Fort Owen: 2020 update

Great news this weekend from the Stevensville newspaper. A new parking area and expansion of the Fort Owen State Park is now in its planning stages. Parking a car and not being in the way of the ranchers who live next door has been problematic for decades. As the photo below indicates the ranch is immediately adjacent to the park.

The new parking area will be at the south entrance to the fort, eliminating traffic snafus and creating new possibilities for public interpretation rather than the only single marker of today.

Plus the new parking area should not distract from the marvelous view of the Bitterroot Valley from this oh so important place. let’s hope the archaeological work before the lot is built uncovers new information.

The Milk River Project and its Impact on Northern Montana

Phillips Co Dodson ditch

Milk River Irrigation Project Ditch at Dodson, Phillips County

In today’s New York Times (June 15, 2020), Montana Jim Robbins reported on the looming disaster facing Montana’s northern states if the St. Mary’s canal, which recently collapsed, is not repaired.  The informative, insightful story focuses on the beginnings of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Milk River Irrigation Project, its pathway through southern Alberta, and its emergence in central Montana’s Hill County.  It included several wonderful images of Havre, the seat of Hill County, and discussed the wide-ranging disaster faced by ranchers and small towns along the Hi-Line if the ditch did not get its long overdue repairs–to the tune of $200 million.

Valley Co Tampico ditch

The Great Northern, the Milk River Project, and original U.S. 2 at Tampico

Robbins’ story immediately took my mind back to my travels throughout the Milk River Valley, from Hill County to Valley County, in 2013.  The story of how modern transportation and engineering combined to transform the northern plains is so fundamental to the region’s history, yet it remains a story seldom told (another reason Robbins’ New York Times story matters).  The image above represents the forces that led to the settlement and development of the Milk River Valley.  Taken outside of the village of Tampico in Valley County, it centers the ditch between the two transportation systems–the Great Northern Railway on the left and the original route of U.S. Highway 2 on the right– that served the settlers drawn by the water.  The image below shows the village of Tampico from the perspective of the ditch–the place would not exist without the ditch.

Valley Co Tampico ditch 3

Valley Co Tampico Milk river bridge hwy markerOne of the very few historical markers in Montana that touches on the state’s irrigation history focuses about a historic bridge that once stood nearby at Tampico.

Hil Co Fresno dam 2

Hil Co Fresno reservoirLarge man-made lakes capture water to reserve it for use throughout the growing season.  The images above are of Fresno Reservoir, on a rainy morning, in Hill County.  While the two images below are of Nelson Reservoir, on a typically bright sunny day, many miles downstream in Phillips County.

Phillips Co Nelson reservoir sign irrigation

Phillips Co Nelson Reservoir USBR 1The Milk River Project shapes so much of the Hi-Line, it has become just part of the scenery.  I wonder how many travelers along U.S. Highway 2 in Phillips County even notice or consider the constant presence of the ditch along their route.

Phillips Co Milk river irrigation ditch near Robinson ranch

Not only are their scattered small towns along the Milk River Project, early agricultural institutions are often centered on the project.  A great example is the Phillips County Fairgrounds, outside of Dodson, and the question may be well posed–why there?  Dodson

Phillips Co Dodson Phillips Co FairgroundsPhillips Co Dodson Phillips Co Fairgrounds 3is a tiny place, almost 20 miles from the county seat of Malta.  But at the time of the Milk River Project, Dodson was vital; the ditch neatly divided the town into two halves, and a major diversion dam was just west of town.  Here was a perfect place, at the turn of the century, for a fairgrounds.  And it is a gorgeous historic fairgrounds.

Phillips Co Dodson Phillips Co Fairgrounds 6

Phillips Co Dodson Phillips Co Fairgrounds 7

Phillips Co Dodson Phillips Co Fairgrounds 4

My first encounter with the Milk River Project and the beautiful valley it serves came in February 1984 when Eleanor Clack took me on a tour of the bison kill historic site just west of downtown Havre.  It remains an excellent place to see how the waters of the Milk have nurtured countless generations of peoples who called this place home.

Hill Co Havre Wapka Chugn Site 7

Just last week I posted about two other Milk River Project towns–Lohman and Zurich–in Blaine County.  My next post will continue this second look at the Milk River Project as I revisit Chinook, the Blaine County seat, where the ditch once again is almost everywhere, but rarely given a second thought.

Blaine Co Chinook Milk River ditchs of cemetery

 

 

 

 

 

Zurich and Lohman: Two Hi-Line Towns in Blaine County, Montana

IMG_2509

Zurich, Montana, taken north of town looking south, 1984.

I have always enjoyed exploring Blaine County, Montana.  In earlier posts I have discussed such famous places as the Fort Belknap Reservation, and Harlem, its north gateway town, as well as Hays near the south end of the reservation and Cleveland, one of my favorite places in the region.  Chinook, the county seat, has been featured in a couple of posts, and I might add another one yet.  then the Chief Joseph Battleground of the Bear’s Paw has gotten a considerable deal of attention, due to the national significance of the place, and the recent improvements to the battlefield from the National Park Service.  Why so much on Blaine County places?  Regular readers of this blog know of my interest in the irrigation systems of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in

Blaine Co Milk River s of Chinook

the early twentieth century.  The Milk River system was an important project, and the towns along U.S. Highway 2 and the Great Northern Railway mainline prospered, temporarily, because of the growth of the system.  Plus the Milk River, in my opinion, doesn’t get the attention of many–and it is a spectacular river valley in many places.

Blaine Co Lohman GN corridorLehman, west of Chinook adjacent to both the Milk River and U.S. Highway 2, has almost totally disappeared as a place along the tracks.  What is left of the town–this deteriorating commercial building in 2013–might even be gone today.

Blaine Co Zurich 5 elevators

Zurich, west of Chinook and also abutting the river and the highway, has fared somewhat better.  I have earlier commented on the existing street names–Park Avenue highlighted here–and the hopes for the future of the very names chosen at the turn of the century.  Compared to my visit in 1984, the town has lost business and population over the last 30 years.

Blaine Co Zurich

Blaine Co Zurich 1 bank

The Spa Bar still operated sporadically when I visited last in 2014.  I wonder if it still opens its doors today.  I love the name–a sly reference to Zurich, Switzerland, which is internationally known for its many spas.

Blaine Co Zurich 7 Spa Bar

What appears to be an old rural church–or was it a school, or both?–still stood, its gable front slowly coming apart.

Blaine Co Zurich 4 historic school

But across the street was the modern Zurich Elementary School–an attractive touch of modern school design in such a small place.  According to the public schools website,

Blaine Co Zurich 2 school

Zurich had 23 students in 2020–while another internet source said the school was permanently closed.  I hope that has not happened–if the school goes Zurich will be yet another Hi-Line ghost town quickly.

Back on the Hi-Line: Hinsdale and Saco

Phillips Co Saco west on US2 showing old road, new, and GN tracks

Hinsdale (just over 200 people in Valley County) and Saco (just under 200 people in Phillips County) are two country towns along the Hi-Line between the much larger county seats of Glasgow and Malta.  I have little doubt that few visitors ever stop, or even slow down much, as they speed along the highway.  Both towns developed as railroad stops along the Great Northern Railway–the image above shows how close the highway and railroad tracks are along this section of the Hi-Line.  Both largely served, and still

Phillips Co Robinson Ranch w of saco roadside

serve, historic ranches, such as the Robinson Ranch, established in 1891, in Phillips County.  Both towns however have interesting buildings, and as long as they keep their community schools, both will survive in the future.

Valley Co Hinsdale school

Hinsdale School, Valley County

Phillips Co Saco school

Saco School, Phillips County

Of the two towns, I have discussed Saco to a far greater extent in this blog because it was one of my “targeted” stops in the 1984 survey.  The State Historic Preservation Office at the Montana Historical Society had received inquiries from local residents in Saco about historic preservation alternatives and I was there to take a lot of images to share back with the preservationists in Helena.  But in my earlier posts, I neglected two community

Phillips Co Saco post officebuildings, the rather different design of the post office from the 1960s and the vernacular Gothic beauty of the historic Methodist Church, especially the Victorian brackets of its bell tower.

Phillips Co Saco UM church

I ignored Hinsdale almost totally in its first posting, focusing on roadside murals.  This Valley County town is worth a second look, if just for its two historic bank buildings.  The former First National Bank and the former Valley County Bank both speak to the hopes for growth along this section of the Milk River Project of the U.S. Reclamation Service in the early 20th century.  Architecturally both buildings were touched by the Classical Revival style, and both took the “strongbox” form of bank buildings that you can find throughout the midwest and northern plains in the first two decades of the 20th century.

Valley Co Hinsdale 4 1st national bank

Valley Co Hinsdale 2 bankValley Co Hinsdale 1 bank

The rest of Hinsdale’s “commercial district” has the one-story “false-front” buildings often found in country railroad towns along the Hi-Line.

Valley Co Hinsdale 3

Local residents clearly demonstrate their sense of community not only through the school, which stands at the of the commercial area.  But community pride also comes through in such buildings as the c. 1960s American Legion Hall, the c. 1902 Methodist church (the separated cupola must be a good story), and St. Anthony’s Catholic Church.

Valley Co Hinsdale American Legion hall

Valley Co Hinsdale UM Church 1902

Valley Co Hinsdale St Albert's Catholic

These small railroad towns of the Hi-Line have been losing population for decades, yet they remain, and the persistence of these community institutions helps to explain why.

Back on the Hi-Line: Culbertson

The Hi-Line is Montana’s major northern transportation corridor–first carved by the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway in the 1880s and then extended by the Great Northern Railway a decade late.  Today most travelers use U.S. Highway 2, which largely parallels the railroad, to traverse the Hi-Line.  The first place you encounter of more than 500 people is Culbertson, established in the 1880s and named for Alexander Culbertson, who was once the factor (the manager) of the Fort Union fur trading post at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.

Roosevelt Co Culbertson GN depot

The Great Northern depot at Culbertson

Earlier in this documentary blog on the Montana landscape, I discussed Culbertson as part of the landscape of oil and fracking then taking place in the region.  Today I want to share images of community institutions that link the town’s more than 130 year history to the present.  Historic churches are a good place to start.

Roosevelt Co Culbertson 1st UM Church

The United Methodist Church reflecting a vernacular Gothic type that can be found all across the northern plains in the late 19th and early 20th century.  The Community of

Roosevelt Co Culbertson 11

God Church shares that similar vernacular Gothic style and retains its bell tower.  Mid-20th century modern style can be found in St. Anthony Catholic Church.  As regular readers of the blog may recall, I have explored the diocese’s choice of mid-century Roosevelt Co Culbertson St Anthony Catholicmodern style for many Catholic churches in eastern Montana.  The Culbertson church is a good example of that pattern.  Another church that belongs to the modern design era of the 20th century is Trinity Lutheran Church, especially as this distinguished building expanded over the decades to meet its congregation’s needs.

Roosevelt Co Culbertson Trinity Lutheran

Roosevelt Co Culbertson armory 2

One of the most interesting buildings in Culbertson is the Armory, part of the significant impact that New Deal agencies had on the built environment of Roosevelt County in the 1930s.  Justified as part of the nation’s war preparedness efforts in the late 1930s, so many armories across the country have found second life as public buildings, serving local government and community events.

Roosevelt Co Culbertson armory New Deal

In my earlier post about Culbertson I should have focused more on surviving commercial buildings from the early 20th century–the time of the homesteading boom.  The beautiful cast-iron cornice on the Moen Building (1908) is impressive, one of the best examples of that Victorian commercial style still extant on the Hi-Line.

Roosevelt Co Culbertson 7 C.S. Moen Block 1907

Some of the extant two-story commercial buildings from the homesteading boom show some architectural styling, like the two below, but then a former town bank is impressive in its detail and masonry as any in the region.  Culbertson had high hopes in the 1910s.

Roosevelt Co Culbertson 6

Roosevelt Co Culbertson 4

On either side of the town center are two additional important institutions.  The Culbertson Museum serves as a community heritage center but also as a visitor center for travelers entering Montana.  Its outdoor sculpture of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is a reminder to all travelers that traces of the Corps of Discovery can be found along so much of the Hi-Line.

Roosevelt Co Culbertson museum 1

Roosevelt Co L&C sculpture Culbertson museumOn the west side of town is its historic cemetery, the Hillside Cemetery.  At first glance, it seems unimposing, more quaint that important.  But the cemetery is the oldest historic

Roosevelt Co Culbertson cemetery

Roosevelt Co Culbertson cemetery 3

Roosevelt Co Culbertson cemetery  2

Roosevelt Co Culbertson cemetery 7

resource in Culbertson, and in fact is the the burial place of two former Union soldiers, one from Illinois and one from Minnesota, who fought in the Civil War.  The markers are a reminder that the mid-19th century roots of Montana are never far away, even at the small town of Culbertson.

 

 

Shelby Montana’s historic downtown

Toole Co Shelby sign and BNSF train

As we all have read the newspapers over the last six weeks, it has been doubly sad to learn of the devastation COVID-19 has brought to the people of Toole County, where the town of Shelby is the county seat.  The virus has ravaged most of the United States but the level of its impact on such rural places as Shelby and Toole County has been especially devastating since in places like these everyone does know everyone.  The impact is so direct and personal.

Toole Co Shelby courthouse 4

In this weekend’s papers, reporters stressed how residents are moving forward the best they could, despite the sadness, and fear.  I would expect no less.  I last visited Shelby seven years ago; indeed I made two stops between 2011 and 2013.  Of course people were friendly, helpful, just as they had been when I started my initial Montana survey in 1984 with an overnight program in Shelby at the courthouse.  Imagine my delight to learn in those same news stories that the town had met virtually of course to discuss a pending proposal to place the downtown in the National Register of Historic Places.  I fully agree: the range of buildings along Main Street (historic U.S. Highway 2) has always ranked among my favorite Main Streets in the state.

Toole Co Shelby Main St 2 roadside bars

Let’s me share today views of the downtown commercial buildings that I took in 2011 and 2013.  They reflect the impact of the 1920s oil boom on the town and county–so many date to those decades–but as a group they also show how Shelby grew in the early to mid-twentieth century on both sides of the Great Northern Railway that passed through the heart of town, with its historic depot still serving passengers on the Empire Builder today.

Toole Co Shelby depot

The range of roadside architecture in the tavern, restaurant, and motel signs is particularly significant–in so many other places these touchstones of mid-century commercial design have been lost.  But I also like the unpretentiousness of the buildings, and the commercial district they create.  The architecture in that way reflects the residents themselves:  flashy if you want it, but also solid, grounded, and ready to face what comes their way.

2011 MT Toole County Shelby bar 010

Toole Co Shelby Main St roadside

Toole Co Shelby Main St 3 Mint Club bar

2011 MT Toole County Shelby bar 013

2011 MT Toole County Shelby bar 009

Toole Co Shelby Main St 4 Deco

Toole Co Shelby bar n of depot

The downtown district would add much to the National Register of Historic Places.  Shelby was already represented by a historic garage and the original City Hall, recently a visitor center, that was built for the famous Fourth of July 1923 heavyweight

bout between Jack Dempsey-and Tommy Gibbons.  But these additions tell its full story of commercial growth in the age of the highway.  I hope the project moves smoothly forward–Shelby and Toole County deserves that break, along with many, many others as they fight back against the scourge of our time.

 

Arriving in Montana, 1981

It is difficult to believe that it has been 39 years since I first arrived in the Big Sky Country. I came with my newlywed wife’s job. She had been born in Billings; her dad was an oil geologist. She had lived everywhere but was eager to start her new position with the Montana Historical Society.

You could say I was being taken for a ride: exactly the sentiments of my family and friends in Tennessee. But what a ride it turned out to be. I was eager to see this land that I had read about—not studied; I was not then a “western” historian. That tag only came as I learned from the people, communities and landscape of Montana.

The Big Sky floored me as did the sense of true ruralness. My family never cared one whit my comment, hey Tennessee doesn’t have rural spaces compared to Montana. (They got it once they visited.)

Wildlife dominated here, back in 1981, adding to the sense of the wild, the untamed. And I knew that history was here. Like every other white schoolboy I had heard of and read about George Armstrong Custer. The first place I stopped in Montana was then known as the Custer Battlefield National Monument. Like hundreds of thousands before, I took my first image of a Montana historic site—the last stand hill.

Soon thereafter we arrived in Helena, moving into a second floor apartment in a historic brownstone, the Chessman Flats from the late nineteenth century. The vernacular Victorian style of the building was my second Montana historic site. Little did I know that the vernacular, the commonplace of western history, rather than the well worn stories of old, would capture my eye, and chart a course I never had imagined possible.

Castle City in 1985

Castle City is another compelling historic ghost town in Meagher County. The landowners have been gracious stewards and you can see several buildings from it’s heyday as a silver mining boom town in the late 19th century, when the population for a few months reached well over a thousand.

These images are from 1985, made during my study of the Montana landscape for the state historic preservation plan. I will use a couple as part of my opening presentation about central Montana, then and now, before the field study trips I’d the Montana Preservation Alliance Roadshow, scheduled for White Sulphur Springs in June 10-12, 2020.

I hope to visit Castle, if only for a few moments in the summer of 2020 to see what remains of this forgotten landmark.

Glendive in 1988: historic homes

I was always impressed with the range of late nineteenth century to mid-20th century homes in Glendive. During my 1988 visit I took several photos of the historic district as a small town example of American domestic architecture.

Bungalows of all types: note the rustic stone work at 607 N. Meade (above)

Or the Tudor-style stick work detail of 808 N. Meade (above) and at 802 N. Meade (below) and 907 N. Kendrick (second below) and 822 N.Kendrick (third below).

I really like the Craftsman style of the bungalow at 710 N. Meade (below) and then the classical entrance to the bungalow at 615 N. Meade (second below).

Classic style is found at several other Glendive homes such as 621 N. Meade (below) and at 503 N. Kendrick (second below).

The earlier homes in the district are mostly Victorian in style and form, like the dwellings at 707 N. Meade (below) and 709 N. Kendrick (second below), the most Queen Anne style dwelling that I recorded in 1988 in Glendive.

But not everything is what you would expect in historic Glendive. At 817 N. Kendrick is an understated Spanish Colonial Revival house and then just a few houses away is a quirky but delightful mid-century modern design at 802 N. Kendrick (second below), my fav house of all I visited in 1988.

Glendive In 1988: the Business District

In my 1988 work in Montana I sought out Glendive and spent the night there due to a new research project on the Yellowstone Valley (which would yield the book Capitalism on the Frontier in 1993). Glendive was a division point on the Northern Pacific Railroad and some 100 years later it remained a key to the Burlington Northern Line.

A good bit of the historic machine shops (above) still operated in 1988. The depot and railroad offices still dominated the Merrill Avenue business district (below).

The older Northern Pacific lunchroom had been converted to the Chamber of Commerce offices, and visitors center.

Many businesses remained focused on Merrill Avenue, which from the 1910s forward was also the historic route of the Yellowstone Trail and later US Highway 10.

My favorite Merrill Avenue business was the wonderful Art Moderne style of the Luhaven Bar (below). You gots love the black carrera glass and glass block entrance.

Not all architectural delights were along Merrill Avenue. The Dawson County Courthouseis an excellent mid-century modern public building, a real contrast to the town’s traditional Colonial Revival-styled post office from the New Deal era.

But my favorite modernist building was the First National Bank, which was later converted to the town’s public library.

Next posting will include homes from the town’s residential district from the early 20th century to the mid-century as I continue a look back to the Yellowstone River and its towns in 1988.