The Hot Springs of Sanders County

Lake Co Hot Springs 32Hot Springs, off from Montana Highway 28 on the eastern edge of Sanders County, was a place that received little attention in the survey work of 1984-1985.  Everyone knew it was there, and that hot springs had been in operation trying to lure automobile travelers since the 1920s–but at that time, that was too new.  The focus was elsewhere, especially on the late 19th century resorts like Chico Hot Springs (believe or not, Chico was not on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984). This section of what is now the reservation of the Consolidated Salish and Kootenai Tribes was opened to homesteaders in 1910 and first settlement came soon thereafter.  The development of the hot springs as an attraction began within a generation.

IMG_7888Due to the 21st century fascination from historic preservationists for the modern movement of the mid-20th century, however, Hot Springs is now squarely on the map as a fascinating example of a tourist destination at the height of the automobile age from the 1930s to 1960s.

Lake Co Hot Springs Symes Hotel NR 1

Lake Co Hot Springs Symes Hotel NR 4

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Symes Hotel and hot springs takes you back to the era of the Great Depression.  Fred Symes acquired the family property and opened the Mission-style hotel in 1930.  It has changed somewhat over the decades, but not much.  The narrow hallways of the baths, with their single tubs ready for a soak, are still in operation.

What the Symes did for Hot Springs was to make it a destination, and to give a vernacular Mission-style look to other buildings from that decade such as the old movie theater below and other storefronts on the town’s main street.

Lake Co Hot Springs 18

Lake Co Hot Springs 25

Lake Co Hot Springs 26Not everything fit into this mold, naturally.  There remains a representative set of gable-front shotgun-form “cabins” that housed visitors staying for several days and various one-story buildings served both visitors and year-round residents.

Lake Co Hot Springs 12

Then a few years after World War II the tribe decided to invest in the town through the creation of the modernist landmark known as the Camas Hot Springs, truly a bit of the International style on the high prairie of western Montana.

IMG_0911

From a photo in the lobby of the Symes Hotel.

This venture initially was successful and led to a population boom in the 1950s and 1960s but then as the interstates were built and the 1970s recession impacted travel choices, the Camas struggled and closed c. 1980.  For the last 30 years this grand modernist design has been slowly melting away.

Lake Co Hot Springs 10

Lake Co Hot Springs 9

Lake Co Hot Springs 17The loss would be significant because few mid-20th century buildings in Montana, especially rural Montana, are so expressive of the modernist ethos, with the flat roofs, the long, low wings and the prominent chimney as a design element.  Then there are the round steel stilts on which the building rests.

Lake Co Hot Springs 19As this mural suggests, today Hot Springs embraces its deep past as a place of sacred meaning to the Consolidated Salish and Kootenai.  And it continues to try to find a way to attract visitors as a 21st century, non-traditional hot springs resort.

 

Sanders County’s Plains and the Noxon Dam

Sanders Co Plains schoolPlains is the second largest town in Sanders County, noted as the home of the county fairgrounds, the center of the local agricultural economy, and like Thompson Falls a significant place along the Clark’s Fork River and the Montana Highway 200 corridor.

Sanders Co Plains 3

While the population was largely the same in 2015 compared to my last visit 30 years earlier, things had changed, such as the town’s elevator now served as the Grainry Gallery–an imaginative local adaptive reuse.  New churches, new homes, and new businesses had been established.  Yet Plains still retained its early 20th to mid-20th

Sanders Co Plains 2century feel, be it in institutions, such as the local Grange above, or the continuation of the local VFW hall and bowling alley, below.

Sanders Co Plains 1

Among the biggest changes to this historic preservationist is the lost of the town’s historic high school from the first decade of the 20th century.  In a small park along Montana Highway 200, the cornerstone arch from the school was saved and now is a

Sanders Co Plains 10

 

monument to that educational landmark.  Adjacent is the log “Wild Horse Plains” school, which has been moved to this spot and restored during the American Bicentennial.  According to local historians, the more appropriate name is “Horse Plains,” since the Salish Indians once wintered their horses here but the name “Wild Horse Plains” is the one that has stuck here in the 21st century.

The Wild Horse Plains Women’s Club uses the old school for their meetings and keeps up the property and its landscaping.  Indeed, one thing you like about Plains–a railroad town from the turn of the 20th century–is its sense of pride, conveyed by places like the school park or in the stewardship shown to local historic homes.

IMG_7743

This same pride in place is also conveyed in our last Sanders County stop, the very different history of Noxon, near the Idaho border on Montana Highway 200. The Noxon Bridge was among my favorite northwest Montana modern landmarks–but in 1984 I thought little more about it because few things in Noxon were built before 1959-60.

IMG_7772

That was when the Noxon Hydroelectric Dam went in operation, transforming this part of the Clark’s Fork River into an engineered landscape shaped by the dam, power lines, and the reservoir.

IMG_7762The Noxon Dam was finished in 1959.  It is a mile in length, 260 feet in height and 700 feet wide at its base.  Its generators can power approximately 365,000 homes, making it the second-largest capacity hydroelectric facility in Montana.

IMG_7758Today visitors can view the dam from various parking areas and short walking trails, one of which passes over the historic line of the Northern Pacific Railroad. The property has interpretive signs about the history of the project as well as about the engineering of hydroelectric power.

IMG_7768Along the banks of the river/reservoir, a much more recent public park has opened–with public sculpture reminding everyone of the Native Americans who once camped along the

IMG_7775river at this place.  By bringing the deep past of the region in view of the modern, this site is a new favorite place–wherever you are in Montana, and there are many modern engineering marvels–the Indians were always there first, using those same natural resources in far different ways.

IMG_7776

 

 

Thompson Falls: River Town

The Northern Pacific Railroad corridor was at the center of my exploration of Thompson Falls in 1984-1985 but I did not ignore either the man for whom the town was named nor the falls that has brought the town power for more than a century.

Sanders Co Thompson Falls David Thompson monumentOn the outskirts of town, the 1920s monument to David Thompson was the centerpiece of the town’s heritage tourism attractions in 1984-1985, now it is more of an afterthought.  David Thompson was a Welsh-Canadian who established the first trading post in this river valley, called Saleesh House, for the tribe with whom this veteran of both the Hudson Bay Company and North West Company had targeted for the fur trade.  His last visit to Saleesh House came in the winter of 1812. Thompson, I thought in 1984, was a very important figure in Montana history but increasingly a neglected trader–in fact most of the early traders, like those of the American Fur Company on the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, are neglected, even though significant places associated with them remain intact on the state’s landscape.

IMG_7802About one hundred years after David Thompson’s last winter at Saleesh House, an entirely different landscape emerged along the Clark’s Fork River, one that introduced the recent technology of electricity to the region.  To support and encourage the development of hydroelectric facilities, the city of Thompson Falls combined with investors to build what became known as the “High Bridge,” a way for automobile traffic to cross this gorge in the Clark’s Fork and unite settlement on both sides of the river.

IMG_7806The High Bridge was an early 20th century Montana engineering marvel.  It was 588 feet in length, designed for automobile traffic, with a 18-feet wide deck standing on a combination of Pratt and Parker trusses.  It is the longest bridge of its kind in Montana.

IMG_7792

The long bridge was closed c. 1980 to traffic, and it was just setting there, a huge structure neglected when I visited Thompson Falls in 1984.  The adjacent Gallatin Street bridge, which provided access to the area, remained extant as well.

IMG_7789But within two years, residents and officials combined together to place the bridges and hydroelectric facilities in the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district.  They were preserved, but still not used, for a generation.

IMG_7808In 2009-2010, residents worked with local, state, and federal government officials to restore the bridge, add a pedestrian deck, and to open the bridge and either side of the bridge as a public park.  Funding in part came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, one of the ways that short-lived federal building effort benefited historic preservation in Montana small towns.

 

IMG_7791The High Bridge experience not only reconnected Thompson Falls to its river roots, it also creates an unique experience for heritage travelers.  The site is not that far different from 100 years ago, giving you the chance to cross a river and peer below but also to realize just how “wild” automobile traffic was in the 1910s and 1920s.

Thompson Falls: Railroad Town

Sanders Co Thompson Falls overview 4In my state historic preservation plan work of 1984-1985, Thompson Falls became one of my favorite stops.  No one much in the professional field had been surveyed here yet, and then I was particularly interested in how the Northern Pacific Railroad transformed the late territorial landscape. As the image above shows, Thompson Falls was a classic symmetrical-plan railroad town, with a mix of one and two-story buildings from the turn of the 20th century. I focused on this commercial core.

IMG_7752The public meeting at the mid-20th century Sanders County Courthouse was well attended and most were engaged with the discussion:  the pride, identity, and passion those in attendance had for their history and their interest in historic preservation was duly noted. The courthouse itself was not a concern–it dated to 1946 and wasn’t even 40 years old then.  But now I appreciate it as a good example of Montana’s post-World War II modern movement, designed by Corwin & Company in association with Frederick A. Long

Sanders Co Thompson Falls courthouse

That night at the Falls Motel–a classic bit of roadside architecture that has been recently re-energized–I thought well of this town and its future, surprised by what I had seen.

Sanders Co Thompson Falls MotelLittle did I understand, however, that the sparks of a local community effort were already burning–and within two years, in 1986, Thompson Falls had placed many of its key historic properties in the National Register of Historic Places.

Sanders Co Thompson Falls 1

Thirty years later, historic preservation is still working well for Thompson Falls.  The historic Rex Theater (c. 1945) holds all sorts of community events.  Harold Jenson established the movie house but in 1997 it closed and remained closed until new owners Doug and Karen Grimm restored it and reopened on New Year’s Day, 2004.

IMG_7750

IMG_7753The old county jail (1907) has been transformed into a museum, both preserving one of the town’s oldest properties but also creating a valuable heritage tourism attraction. The contractors were Christian and Goblet, a local firm that had a part in the construction of the town’s building boom once it was designated as the county seat.

Sanders Co Thompson Falls overview 4 – Version 3

Above is a view from the railroad corridor of the Gem Saloon building (a local restaurant now; it was an auto parts store when I visited in 1984), built by saloon keeper John Sanfacon in 1914 and then the all-important railroad hotel, built as the Ward Hotel by

Sanders Co Thompson Falls overview 4 – Version 2

locally prominent developer and politician Edward Donlan in 1908. It is now the Black Bear Hotel. Attractive railroad hotels were crucial for a town’s development–it showed stability and promise to traveling “drummers” and potential investors, and also gave them a place to stay while they were in the area “drumming” up business.

 

Sanders Co Thompson Falls RR overviewThe mid-20th century Sanders County Courthouse is to the west of the commercial core and it marks how the town stretched to the west in the latter decades of the century.

IMG_7748Along with the conversion of businesses and the adaptive reuse of older buildings, Thompson Falls also has located key community institutions, such as the local library first established in 1921, along Main Street facing the railroad tracks.

Sanders Co Thompson Falls lodge 1But many community institutions–fraternal lodges such as the Masonic Lodge above, the public schools, and churches are on the opposite side of the tracks along the bluffs facing the commercial core.  Thompson Falls is a very good example of how a symmetrical plan could divide a railroad town into distinctive zones.

 

Sanders County: Rural Wonders

Sanders Co MT Hwy 200 7Sanders County, like many of the places that are on the western side of the Rocky Mountains, has boomed in the last 25 years, from a population over 8,000 to the current estimated population of 11,300. It is close to Missoula, the eastern side is not far from Flathead Lake, Montana Highway 200 runs from Dixon to the end of the county at Heron. With wide valleys and narrow gorges created by both the Flathead and Clark’s Fork Rivers, which meet outside the town of Paradise, Sanders County is frankly a spectacular landscape, with dramatic mountain views framing open plains, such as the image above and the awesome gorge of Clark’s Fork River, below at Thompson Falls.

Sanders Co Thompson Falls and bridges 14 - Version 2The eastern side of the county is just as dramatic just in a far different way. For centuries First Peoples hunted game and dug the camas root in the broad upland prairie that became known as Camas Prairie, crossed now by Montana Highway 28.

IMG_7876Then, leading from the county’s southeastern edge there is the beautiful Flathead River Valley, followed by Montana Highway 200, from Dixon to Paradise, and most importantly,

IMG_7704a transportation route initially carved as a trail by the First Peoples who became the nucleus of today’s Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe and much later engineered into a major corridor by the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad, as it stretched westward from Missoula to the west coast.

Sanders Co MT HWY 200 NP line at lakeIn its wake, the Northern Pacific created most of the county’s townsites by locating sidings along the track. Substantial settlement arrived once the federal government opened lands for the homesteading boom in the early 20th century.

Sanders Co Dixon bar 1Dixon, named for the former Montana governor Joseph Dixon, is one of the remaining railroad/homesteading towns along the Flathead River. The fate of the community bar, above, is symbolic of the recent history of the town, one of population decline.


Decline but not despair, judging from the pride and identity reflected in the Dixon School. The classroom building dates to the end of the homesteading boom, 1919, and reflects a local contractor’s interpretation of Prairie/ Mission-style. The gymnasium, like several in rural Montana, comes from the New Deal era of the 1930s and is in the WPA Deco style often favored by the federal agencies.

Sanders Co Dixon school


The most spectacular historic rural school in Sanders County, however, lies to the northwest of Dixon in Camas Prairie. The setting itself is jaw dropping but then the tiny gymnasium is among the handful of really excellent examples of Prairie style in Montana’s public architecture.

Lake Co St. Camas Prairie school New Deal 5

IMG_7869

IMG_7872Local residents are being excellent stewards of this captivating property–certainly one of my favorite spots in the state combining landscape with architecture with history. The architect was the Missoula designer H. E. Kirkemo, and the school was completed in 1940, near the end of the New Deal school building programs.

IMG_7710
Bridges for Montana Highway 200 and the Northern Pacific Railroad cross the Clark’s Fork River at Paradise

Sanders Co Paradise railroad park

Located near the confluence of the Clark’s Fork River and the Flathead River–long a place of settlement for the Salish and later Canadian and American fur traders–is the town of Paradise, first platted by the North West Improvement Company, a group of investors aligned with the Northern Pacific Railroad, in 1908. Paradise today is one of the region’s best examples of a railroad town and served the railroad as a switching yard and division point, with lumber being the primary product shipped along the rails. The railroad opened its own Tie Treating Plant here in 1908, producing hundreds of thousands of railroad ties each year and at its peak employing 45 workers. It was one of two Northern Pacific facilities for the production of railroad ties–the second plant was on the eastern end of the line in Brainerd, Minnesota.

Sanders Co Paradise NP depot

The brick mid-20th century passenger station and office is a physical indicator of the importance of the Paradise operations to the Northern Pacific. Most small towns merited only a frame depot. No National Register-listed properties exist in Paradise.

IMG_7720

Let’s hope that changes soon as residents continue on their quest to preserve, restore, and transform the historic Paradise school as a community center and museum, not just of 20th century rural education but of the town and railroad history as well. Located on a hill north of town that provides excellent views of Paradise, the railroad tracks, and the river confluence, the 1910 nschool is an interesting piece of late Victorian public architecture, more Romanesque than anything else, particularly with its projecting central entrance with the arched window providing light to the hallways and staircases.

Sanders Co Paradise school 7The school had just closed its doors for good when I lasted visited but the restoration planning has been underway ever since. I look forward to my next visit to Paradise to experience the final results. Near the school is another historic community property, the Paradise Cemetery, where tombstones mark the names of those who worked so long for the railroad and for the creation of this place within the Clark’s Fork River Valley.

Sanders Co Paradise cemetery

St. Regis River and the Milwaukee Road

Mineral Co St Regis Mullan statueAlong Interstate I-90 as you travel northwest into Idaho, St. Regis is the last town of any size in Montana, and, at that it only counts just over 300 residents. The town has a long significant history in transportation. Old U.S. Highway 10 follows part of the historic Mullan Road–the Mullan monument above marks that route in St. Regis. The town lies at the confluence of the Clark’s Fork River and the St. Regis River. It is also the point where

Mineral Co St Regis school 2

 

Mineral Co St Regis school 4

Since my last visit in 1984, school officials had expanded the St. Regis school and added a new entrance but the historic facade still commands attention.

the Milwaukee Road left the Clark’s Fork corridor that it had followed from southwest Montana–the Northern Pacific kept on that route however–while and tackled a much more demanding path through the Rockies–that of the St. Regis River towards Taft.

 

IMG_7389

IMG_7387As the photos above show, one of the Milwaukee’s bridges over the Northern Pacific right-of-way has been cut while the interstate rises high above and dwarfs both earlier railroads along the Clark’s Fork River. From St. Regis to Taft, the Milwaukee Road route has new life. In the 21st century the U.S. Forest Service and local residents have worked diligently to preserve the corridor,  not to restore the tracks but to find a new recreational use for the abandoned railroad bed.

IMG_7398Note in the photograph above, how one of the distinctive electric power poles that carried electricity to the Milwaukee’s engines remains in place. In the central part of Montana, many of these poles are long gone from the corridor. The Milwaukee’s stretch of electrified track began in Harlowton and ended in Idaho–and the St. Regis to Idaho section has some of most intact features of this distinctive engineered landscape.

Mineral Co Haugan Milwaukee Road 7

IMG_7414The village of Haugan is also the location of the Savenac Nursery, which the U.S. Forest Service established here c. 1907, as the Milwaukee’s tracks were being constructed. Under the direction of Elers Koch of the forest service, Savenac’s became one of the largest seedling operations in the department of agriculture, yielding as many of 12 million seedlings in one year.

Mineral Co Haugan Savenac Nursery CCC 13

Mineral Co Haugan Savenac Nursery CCC 14The historic nursery is open to the public, another example of the important work that the Forest Service has carried out for both preservation and public interpretation in the last 30 years.  Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the property has a museum that operates in the tourist season.

Mineral Co Haugan Savenac Nursery CCC 6

The nursery is also among the most important landscapes in the state associated with the Civilian Conservation Corps, which built most of the extant historic buildings in the 1930s.

Thus it is most appropriate that a monument to the CCC workers has been located on land between the interstate highway and the nursery grounds.The monument, dedicated in 2005, notes that agency’s work in Montana from 1933 to 1942, a decade of transformation in the state’s public landscape that millions have experienced since then.

IMG_7421Haugan is also home to one of the state’s modern pieces of roadside architecture along the interstate, Silver’s truck stop, restaurant, bar, and casino.

IMG_7418

Saltese lacks the formal monuments found at its neighbor, but this small Milwaukee Road town has an industrial landmark in the high iron trestle that cuts through its residential side.  There you can see one of the rectangular wooden catenary supports for the electric lines to the speeding trains.  The route itself is part of recreational trail that takes bikers and hikers to the National Register-listed tunnel and railroad yards ending at the St. Pass Pass Tunnel (1908) at Taft near the Idaho border.

IMG_7410Saltese’s contemporary styled school from c. 1960 remains but has closed.  Its historic motels and businesses, as well as an abandoned c. 1930 gas station on old U.S. Highway 10, welcome travelers from the west to Montana.

Mineral Co Saltese school

IMG_7405The railroad trail route from Taft provides access to some of most spectacular industrial ruins of the old Milwaukee route left in the west.

Mineral County’s Milwaukee Road: A Superior Experience

Defined by the railroad, the highway, and the interstate, Superior overlooks the Clark’s Fork River and serves as the seat of government of Mineral County.  Since the bankruptcy

IMG_7460

Mineral Co Superior 2of the Milwaukee Road in 1980, the town has steadily lost population-2oo less residents in 2015 compared to my first visit 30 years earlier.  Never a large place–the town’s top population was 1242 residents in 1960–Superior has several landmark buildings from its railroad days but only one has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

IMG_7451That one place, the Superior School, is spectacular and its tall central tower has long served as a community beacon.  Built 1915-16 by contractor Charles Augustine, the high school reflected Colonial Revival style, and later community growth led to wing additions in 1925, shown above, and in 1947.

 

IMG_7445Another Colonial Revival-styled public building is the Mineral County Courthouse, 1920, complete with its colonial-inspired cupola.  Mineral County was created in 1914. This building is more complete rural interpretation of Colonial Revival style than the school.

Close by is the Mineral County Museum, which opened in 1976 as part of the American bicentennial.  It has substantially increased its collections since my first visit 30 years ago, and serves as an orientation point for the county’s heritage tourism opportunities.

Mineral Co Superior 6 movie theaterThe historic Strand Theater (c. 1915) operated in 1984 but closed in 2013 and remained shuttered when I visited in 2015, no doubt a victim of not only the home theatre phenomenon but also the switch to digital delivery of movies in this decade. This theatre, however, is a rare and important building from the homesteading era of the 1910s.

IMG_7447From the same decade, the historic Masonic Mountain Lodge still operates, serving as another community outlet and center in Superior.  The town’s population height in the 1960s led to the construction of the institutional Ranch-style of the Superior High School, one of two bits of mid-century modernism in Superior.

Mineral Co Superior high school

IMG_7471The other example dates to 1958 and represents yet another example of modern design in a rural Catholic Church in Montana. St Mary Queen of Heaven Catholic Church is also a

Mineral Co Superior St Mary Catholic 3Ranch-styled inspired design, although its stand-alone but visually and physically linked low bell tower is unique compared to other Montana Catholic churches from this era.

Mineral Co Superior St Mary Catholic 2The church is Superior’s best contribution to Montana modernism and complements well the Victorian influence found at the town’s historic United Methodist Church, built almost 50 years earlier. Note that both churches have low bell towers.

IMG_7459