extended, it still had that vibe, of both a local place but also another remnant of the old logging and mining days along the Yaak.

Lincoln Co Yaak dirty Shame saloon 1

Yaak by way of local paths and trails is a gateway too, between Idaho and Montana and Montana and British Columbia.  More to the point it is a gateway between what was and what still is within the Montana landscape.

Lincoln Co Yaak store/bar

Yaak’s general store, service station, lodging, and whatever else you need is another throwback place, and can be found on the web as the Yaak River Tavern and Mercantile.  You haven’t “done” Montana if you don’t make it to Yaak.

 

Eureka!! It’s a Lincoln County Town

Flathead Co Eureka MT hwy marker

Nestled within the Tobacco Valley of northern Lincoln County is the town of Eureka, which serves as a northern gateway into Montana along U.S. Highway 93.  I first encountered the town in 1982, as I returned from a jaunt into Alberta, and immediately thought here is a classic linear town plan, a landscape created by a spur line of the Great Northern Railway.

Flathead Co Eureka streetscapeAs I would come to find out, on two return trips here in 1984, the town was much more than that, it was a true bordertown between two nations and two cultures.  The two trips came about from, first, a question about a public building’s eligibility for the National Register, and, second, the fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan, where such obvious landmarks as the National Hotel and Eureka passenger depot were noted.  Thirty

Flathead Co Eureka National Hotel 1907

Flathead Co Eureka GN depot 2years later I was pleased to see the National Hotel in much better condition but dismayed to see the Great Northern passenger station–a classic example of its early 20th century standardized designs–is far worse condition that it had been in 1984.

Flathead Co Eureka GN depotOtherwise, Eureka has done an impressive job of holding together its historic core of downtown one and two-story commercial buildings.  In 1995, owners had the Farmers and Merchants State Bank, built in 1907, placed in the National Register.  Walking the town, however, you see the potential of a historic district of this turn of the 20th century place.

Flathead Co Eureka bank

Oh yeah, what about that second reason for two trips in 1984?  That would be the Eureka Community Hall, one of the last public buildings constructed by the Works Progress Administration in Montana in 1942.

Flathead Co Eureka WPA community hall 2Located on a hill perched over the town, the building was obviously a landmark–but in 1984 it also was just 42 years old, and that meant it needed to have exceptional significance to the local community to merit listing in the National Register of Historic Places.  Eureka had been a logging community, and the depression hit hard.  The new building not only reflected community pride but also local craftsmanship, and it became a

img_8239foundation for community resurgence in the decades to come.  The building was listed in 1985, and was the first to have my name attached to it, working with Sally Steward of the local historical society.  But credit has to go to Pat Bick and especially Marcella Sherfy of the State Historic Preservation Office for urging me to take it on, and to guide me through the maze of the National Register process. Today, it has experienced an adaptive reuse and serves as a rustic log furniture store.

Flathead Co Eureka WPA community hall 4During those visits in 1984 I also held a public meeting in Eureka for the state historic preservation plan, where I learned about the Tobacco Valley Historical Society and its efforts to preserve buildings destined for the chopping block through its museum village on the southern edge of town. Here the community gathered the Great Northern depot (1903) of Rexford, the same town’s 1926 Catholic Church, the Mt. Roberts lookout tower, the Fewkes Store, and a U.S. Forest Service big Creek Cabin from 1926.

But thirty years later I found new public interpretation not just in the museum village but in the town itself, as Eureka introduced visitors to its history and setting and also told its

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border story of such fascinating people as Joseph Peltier, who built the first dwelling at the town site in 1891, and especially the cross-border entrepreneur Sophie Morigeau, who was trading in the area as early as 1863.

The Peltier log dwellings came within a year of each other, 1891 and 1892, and their size, finish, and log notching speak to the region’s rapid development.  His 1891 low pitched roof, v-notched cabin is typical, throughout the mountain west, of first homes–quickly constructed shelter.  The second house, with its hewn log exterior and crafted corner notching speaks to permanence.  The settler was here to stay in 1892.

Eureka has held its population steady over 30 years, just a few families over 1,000 residents, a sizable achievement considering the change in both railroading and logging over that time.  I think community pride and identity has to be contributors, because you see it everywhere, and I will close with two last examples.  The town’s library and nearby veterans park, and then the magnificent Art Deco-influenced high school–yet another New Deal era contribution to this special gateway town.

 

 

 

Libby: Disaster and Persistence

Lincoln Co Libby stem of T planLibby is the seat of Lincoln County, a typical railroad town along the historic Great Northern Railway corridor.  The image above is from the town’s railroad depot, the symbolic beginning of town, from which runs a long main street of businesses, reflecting the T-plan town design, where the long railroad corridor defines the top of the T and the main street forms the stem of the T.

The depot is a good example of the railway’s “Chalet” style that it used in many of its Rocky Mountain properties, reflecting the influence of the early resorts in Glacier National Park and the railroad’s wish to connect such rural outposts as Libby with the tourism traffic it wished to generate along the line.

Libby was much like I remembered it from 1984.  The town’s population had dropped by about 100, and some historic store buildings had been leveled, but a new brew pub was in operation and the historic Dome Theater was still going strong.

Lincoln Co Libby old city hall police station

And I liked the New Deal impact on Libby’s public buildings, such as the WPA Deco City Hall, which is now solely the domain of the police department.  Then there is the Lincoln County Courthouse, truly a story of two buildings in one as the mid-1930s Art Deco-styled

Lincoln Co Libby New Deal courthouse 1

img_8345courthouse received a totally new front, in a contemporary style, in the 1970s as the town and county expanded in the wake of the federal spending in constructing Libby Dam. The rectangular blockiness, flat roof, and band of windows set within a symmetrical facade makes the courthouse one of the state’s best designs for a rural public building in the late 20th century.

img_8348 I liked all of those things about Libby in 1984. Imagine my shock and disappointment to learn, as everyone else did, that Libby was one of the poisoned places in the west.  In 1919, vermiculite, a natural material that contains asbestos, had been discovered outside of town, and the mines were still operating, producing 80 percent of the vermiculite in the world, under the control of the W.R. Grace company. Residue from the mines had been used in local yards and buildings for decades, a fact that was not known  when I visited the town for the state historic preservation plan.  When the discovery of the danger became public, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency entered into the fray in 1999, it was already too late for many residents.  A federal Superfund project began, and did not conclude its work until 2015, spending some $425 million. Then in 2009 the Environmental Protection Agency announced a public health emergency, spending another $130 million to help residents and to leave a new health infrastructure in place.  In a generation, Libby had been turned inside out.  EPA announced in 2016 that the cleanup would continue to 2018, and that the project was the longest in the agency’s history.

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The Cabinet Peak Medical Center (2014), designed by CTA Architects, represents the beginning of a new chapter in Libby’s history, as it starts its second century. It extends the city’s earlier healthcare history, represented by the historic St. John Lutheran Hospital, which opened in the 1952 and operated until 2014 when it was closed in favor of the new Cabinet Peaks center.

Lincoln Co Libby hospitalDespite the disaster, I saw many signs that Libby residents were determined to remain and rebuild their community.  One of the most powerful examples is the conversion of one of  the town’s historic schools into a new community arts center as well as school administration offices.

 

Then the public library–home to an active and lively genealogy group and collection–is still a point of pride and activity.  The same is true for the mid-1970s Lincoln County Museum–a wonderful modern log building designed and built by the community during the American Bicentennial just outside of Libby–which remains an active part of the town’s heritage tourism offerings.

Lincoln Co Libby library

Lincoln Co Libby museum 5The asbestos crisis was a terrible disaster for Libby–yet residents refused to let it define their future.  There are past accomplishments to acknowledge, an active railroad depot to cherish, a beautiful river and lake, the mountains all around, as celebrated in this public art mural on a downtown building. This place is here to stay, and the historic built environment is a large part of it.

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Libby Dam and the Transformation of Lincoln County

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Kootenai River at Libby Dam

In 1966 the U.S. Corps of Engineers began the construction of one of the largest dam projects of that decade–the massive Libby Dam and Lake Koocanusa reservoir.  By 1972, the project was complete, and the entire center of Lincoln County had been transformed.

 

img_8338The dam is 422 feet tall and stretches across the river for 3,055 feet–well over a 1/2 mile.  It creates a huge reservoir, extending 90 miles to the north and into British Columbia, among the ten largest reservoirs in the nation. And like that, a historic river valley became a recreational lake in a joint project between the United States and Canada.

The impact of the project on Lincoln County was immense–especially the boom it created in the county seat of Libby, which will be explored in the next post.  But the lake did create new recreational opportunities, and led to the establishment of a federal scenic route along Montana Highway 37, which the project also created.

img_8322The Lake Koocanusa Bridge, which provides access to a Mennonite community and a backroad way to Yaak, is the state’s longest, and in many ways, its most spectacular multi-truss bridge.  The bridge is 2,437 feet long, and stands, depending on water level, some 270 feet above the lake.

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img_8330There was no interpretation at this bridge in 1984, but the scenic highway designation has led to the placement of overlooks and interpretive markers at some places along the lake. One wishes for the same at the Montana town that the lake displaced, Rexford.  This once

img_8316small river town had to move, or be inundated.  And since the move took place in the mid to late 1960s, the town embodies the mid-century modern aesthetic, both in the design of many buildings but also in the town plan itself as the federal government finished relocating Rexford in the early 1970s.

Here is another place in Montana worthy of National Register consideration as a landmark of mid-20th century modernism and the lasting, transformative impact of federal construction projects on the state’s rural landscape from that same era. The Rexford

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img_8318school by itself is a fascinating statement of both design but also a community’s determination to stay, no matter what the federal government threw their way. Needless to say, in 1984 I paid Rexford no attention–nothing historic was there, it was all new.  But now it is clear what a important place in Lincoln County’s 20th century history Rexford came to be.

 

 

 

U.S. 2 & Kootenai Falls in Lincoln County

Lincoln Co Libby US 2 east of Libby ranches 2U.S. Highway 2 enters northwest Montana in Lincoln County and from there the federal highway stretches eastward through the towns of Troy and Libby with vast rural stretches along the way to Kalispell.  Paralleling the highway is the historic route of the Great Northern Railway, which brought timber and mining industries to this corner of Montana.

img_8355Before you encounter the towns, however, there is a spot that is among my favorite in the state, and a place that I discussed in some depth in the book A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History:  Kootenai Falls.

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Kootenai Falls, 1984 image.

The river and the falls were a natural dividing line between the Upper and Lower Kootenai Indians.  Both groups shared the falls and considered it sacred.  David Thompson, the North West Company fur trader, visited the falls during own of his sojourns from Canada into northwest Montana in the early 19th century and left an early description. But in 1984 it took some dedication to gaze upon this most sacred and beautiful landscape.  There was sort of a pull-off from the highway and then you meandered across the forest, carefully crossing the Great Northern tracks, to then find a good vantage point.

Today there is the 135-acre Kooteenai Falls Park, one of the best improvements in Montana’s heritage development over the last 30 years.  Not only is access to the falls much safer but public interpretation explains the site’s vital importance to Native American peoples who were here long before the railroad, the logger, the miners, and the town builders.

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Lincoln Co US 2 Kootenai Falls 29The falls is spectacular, no matter what time of the year you visit.  But do stop and consider the mountains and bluffs that surround it.  The entire landscape is what mattered to the Native Americans as they navigated through the area, or took vision quests at isolated places, or stopped to fish along the banks or hunt the wild game who also came to the falls for nourishment.

img_8363  There are few less untouched places than Kootenai Falls.  The county park provides access and information.  It is then up to you to explore, stop, and think about how humans have interacted with this places, taking aways thoughts and messages that we can only guess at, for thousands of years.