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.



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.




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.



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).


Carnegie library, 1984


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.



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.


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.


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.


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



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.

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