When I first visited Miles City more than 30 years ago I came to find out more about this first white settlement place in the Yellowstone Valley, where the U.S. Army established its Tongue River Cantonment in 1876 and then, after the battles at Rosebud and the Little Bighorn that same year, it established Fort Keogh, named in honor of Myles Keogh, one of the soldiers who died at Little Bighorn. I had a small travel grant from the American Association of state and Local History to support this research–the beginnings of the eventual Capitalism on the Frontier book of 1993, so I spent time in the local library–part of which was a classical-styled Carnegie Library, with a rather garish yet functional extension from the 1970s covering up the original building’s facade.
I spent time that evening at another landmark, the Montana Bar, part of an early 1900s building that is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The bar was not only full of friendly, helpful types. It also had one of the most amazing intact tavern interiors I had yet encountered in Montana.
Here, in these dark-stained wood booths, the decorative pressed tin ceiling, the magnificent back bar, and all of the stuffed animal heads seemed to be the real West that was being forgotten and covered over in the more urban, more populated western half of Montana where I lived.
Miles City especially seemed a throw-back when, across the street, was the biggest, most splashy bar sign I had yet seen in Montana: that of the Ranger Rider Bar.
That evening I never considered meander through the streets out to the chain motels out by the interstate highway. I just walked across the street to the Olive Hotel, a historic downtown hotel from the railroad era; the build just stood a few blocks away from the Northern Pacific Railroad depot and faced Main Street, what was for many decades u.S. Highway 10, the primary east-west link in Montana.
For many visitors no doubt, a day and night in Miles City would be more than enough–that was certainly the reaction back in Helena. But that early 1983 visit would be just one of many over the years since as I have carefully explored the city’s many layers, ones far deeper and more significant than the real West image the town still carries proudly. Next comes my real introduction to Miles City during the preservation plan travel of 1984, and my meeting with the Rivenes family.