Harlowton is my favorite of Montana’s Milwaukee Road towns. Its roots lay with the vision of Richard Harlow to build an independent central Montana railroad. When the Milwaukee Road assumed control of Harlow’s mini-empire, it turned Harlowton into one of the line’s key division points, the place where steam engines switched to electric power for the journey up and over the Rocky Mountains.
When I surveyed the town in 1984, I did so with the blessing and insight of Lon Johnson, then the historic architect of the Montana State Historic Preservation Office. Harlowton was a special case for Lon, especially the dream of restoring and reopening the magnificent State Theatre (1917), a hallmark of its days when Milwaukee passenger traffic promised so much for this small plains town.
Before the restoration could take place, however, the theatre caught fire in 1997 and plans were set aside until 2011 when a new effort to restore the building occurred, but a second fire in 2012 again stopped progress. The photos above from 2013 show that the hulk of the 1917 theatre remain but with the declining local population, renewal of the theatre will be difficult.
My great interest in Harlowton centered on the Milwaukee Road and its works. In 1984, the company’s bankruptcy was only a few years old. Down at the tracks, there was still the railroad line, the depot, the roundhouse, and other buildings. I considered these remnants, especially in the local context, as extremely significant. Afterwards, locals and the SHPO agreed and the Milwaukee Road depot historic district was created. Over the next 25 years, I would stop by Harlowton periodically to monitor the district, and noted with approval how the depot had been repaired. The roundhouse, unfortunately, was lost.
Looking north from the depot, on the bluffs of the Musselshell River overlooking the railroad tracks, stood a third key landmark, the Graves Hotel. My colleague Lon Johnson also had
been a big fan of this Queen Anne-styled stone railroad hotel, with the stone carved from the nearby bluffs. I too fell in love with the Graves, staying here periodically in the 1980s.
When I visited in 2006, however, the Graves looked good–from a recent repainting of its late Victorian detailing–but it was closed, and so it has remained ever since. I do not
pretend to have the answers on how do you maintain a large three-story National Register hotel that is miles from an interstate and located instead on a little-used-by-tourists route
(U.S. Highway 12), but even if the hotel can come partially back to life, it would be a real tourism boost to Harlowton.
It’s not like the local residents aren’t in the game and trying. The county museum, the Upper Musselshell Valley Museum, continues to grow its profile along Central Avenue. The buildings made of locally quarried stone, with late Victorian cornices, harken to the turn of the 20th century when Harlowton held such promise with the Milwaukee Road’s arrival.
The Harlo Theatre remains in business too, and is a throwback to small town theaters, and a rare survivor in today’s home entertainment world. Plus it is a cool building.
Despite missing out on the interstate, losing a railroad, and dropping a lot of population, there is still something to Harlowton that makes me return, trip after trip. More on that something in the next blog.